Authors: Mordecai Richler

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Canadian novelist, essayist, and critic

January 27, 1931

Montreal, Quebec, Canada

July 3, 2001

Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Biography

Mordecai Richler (RIHK-lur) was a major Canadian novelist who treated contemporary mores with a mixture of amusement and censure. One of two sons of Moses Isaac Richler and Lily (Rosenberg) Richler, he grew up in the area around St. Urbain’s Street, a milieu he frequently recreated in his novels and especially in his collection of stories, The Street. After loafing through Baron Byng High School (depicted as Fletcher’s Field in his fiction), he attended Sir George Williams College but withdrew in 1951. He spent most of the next twenty years abroad, at first living squalidly in Paris and then settling in London. Visits to Spain produced a fascination with that country that is manifested in several of his books. He was married twice, the first marriage ending in divorce and the second, in 1960, lasting until his death and producing five children.

His first novel, The Acrobats, is set in Valencia in April 1951. This melodramatic novel, in places blatantly reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway’s novels about Spain, incorporates several motifs that recur in Richler’s work: alienated Jews, a sinister German, and a protagonist who feels trapped between the older generation, with its traditional values, and younger, iconoclastic rebels. Surprised at its success, Richler subsequently expressed a dislike for the book, though he continued to explore the themes he broached in it.

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is Richler’s best-known novel, and it was made into a successful film in 1974. After rendering life miserable for the teachers at Fletcher’s Field High School, Duddy lands a hotel job at a summer resort area north of Montreal (as Richler did). A sympathetic chambermaid, Yvette, shows him an unspoiled lake which, following his grandfather’s dictum that a man without land is nothing, Duddy vows to own, in spite of the anti-Semitism of the surrounding French Canadian farmers. His despicable treatment of the innocent epileptic man who is driving a truck for him so disgusts Yvette that she ceases to help him and reveals his dishonesty to his grandfather. Thus, when Duddy shows his family the lake he has finally acquired, his grandfather is not impressed and Duddy’s triumph is diminished. Moral ambiguity is central to Duddy’s character. On one hand, he brazenly and ruthlessly exploits and betrays those who help him; on the other hand, he does rescue his brother from a dire predicament and gives compassionate help to a dying uncle. Similarly, Richler satirizes both Jews and Gentiles, often in amusing episodes.

Humor was to become increasingly prominent in Richler’s work in the 1960s. Apparently inspired by the author’s temporary return to and dealings with the Canadian media, The Incomparable Atuk uses the rise and spectacular fall of an Eskimo poet-turned-entrepreneur to satirize all kinds of current fads and phenomena. Richler especially mocks the kind of Canadian nationalism that expresses itself in strident anti-Americanism and the kinds of Jewishness that either proclaim the superiority of all things Jewish or ostentatiously pursue assimilation into the Gentile world. Satire and exaggeration are taken even further in Cocksure. Its protagonist is Mortimer Griffin, a Canadian blueblood who won the Victoria Cross during World War II. The novel contains several brilliant and hilarious episodes satirizing progressive education, the sadism of egocentric television interviewers, and the duplicity of documentary filmmakers. Praised by Anthony Burgess and other critics, the novel was criticized by some for its hero, who embodies no positive alternatives to the evils he attacks. It nevertheless won Canada’s coveted Governor-General’s Award, as did St. Urbain’s Horseman a few years later.

Having returned in 1971 to Montreal, Richler produced a large and varied body of work, writing for television, film (his adaptation of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz won an Academy Award nomination in 1975), humor, social criticism, and children’s fiction; in 1976 he won the Ruth Schwartz Children’s Book Award, for Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang. In 1980, his first novel in nearly a decade, Joshua Then and Now appeared, featuring another protagonist who bears a strong resemblance to his author: Born in 1931 in a Jewish area of Montreal, Joshua learns more on the street than in Fletcher’s Field High School. He makes his living as a journalist in England, has adventures in Spain in 1952, marries a Canadian Gentile (with whom he has several children), and, resettled in Montreal, strives to preserve his domestic stability. While struggling to keep their home functioning while his wife is in the hospital with a nervous breakdown, Joshua takes to breaking into the homes of his now-affluent former schoolmates and conducting ingenious acts of revenge. The novel reflects the panic in Canada among rich English-speaking Montrealers following the sensational victory of the separatist party in the Quebec provincial election of 1976.

In the controversial Solomon Gursky Was Here, inspired by Canada’s wealthy Bronfman family, owners of Seagram’s, Richler developed a clever synthesis of Jewish, Canadian, and Eskimo myths to tell the tale of the dissolution of the Gursky family’s distillery fortune. The novel anticipated Richler’s increasing interest during his last decade in social and political commentary. Richler would become known for his vociferous stance against separatism and the movement to limit the use of English in public places in such books as Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!, the publication of which elicited death threats against Richler. Always an avid traveler, Richler wrote many articles observing the evolving political problems of Great Britain, the United States, South Africa, and Israel as well as his native Canada. This Year in Jerusalem provides one of his least comic and most optimistic political observations. Here, Richler recalls his time in a Jewish youth organization, tracing the lives of several of his friends who emigrated to Israel and fought in various Israeli wars. Quoting one of his friends, Richler writes, “‘I will tell you openly, they have a right to a homeland as much as we do. I am for a Palestinian state. The only way to solve the problem.’”

Although Richler was a prolific writer of essays, screenplays, and reviews, he sought to make a lasting mark through his novels. The four he wrote in the 1950s, culminating with The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, depict a world in which acquisitiveness and expediency regularly succeed at the expense of affection and honesty. Nevertheless, their heroes maintain some integrity, flawed though it is, in Duddy particularly. Later, in The Incomparable Atuk and Cocksure, even more destructive forces are at work, but their depressing implications are modified by Richler’s comic inventiveness and satiric energy. Joshua Then and Now presents decent protagonists beset by contemporary decadence but emerging with confidence and hope renewed. Biting and wide-ranging in their satire, Richler’s major novels escape total pessimism by virtue of his humor. His final novel, Barney’s Version, exhibits Richler’s satire, with thinly veiled references to the Canadian social-political milieu, but with the emphasis on self-examination: First-person narrator Barney Panofsky, head of the television company Totally Useless Productions, contemplates his past life, his wives, his indulgences in wine and women, his deteriorating sixty-seven-year-old body, and his mental lapses (footnotes set the reader straight along the way)—all while being accused of murder. Although characteristically outspoken, poignantly amusing, and at times hilariously entertaining, this final novel is anchored in a richly and subtly drawn character study—a fitting cap to Richler’s body of fiction. At his death in 2001, after a long bout with cancer, Richler was lionized as one of Canada’s first internationally recognized writers who expressed a Canadian voice and helped establish a distinctly Canadian identity.

Author Works Long Fiction: The Acrobats, 1954 Son of a Smaller Hero, 1955 A Choice of Enemies, 1957 The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, 1959 The Incomparable Atuk, 1963 (also known as Stick Your Neck Out) Cocksure: A Novel, 1968 St. Urbain’s Horseman, 1971 Joshua Then and Now, 1980 Solomon Gursky Was Here, 1989 Barney’s Version, 1997 Short Fiction: The Street: Stories, 1969 Nonfiction: Hunting Tigers under Glass: Essays and Reports, 1968 Shovelling Trouble, 1972 Notes on an Endangered Species and Others, 1974 The Great Comic Book Heroes, and Other Essays, 1978 Home Sweet Home, 1984 Broadsides: Reviews and Opinions, 1990 Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Requiem for a Divided Country, 1992 This Year in Jerusalem, 1994 Belling the Cat: Essays, Reports, and Opinions, 1998 On Snooker: The Game and the Characters Who Play It, 2001 Dispatches from the Sporting Life, 2001 Screenplays: No Love for Johnnie, 1961 (with Nicholas Phipps) Young and Willing, 1964 (with Phipps) Life at the Top, 1965 The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, 1974 (adaptation of his novel) Joshua Then and Now, 1985 (adaptation of his novel) Children’s/Young Adult Literature: Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang, 1975 Jacob Two-Two and the Dinosaur, 1987 Jacob Two-Two’s First Spy Case, 1995 Edited Texts: Canadian Writing Today, 1970 Writers on World War II: An Anthology, 1991 Bibliography Arsenault, Michel. “Mordecai Richler Was Here.” World Press Review 37 (June, 1990): 74–75. A brief biographical sketch, noting how Richler satirized the experiences of the French, the Canadians, Jews, and women; contends that although Richler is often accused of presenting an extremely critical view of Canada, he believes it his right to do so. Benson, Eugene, and William Toye, eds. The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1998. Useful not only for general information on Richler but also for context, with a solid cross-index to related writers and literary movements in Canada. Brenner, Rachel Feldhay. Assimilation and Assertion: The Response to the Holocaust in Mordecai Richler’s Writings. New York: P. Lang, 1989. Examines the role of Jewishness in Richler’s writing and his portrayal of the Holocaust. Includes a bibliography and an index. Came, Barry. “A Magical Craftsman.” Maclean’s 103 (December 31, 1990): 18–19. Discusses the universal appeal of Richler’s fiction; provides a biographical sketch, emphasizing his most famous works. Craniford, Ada. Fiction and Fact in Mordecai Richler’s Novels. Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen, 1992. A good study of Richler’s Jewishness and his identity as a Canadian. Includes a bibliography and an index. Darling, Michael, ed. Perspectives on Mordecai Richler. Toronto: ECW Press, 1986. In eight richly footnoted articles by eight different writers, the reader encounters different analyses of Richler’s craft and the especially moral vision expressed in his fiction. Some of the articles provide an illuminating overview of Richler’s themes; others, particularly those concentrating on his style, may be too specialized for the student reader. Foran, Charles. Mordecai: The Life and Times. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2010. Presents an extensive and thoroughly researched biography of Richler. Includes index and photographs. Iannone, Carol. “The Adventures of Mordecai Richler.” Commentary 89 (June, 1990): 51–53. Notes that Richler is among those Jewish writers who take an interest in the shadier side of Jewish experience, challenging the stereotype of the “good Jewish boy.” McSweeney, Kerry. “Mordecai Richler.” In Canadian Writers and Their Works, edited by Robert Lecker, Jack David, and Ellen Quigley. Vol. 6. Toronto: ECW Press, 1985. McSweeney provides an orderly, lucid, and insightful analysis of Richler’s fiction through Joshua Then and Now. The notes and the select bibliography document a wealth of reference material. Ramraj, Victor J. Mordecai Richler. Boston: Twayne, 1983. This six-chapter study of Richler’s fiction to Joshua Then and Now is enriched by a preface, a useful chronology of Richler’s writing life, and a thorough select bibliography. The Street, the only one of Richler’s fictional works that can be considered a work of short fiction, is examined in the context of Richler’s vision and stance toward the Jewish community that he depicts so vividly in all of his fiction. Richler, Jacob. “My Old Man.” Gentlemen’s Quarterly 65 (May, 1995). Of interest as a writer-as-personality piece by Richler’s son. Richler, Mordecai. Interview by Sybil S. Steinberg. Publishers Weekly 237 (April 27, 1990): 45–46. Richler discusses the difficulty of writing the novel Solomon Gursky, partly because it was the first time he had to rely on research to authenticate his story and partly because of the complexity of the time sequences. Sheps, G. David, ed. Mordecai Richler. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1971. The seventeen articles and essays in this book treat Richler’s fictional works both specifically and in more general contexts such as their place in Jewish fiction in English. The authors of the pieces are amongst the preeminent names in Canadian literary criticism. Includes a thoughtful introduction by Sheps. Woodcock, George. Mordecai Richler. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1970. Woodcock has a talent for presenting analyses in a down-to-earth prose style accessible to student readers. In this early work on Richler’s fiction, the concluding seventh chapter includes a short assessment of The Street.

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