Review Essay: Richler's Biographies
- Charles Foran (Author)
Mordecai: The Life & Times. Random House Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Ada Craniford (Author)
Mordecai Richler: A Life in Ten Novels. iUniverse (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Reinhold Kramer (Author)
Mordecai Richler: Leaving St. Urbain. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- M. G. Vassanji (Author)
Mordecai Richler. Penguin Books Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Reinhold Kramer (Author)
The Last Honest Man: Mordecai Richler: An Oral Biography. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Glenn Deer
Few critical monographs on Mordecai Richler have appeared since his death in 2001, but various forms of biographies have proliferated. Early critical books by George Woodcock (1971), Victor Ramraj (1983), and an edited collection by Michael Darling (1986) have served far too long as the strongest book-length examples of literary analysis, with Woodcock and Ramraj also providing helpful but now outdated biographical sketches. Norman Ravvin’s A House of Words: Jewish Writing, Identity, and Memory (1997) provides a partial exception, with a very fine chapter on Richler’s St. Urbain’s Horseman and the Holocaust. Richler’s work clearly deserves continuing critical engagement, which this special issue of Canadian Literature partly seeks to address, but at least the shelves are well-stocked with works that take a biographical approach: these include Joel Yanofsky’s witty and self-reflexive study of literary obsession and celebrity culture, Mordecai & Me: An Appreciation of a Kind (2003); Ada Craniford’s Mordecai Richler: A Life in Ten Novels (2005), a literary guide-book on parody and Richler’s embedding of his life in fiction, addressed especially to high school and undergraduate student readers; Michael Posner’s The Last Honest Man: Mordecai Richler: An Oral Biography (2004), a valuable tapestry of oral memories from both Richler’s supportive family members, friends, and literary col- leagues and his rivals and detractors; and most recently, novelist M.G. Vassanji’s elegantly compact Mordecai Richler (2009) in Penguin’s Extraordinary Canadians series, edited by John Ralston Saul. Vassanji deliberately reads against the grain of the well-known Richlerian “gruff caricature,” treating anecdotes with caution, aware that Richler’s memorializers might “use memory to embellish, reinvent, settle scores” (7).
Charles Foran’s Mordecai: The Life & Times, winner of the 2011 Charles Taylor Prize, towers above most of the earlier slender biographies of Montreal’s lusty contrarian, but clearly competes with Reinhold Kramer’s equally comprehensive and meticulously documented Mordecai Richler: Leaving St. Urbain, honoured by the 2008 Gabriel Roy Prize: the strikingly simi- lar design of the front jacket covers of both might perplex the uninformed browser, since both feature dustjackets with white lettering on a red background, and black-and-white photographs of Richler wearing reading glasses—Kramer’s book fore-grounding one unflinching eye (as if the satirist were already situating the “viewer/ reader” as a “target”), while Foran’s provides a full-face portrait with a cigarello.
Foran, a novelist, journalist, and memoirist, illustrates Richler’s dynamic enmeshment with the historical and cultural geographies of North America, Europe, and England and with the rambunctious hard-drinking and driven personalities of the post-war Anglophone writing and publishing world, tracking the fierce discipline of a writing career anchored by the support of his wife, Florence. Foran professes not to hunt for correspondences between Richler’s fiction and his life, since such an approach is “reductive” and in his opinion “incorrect” (xii). Foran thus does not analyze the fiction extensively, which liberates him to illustrate with evocative detail the crowded and bustling Jewish enclaves of Montreal, and delve more extensively into the social class tensions and infidelity that destroyed the marriage of Richler’s parents, Lily Rosenberg and Moses Richler. Foran narrates the Bildungsroman of Richler’s self-invention as a writer during his formative sojourns in Europe and England, and chronicles his lifelong romance with his beloved Florence. The book offers detailed accounts of Richler’s life in Paris, Ibiza, London, and his trans-Atlantic oscillation between Montreal and London in his later years. Armed initially with a typewriter and a new overcoat, fueled by cigarettes and a cocky confidence in his self-conducted literary apprenticeship, Richler pushed himself to complete the raw manuscripts of the unpublished The Rotten People and then his first novel, The Acrobats, before he was 22.
Richler was precociously savvy about the politics of publishing and the necessity for self-promotion, and Foran’s judicious use of correspondence and his skilled historical sleuthing paint a fascinating history of post-war print culture, and the roles of editors and publishers like Diana Athill, Joyce Weiner, and André Deutsch, and later, Jack McClelland, Sonny Mehta, Robert Gottlieb, Louise Dennys, and Ken Whyte. While Richler’s established daily routine at the typewriter, tapping out reams of fiction, letters, reviews and essays, was highly solitary, his career depended on personal and professional support from dozens of friends in literary circles, including Ted Allan, William Weintraub, Brian Moore, Mavis Gallant, Bernard and Sylvia Ostrey, Ted Kotcheff, and other central allies in the formative 1950s and during the rest of his fifty-year career. The narrative is not entirely rosy, documenting Richler’s social failures as well as his public victories, and noting that “[f]or a writer possessing limited social graces and less small talk, casual encounters could be difficult. . . . Things didn’t always go well. A few outright disas- ters are on record” (xiii). And Richler did not always have the upper hand in interviews, though he was known as a hard case. His son Daniel Richler interviews him on the television show Imprint, pointedly questioning him about the sexist descriptions of women in Solomon Gursky Was Here and his tendency to satirize weaker opponents who lack the ability or willingness to respond. Daniel pins his father down, extracting admissions of his “old fashioned” (561) attitudes and his confession that “maybe I am a bit of a bully” (562).
Foran modestly notes that even this 738-page account is not exhaustive: no biography can make such a claim. However, it will be difficult to surpass Foran’s work as a standard chronicle biography (Leon Edel’s term, 125) of Richler. It is close to definitive, and those who follow will need to uncover other leads. Over one thousand letters in a restricted archive at the University of Calgary Richler Archives were briefly opened with permission of the Richler Estate in 2008, and Foran was able to consult this new source. From it, he reprints a long and emotionally explosive letter, dated August 4, 1976, from Richler to his mother, Lily Rosenberg, that takes up the entire sixth chapter of Part IV (454-60).
While Foran’s epic biography benefitted from unrestricted access to private documents not yet available to the public, Florence Richler insisted that it be an “unauthorized . . . ‘warts and all portrait’” (718). Extensive interviews with Florence Richler, who pro- vided corrective feedback, and candid recollections by Richler’s children support the narrative. Supplemented with dozens of rare photographs from the Richler family’s private collections, the book concludes with a moving account of his final days. I have only two quibbles: first, the book would benefit from clear endnotes or attribution of sources, a weakness that is not fully com- pensated by short bibliographic essays. Notes arranged by line and page will be available at Charles Foran’s website (currently a work in progress), but this makes for an awkward divide between the book and the online bibliographic apparatus. Second, I find Foran’s pre-emptive claim that “reading Richler’s life into his books and his books into life” is “reductive” and “incorrect” as strategically heavy-handed (Kramer’s com- peting biography works precisely with this assumption), especially since Foran does comment on the dramatic impact of these convergences on Richler’s own family. For example, he writes, “Scarcely a single child- hood experience or grievance remained unaired in Son of a Smaller Hero” (199). He also notes that some relatives “never forgave him for offering a fictional version of his grandfather’s cheating in Son of Smaller Hero (707). Given that Richler used his lit- erary talent to discursively skewer his family antagonists, tracing the links between Richler’s life and the rhetorical and social effects of his writing seems a productive rather than an “incorrect” way to proceed.
In fact, Richler was his own cunning auto- biographer, conjuring the raucous vivacity and seething class antagonisms of Jewish Montreal, not only in his fiction but also in brilliant satiric essays written for magazines and republished in collections like Hunting Tigers Under Glass, Shovelling Trouble, and Home Sweet Home. Richler’s Orwellian “Why I Write” serves as the most cogent literary self-portrait of Richler at mid-career, while broaching two contradictory impulses which represent the implicit stand-off between Foran’s biography and Kramer’s. On the one hand, Richler inno- cently claimed, “I fervently believe that all a writer should send into the marketplace to be judged is his own work; the rest should remain private. I deplore the writer as personality” (19). In the same paragraph, he admits, “I can bend my anxieties to subversive uses. Making stories of them.” Yanofsky hits the mark in Mordecai & Me when he states, “Richler wrote incessantly about himself and incessantly denied that he did.
. . . He was always writing about himself, even when he claimed not to be” (21).
Instead of delicately stepping around the congruence of Richler’s life and art, Kramer illuminates this correspondence at every turn: “Richler’s fiction often verges on autobiography” and the evidence clearly shows the “foundations [of his novels] were almost always roman-à-clef” (6). As Kramer convincingly demonstrates, Richler “sublimated his considerable anger into stinging books” (263), but it is the literary skill of this sublimation that is the primary object of Kramer’s meticulous analyses. Narrating many of the same family conflicts and developmental episodes in the writerly apprenticeship as Foran, Kramer is bolder in identifying the roman-à-clef connections—in the chapter on Son of a Smaller Hero, he provides a list of the characters in the novel, and also the “original” counterparts, and discusses the political nuances of this “harsh allegory” that is simultaneously “historical and intimately personal” (112). Kramer goes well beyond simply providing a comprehensive reading of the congruence of Richler’s life and literary craft; he is certainly Foran’s equal at providing a history of an emerging literary cosmopolitanism, and in adumbrating the details of how Richler cobbled together writing and reviewing employment. As one example, Kramer documents how Richler’s literary connections and his work as a book reviewer for the Book of the Month Club provided him with an important source of income, with contacts in the important New York literary establishment. In this role he wrote independent and tough-minded assessments of other Canadian writers. Richler was not above taking appointments with institutions that he had previously scorned, provided the money was sufficient and he was free to vent his opinions unmuzzled: “Praising a book, Richler wrote pedestrianly, but damning a book, he was brilliant” (247). Richler said of Hugh MacLennan’s Rivers of Canada that it was “Polonius on a canoe” (246); and of Hugh Garner: “He has all the faults of Nelson Algren, but none of the virtues, which is to say, he doesn’t write very well” (247). Professor Kramer writes with wit, challenging Richler’s cunning subterfuges where necessary, and adding his own distinctive voice, reminding us that during a visit to “Brandon, Manitoba—which Canadians more sensitive than Richler recognize as the spiritual centre of the nation—Richler spoke of his western trip as a foreign experience” (240). Challenging Richler’s surly attitude to academia, teachers, and Canadian Literature courses, Kramer points out that Richler would conveniently forget “how much the sales of his later novels depended upon teachers championing The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz one class at a time” (152). (Here at UBC, the bookstore reports that 400 copies of Barney’s Version, 80 copies of St. Urbain’s Horseman, and 70 copies of The Incomparable Atuk have been used as course texts in the past four years, refuting the popular misconception, voiced recently by John Barber in The Globe and Mail, that Richler is being ignored in current university curricula.) Kramer tends to elide the complexities of Richler’s reaction- ary attitudes to identity politics, feminism, racism, and gay rights, unfortunately allowing Richler to float as a “temporizer”: “when the times frowned, he frowned; when the times loosened up, he loosened up . . . uneasily” (282-83). The problem of Richler and identity politics is clearly in need of further scrutiny and debate, along with an analysis of the construction of Richler’s particular masculinities and homosocial literary spaces: To reframe Daniel Richler’s question, cited by Foran (561), why do women occupy consistently subservient or merely supporting roles to the men in his novels?
These questions aside, Kramer is scrupulous in providing a clearly organized set of hundreds of endnotes. His lively prose and assured scholarly precision make Mordecai Richler: Leaving St. Urbain not only an insightful biography but also the most accomplished and sustained work of literary criticism on Richler thus far.
However, one substantive critical question remains: Why does Kramer discount the lingering effects of Lily Rosenberg’s affair? He asserts that “one cannot say Richler was haunted by the affair very far into adult- hood. In his new circles it was rather a feather in one’s cap to have had a mother living on the edge” (99). But if Richler saw this as edgy behavior, worthy to be a “feather in the cap,” why did he continue to express his resentment? Kramer refers to the “nasty letter[s]” (255) exchanged between the two much later, letters that express Richler’s unmitigated adult anger about Lily’s affair.
Leon Edel, the great scholar of life writing and the biographer of Henry James, wrote that “if we were to measure the hours of work and the reward, it would be discovered that biography is the costliest of all labors on this earth” (33). Serious scholars of Richler will need to reckon with the groundbreaking and synthesizing labors of Foran and Kramer: their reward will also consist of our continuing dialogue with the historical, personal, and literary formation of “Mordecai Richler,” a cultural site now substantially revived and reshaped by their biographies.
Barber, John. “Why Mordecai Richler Isn’t Being Studied in Canadian Universities.” The Globe and Mail. 22 Dec. 2010. Web. 31 March 2011.
Darling, Michael, ed. Perspectives on Mordecai Richler. Toronto: ECW, 1986. Print.
Edel, Leon. Literary Biography. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1959. Print.
Foran, Charles. Mordecai: The Life & Times. Toronto: Knopf , 2010. Print.
Kramer, Reinhold. Mordecai Richler: Leaving St. Urbain. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2008. Print.
Ramraj, Victor. Mordecai Richler. Boston: Twayne, 1983. Print.
Ravvin, Norman. A House of Words: Jewish Writing, Identity, and Memory. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 1997. Print.
Richler, Mordecai. Home Sweet Home. Toronto: McClelland, 1984. Print.
—. Hunting Tigers Under Glass. Toronto: McClelland, 1968. Print.
—. Shovelling Trouble. Toronto: McClelland, 1972. Print.
Vassanji, M.G. Mordecai Richler. Toronto: Penguin, 2009. Print.
Woodcock, George. Mordecai Richler. Toronto: McClelland, 1970. Print.
Yanofsky, Joel. Mordecai & Me: An Appreciation of a Kind. Calgary: Red Deer P, 2003. Print.
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MLA: Deer, Glenn. Review Essay: Richler's Biographies. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #207 (Winter 2010), Mordecai Richler. (pg. 103 - 107)
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