Pencil sketch of Mordecai Richler
|Died||July 2, 2001 (aged 70)|
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Mordecai Richler, CC (January 27, 1931 - July 2, 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 children's fantasy series. 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.
The son of Lily (née Rosenberg) and Moses Isaac Richler, a scrap yard dealer, Richler was born on January 27, 1931, and raised on St. Urbain Street in the Mile End area of Montreal, Quebec. 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 there. 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.)
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.
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.
In England, in 1954, Richler married Catherine Boudreau, a non Jewish French-Canadian divorcee nine years his senior. On the eve of their wedding, he met and was smitten by Florence Mann (née Wood), another non Jewish young woman then married to Richler's close friend, screenwriter Stanley Mann.
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.
Throughout his career, Mordecai 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 wrote a monthly book review for Gentlemen's Quarterly.
He was often critical of Quebec but 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.
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.
Following the publication of Duddy Kravitz, according to The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, Richler became "one of the foremost writers of his generation".
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. 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 theater productions in Canada and the United States.
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. Critics took particular exception to Richler's allegations of a long history of anti-Semitism in Quebec.
Soon after the first election of the Parti Québécois 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..." for their anthem "À partir d'aujourd'hui, demain nous apartient", 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. Cotler eventually issued a written apology to Lévesque of the PQ. Richler also apologized for the incident and called it an "embarrassing gaffe".
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 other anglophone Canadians. His detractors claimed that Richler had an outdated and stereotyped view of Quebec society, and fear-mongered 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. Daniel Latouche compared the book to Mein Kampf.
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" or that he was not a "real Quebecer". 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. 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 or anti-Québécois. Nadia Khouri acclaimed Richler for his courage and for attacking the orthodoxies of Quebec society. He has been described as "the most prominent defender of the rights of Quebec's anglophones".
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. Richler received death threats; 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. 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.
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.
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. 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.