Mordecai Richler

MORDECAI-RICHLER-WEB.jpg
Pencil sketch of Mordecai Richler
Born(1931-01-27)January 27, 1931
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
DiedJuly 3, 2001(2001-07-03) (aged 70)
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Resting placeMount Royal Cemetery
NationalityCanadian
OccupationWriter
Spouse(s)
Catherine Boudreau
(m. 1954, divorced)
Florence Isabel Mann (née Wood)
(m. 1961⁠–⁠2001)
Children

Mordecai Richler CC (January 27, 1931 – July 3, 2001) was a Canadian writer. His best known works are The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959) and Barney's Version (1997). His 1970 novel St. Urbain's Horseman and 1989 novel Solomon Gursky Was Here were shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He is also well known for the Jacob Two-Two fantasy series for children. In addition to his fiction, Richler wrote numerous essays about the Jewish community in Canada, and about Canadian and Quebec nationalism. Richler's Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! (1992), a collection of essays about nationalism and anti-Semitism, generated considerable controversy.

Biography

Early life and education

The son of Lily (née Rosenberg) and Moses Isaac Richler,[1] a scrap metal dealer, Richler was born on January 27, 1931, in Montreal, Quebec,[2][3] and raised on St. Urbain Street in that city's Mile End area. He learned English, French and Yiddish, and graduated from Baron Byng High School. Richler enrolled in Sir George Williams College (now Concordia University) to study but did not complete his degree. Years later, Richler's mother published an autobiography, The Errand Runner: Memoirs of a Rabbi's Daughter (1981), which discusses Mordecai's birth and upbringing, and the sometimes difficult relationship between them. (Mordecai Richler's grandfather and Lily Richler's father was Rabbi Yehudah Yudel Rosenberg, a celebrated rabbi in both Poland and Canada and a prolific author of many religious texts, as well as religious fiction and non-fiction works on science and history geared for religious communities.)

Richler moved to Paris at age nineteen, intent on following in the footsteps of a previous generation of literary exiles, the so-called Lost Generation of the 1920s, many of whom were from the United States.

Career

Richler returned to Montreal in 1952, working briefly at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, then moved to London in 1954. He published seven of his ten novels, as well as considerable journalism, while living in London.

Worrying "about being so long away from the roots of my discontent", Richler returned to Montreal in 1972. He wrote repeatedly about the Anglophone community of Montreal and especially about his former neighbourhood, portraying it in multiple novels.

Marriage and family

In England, in 1954, Richler married Catherine Boudreau, nine years his senior. On the eve of their wedding, he met and was smitten by Florence Mann (née Wood), then married to Richler's close friend, screenwriter Stanley Mann.[4]

Some years later Richler and Mann both divorced their prior spouses and married each other, and Richler adopted her son Daniel. The couple had four other children together: Jacob, Noah, Martha and Emma. These events inspired his novel Barney's Version.

Richler died of cancer on July 3, 2001, in Montreal, aged 70.[2][3][5]

He was also a second cousin of novelist Nancy Richler.[6]

Journalism career

Throughout his career, Richler wrote journalistic commentary, and contributed to The Atlantic Monthly, Look, The New Yorker, The American Spectator, and other magazines. In his later years, Richler was a newspaper columnist for The National Post and Montreal's The Gazette. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he authored a monthly book review for Gentlemen's Quarterly.

Richler was often critical of Quebec but of Canadian federalism as well. Another favourite Richler target was the government-subsidized Canadian literary movement of the 1970s and 1980s. Journalism constituted an important part of his career, bringing him income between novels and films.

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz

Richler published his fourth novel, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, in 1959. The book featured a frequent Richler theme: Jewish life in the 1930s and 40s in the neighbourhood of Montreal east of Mount Royal Park on and about St. Urbain Street and Saint Laurent Boulevard (known colloquially as "The Main"). Richler wrote of the neighbourhood and its people, chronicling the hardships and disabilities they faced as a Jewish minority.

To a middle-class stranger, it is true, one street would have seemed as squalid as the next. On each corner a cigar store, a grocery, and a fruit man. Outside staircases everywhere. Winding ones, wooden ones, rusty and risky ones. Here a prized lot of grass splendidly barbered, there a spitefully weedy patch. An endless repetition of precious peeling balconies and waste lots making the occasional gap here and there.

— The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Penguin Books, 1964, p. 13

Following the publication of Duddy Kravitz, according to The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, Richler became "one of the foremost writers of his generation".[7]

Reception

Many critics distinguished Richler the author from Richler the polemicist. Richler frequently said his goal was to be an honest witness to his time and place, and to write at least one book that would be read after his death. His work was championed by journalists Robert Fulford and Peter Gzowski, among others. Admirers praised Richler for daring to tell uncomfortable truths; Michael Posner's oral biography of Richler is titled The Last Honest Man (2004).

Critics cited his repeated themes, including incorporating elements of his journalism into later novels.[8] Richler's ambivalent attitude toward Montreal's Jewish community was captured in Mordecai and Me (2003), a book by Joel Yanofsky.

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz has been performed on film and in several live theatre productions in Canada and the United States.

Controversy

Main article: Delisle–Richler controversy

It has been suggested that portions of this section be split out and merged into the article titled Delisle–Richler controversy, which already exists. (Discuss) (February 2021)

Richler's most frequent conflicts were with members of the Quebec nationalist movement. In articles published between the late 1970s and the mid-1990s, Richler criticized Quebec's restrictive language laws and the rise of sovereigntism.[9][10] Critics took particular exception to Richler's well-founded allegations of a long history of anti-Semitism in Quebec.[11]

Soon after the first election of the Parti Québécois (PQ) in 1976, Richler published "Oh Canada! Lament for a divided country" in the Atlantic Monthly to considerable controversy. In it, he claimed the PQ had borrowed the Hitler Youth song "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" from Cabaret for their anthem "À partir d'aujourd'hui, demain nous appartient",[12][13] though he later acknowledged his error on the song, blaming himself for having "cribbed" the information from an article by Irwin Cotler and Ruth Wisse published in the American magazine, Commentary.[14] Cotler eventually issued a written apology to Lévesque of the PQ. Richler also apologized for the incident and called it an "embarrassing gaffe".[11][15]

In 1992 Richler published Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!: Requiem for a Divided Country, which parodied Quebec's language laws. He commented approvingly on Esther Delisle's The Traitor and the Jew: Anti-Semitism and the Delirium of Extremist Right-Wing Nationalism in French Canada from 1929–1939 (1992), about French-Canadian anti-Semitism in the decade before the start of World War II. Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! was criticized by the Quebec sovereigntist movement and to a lesser degree by other anglophone Canadians.[16] His detractors claimed that Richler had an outdated and stereotyped view of Quebec society, and fearmongered that he risked polarizing relations between francophone and anglophone Quebecers. Sovereigntist Pierrette Venne, later elected as a Bloc Québécois MP, called for the book to be banned.[17] Daniel Latouche compared the book to Mein Kampf.[18]

Nadia Khouri believes that there was a discriminatory undertone in the reaction to Richler, noting that some of his critics characterized him as "not one of us"[19] or that he was not a "real Quebecer".[20] She found that some critics had misquoted his work; for instance, in reference to the mantra of the entwined church and state coaxing females to procreate as vastly as possible, a section in which he said that Quebec women were treated like "sows" was misinterpreted to suggest that Richler thought they were sows.[21] Québécois writers who thought critics had overreacted included Jean-Hugues Roy, Étienne Gignac, Serge-Henri Vicière, and Dorval Brunelle. His defenders asserted that Mordecai Richler may have been wrong on certain specific points, but was certainly not racist nor anti-Québécois.[22] Nadia Khouri acclaimed Richler for his courage and for attacking the orthodoxies of Quebec society.[21] He has been described as "the most prominent defender of the rights of Quebec's anglophones".[23]

Some commentators were alarmed about the strong controversy over Richler's book, saying that it underlines and acknowledges the persistence of anti-Semitism among sections of the Quebec population.[24] Richler received death threats;[25] an anti-Semitic Francophone journalist yelled at one of his sons, "[I]f your father was here, I'd make him relive the Holocaust right now!" An editorial cartoon in L'actualité compared him to Hitler.[26] One critic controversially claimed that Richler had been paid by Jewish groups to write his critical essay on Quebec. His defenders believed this was evoking old stereotypes of Jews. When leaders of the Jewish community were asked to dissociate themselves from Richler, the journalist Frances Kraft said that indicated that they did not consider Richler as part of the Quebec "tribe" because he was Anglo-speaking and Jewish.[27]

About the same time, Richler announced he had founded the "Impure Wool Society," to grant the Prix Parizeau to a distinguished non-Francophone writer of Quebec. The group's name plays on the expression Québécois pure laine, typically used to refer to Quebecker with extensive French-Canadian multi-generational ancestry (or "pure wool"). The prize (with an award of $3000) was granted twice: to Benet Davetian in 1996 for The Seventh Circle, and David Manicom in 1997 for Ice in Dark Water.[28]

In 2010, Montreal city councillor Marvin Rotrand presented a 4,000-signature petition calling on the city to honour Richler on the 10th anniversary of his death with the renaming of a street, park or building in Richler's old Mile End neighbourhood. The council initially denied an honour to Richler, saying it would sacrifice the heritage of their neighbourhood.[29] In response to the controversy, the City of Montreal announced it was to renovate and rename a gazebo in his honour. For various reasons, the project stalled for several years but was completed in 2016.

Representation in other media

Awards and recognition

Published works

Novels

Short story collection

Fiction for children

Jacob Two-Two series[33]

Travel

Essays

Nonfiction

Anthologies

Film scripts

See also

References

  1. ^ "Mordecai Richler Biography". eNotes.com. Retrieved May 15, 2015.
  2. ^ a b Depalma, Anthony (July 4, 2001). "Mordecai Richler, Novelist Who Showed a Street-Smart Montreal, Is Dead at 70". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved November 5, 2021.
  3. ^ a b Foran, Charles (March 4, 2015). "Mordecai Richler". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada.
  4. ^ Brownfeld, Allan C. (March 22, 1999). "Growing intolerance threatens humane Jewish tradition". Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. Retrieved September 26, 2016.
  5. ^ McNay, Michael (July 5, 2001). "Mordecai Richler". The Guardian.
  6. ^ "Nancy Richler novel meticulous study of Jews in postwar Montreal". Winnipeg Free Press. April 24, 2012.
  7. ^ Brown, Ruseell (1997). "Richler, Mordecai". In Benson, Eugene; Toye, William (eds.). The Oxford Companion to Literature (2 ed.). Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press. p. 1000.
  8. ^ "Mordecai Richler: an obituary tribute by Robert Fulford". Robertfulford.com. July 4, 2001. Retrieved August 20, 2011.
  9. ^ Steyn, Mark (September 2001). "Mordecai Richler, 1931–2001". New Criterion. 20 (1): 123–128.
  10. ^ See the following authored by Richler:
     • "Fighting words". New York Times Book Review. Vol. 146, no. 50810. June 1, 1997. p. 8.
     • "Tired of separatism". The New York Times. Vol. 144, no. 49866. October 31, 1994. p. A19.
     • "O Quebec". The New Yorker. Vol. 70, no. 15. May 30, 1994. p. 50.
     • "On Language: Gros Mac attack". New York Times Magazine. Vol. 142, no. 49396. July 18, 1993. p. 10.
     • "Language Problems". Atlantic Monthly. Vol. 251, no. 6. June 1983. p. 10-18.
     • "OH! CANADA! Lament for a divided country". Atlantic Monthly. Vol. 240, no. 6. December 1977. p. 34.
  11. ^ a b Conlogue, Ray (June 26, 2002). "Oh Canada, Oh Quebec, Oh Richler". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved May 31, 2018.
  12. ^ Richler, Mordecai (December 1977). "OH! CANADA! Lament for a divided country". Atlantic Monthly. Vol. 240, no. 6. p. 34.
  13. ^ "Video: Controverse autour du livre Oh Canada Oh Québec!". Archives. Société Radio-Canada. March 31, 1992. Retrieved September 22, 2006.
  14. ^ Foglia, Pierre (December 16, 2000). "Faut arrêter de freaker". La Presse.
  15. ^ Smith, Donald (1997). D'une nation à l'autre: des deux solitudes à la cohabitation. Montreal: Éditions Alain Stanké. p. 56.
  16. ^ Smart, Pat (May 1992). "Daring to Disagree with Mordecai". Canadian Forum. p. 8.
  17. ^ Johnson, William (July 7, 2001). "Oh, Mordecai. Oh, Quebec". The Globe and Mail.
  18. ^ "Le Grand Silence". Le Devoir. March 28, 1992.
  19. ^ Richler, Trudeau, "Lasagne et les autres", October 22, 1991. Le Devoir
  20. ^ Sarah Scott, Geoff Baker, "Richler Doesn't Know Quebec, Belanger Says; Writer 'Doesn't Belong', Chairman of Panel on Quebec's Future Insists", The Gazette, September 20, 1991.
  21. ^ a b Khouri, Nadia. Qui a peur de Mordecai Richler. Montréal: Éditions Balzac, 1995. ISBN 9782921425537
  22. ^ "Hitting below the belt.", By: Barbara Amiel, Maclean's, August 13, 2001, Vol. 114, Issue 33
  23. ^ Ricou, above
  24. ^ Khouri, above, Scott et al., above, Delisle cited in Kraft, below
  25. ^ Noah Richler, "A Just Campaign", The New York Times, October 7, 2001, p. AR4
  26. ^ Michel Vastel, "Le cas Richler". L'actualité, November 1, 1996, p.66
  27. ^ Frances Kraft, "Esther Delisle", The Canadian Jewish News, April 1, 1993, p. 6
  28. ^ Siemens: "Canadian Literary Awards and Prizes", The Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada Archived February 5, 2012, at the Wayback Machine
  29. ^ "Mordecai Richler would have enjoyed Montreal memorial controversy". Toronto Star. March 13, 2015. Retrieved May 15, 2015.
  30. ^ "Press Release: Canada's Walk of Fame Announces the 2011 Inductees". Canada's Walk of Fame. June 28, 2011. Archived from the original on July 10, 2011. Retrieved June 28, 2011.
  31. ^ Peritz, Ingrid (June 24, 2011). "Mordecai Richler to be honoured with gazebo on Mount Royal". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved December 25, 2011.
  32. ^ "Editorial: At last, a Richler library". Montrealgazette.com. March 12, 2015. Retrieved May 15, 2015.
  33. ^ The Jacob Two-Two books are about 100 pages each. Two of them are Richler's only works in Internet Speculative Fiction Database (ISFDB), which catalogues them as juvenile fantasy novels and reports multiple cover artists and interior illustrators.
      "Mordecai Richler – Summary Bibliography". ISFDB. Retrieved July 25, 2015.
  34. ^ "The Street". National Film Board of Canada. Retrieved August 21, 2012.

Further reading