I want to consider how Mordecai Richler, by virtue of being intensely wound up in a particular locality, becomes global and in many ways a kind of planetary writer. This is the miracle that literature works on us again and again. W. H. Auden wrote that a writer’s dream is to be like a valley cheese, local but prized elsewhere. This is exactly where we begin to understand Richler’s work.
I travelled in Canada for two weeks in 2019, vending my political book A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism, and one of the most striking and innovative changes to have occurred since previous homecomings, of course, is the public recognition of unceded First Nations territory. This invocation is now part of the fabric of a Canadian public event. Hearing the land acknowledgement wherever I spoke, the question kept popping mischievously in my mind: What would Mordecai make of this? It seemed to me exactly the kind of Canadian piety towards which Mordecai would cast a particularly caustic and in some sense impatient eye. Not because he would have been impatient with the idea of recognizing the essential swindle at the heart of the Canadian adventure. Far from it, since the idea of recognizing the priority of Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples is at the core of what for me is his greatest novel, Solomon Gursky Was Here.
For several months I had been rereading Richler’s work, and when one immerses oneself in it one becomes acutely aware that he is forever engaged in a kind of pointed war with piety. Not simply with cliché but with anything that operates as piety. By piety I mean a thing that people say by rote in order to gain a kind of false reputation as moralists. This is the core fault that Mordecai’s writing assaults again and again. This made me begin to think if we could articulate or define the difference between piety and morality. Because this is the difference at the heart of so much of his writing. And it is simply and straightforwardly that piety is morality that has been passed on to us by tradition or by enforced assignment, whereas morality, in life as in all of Richler’s novels, is the thing that we each have to painfully instruct ourselves in without the assistance of tradition or social assignment. There are many Mordecais to locate as one reads his work. Certainly if one grew up like me as a young Jewish Anglophone in Montreal and desperate to become a writer, the first to read and value is the local Richler. It is Richler who made this odd little piece of unceded land a part of the common imagination of the literary world. Anyone who came of age in Montreal and loves Montreal passionately immediately recognizes in his work references to places, locales, traditions, peoples. It immediately affects one with the thrill of recognition. It may seem a small or insignificant part of a novelist’s task simply to get down a place. This simple, semi-transcendental journalistic work of getting a place right, getting down correctly the nature of life on Saint Urbain or on Saint Lawrence, is not the craft that tends to be most valued in academic literary studies right now. For me as a writer, and I think it would be true for any writer, this is a fundamental task: the business of taking a place from your experience and turning it into a part of a reader’s imagination. This is the essential ju-jitsu of all literature and not to be slighted or treated merely as a kind of reminiscence or part of the nostalgic discourse of a particular text. We read Mordecai with enormous pleasure because he recognizably gets a piece of Montreal down right.
Yet we also read him in larger ways. We seek as we do with every writer to place him in a context or family tree that captures his peculiar qualities. The first Mordecai that anybody living in America will think of is the Mordecai who seems to belong to that great efflorescence of Jewish American writers that began in the 1940s—including Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Bernard Malamud. It is natural for us to view Richler as one more member of that generation, but I think that is fundamentally a mistake. It makes him secondary to a generation of writers whose ambitions and literary strategies were very different from his. Philip Roth admired Richler, but saw him, interestingly, not as a Canadian writer but as a British writer. A mistake but I think a very telling one, in its way. In all of their variety, those Jewish American novelists took as their central subject the deep exploration of the self: the self struggling to be free from the limits of a tribal past; the self struggling to define itself through sexual adventure; the self struggling at the end of life (in Bellow and Roth particularly), with the limits of the human animal. Yet they tend deliberately to be relatively short on elaborate social detail. My friend James Wood, the literary critic who writes for the New Yorker, once said, very cogently I think, that one of the things that is striking about Bellow and Roth is that when in their fiction a character goes to a tea room the tea and sandwiches are never described. Life exists at a different level of philosophical reference and impassioned soliloquy. One of the startling things as you reread Richler’s novels is how dense they are with exactly that kind of telling social detail. This may sound like a terribly petty example but good books are built up out of tiny discriminations, and one of the things really striking in rereading, for example, Barney’s Version or Solomon Gursky Was Here, is how filled they are with the names of restaurants. Mordecai particularizes the places where his characters dine, name by name, from the Troika downtown to the Sapinière outside Montreal. Though these particulars may appeal to some of us because we love seeing places we know referenced, they also appeal to readers unfamiliar with them exactly because they do the novel’s work of inventorying an entire field, locating the action socially in a world of place names and relations. This is a particular kind of social novel, the novel of manners, which is very remote from the ambitions of novelists like Roth, Bellow, Malamud, or even someone like Joseph Heller, whom I know Richler very much admired. Heller is a comic and satiric novelist but presses his work always to the edge of a kind of surrealist fantasy, whereas Mordecai’s work is always rooted in the specific, minutely particularized apprehension of the real.
This is one way in which, it seems to me, Richler’s work is not most fruitfully read alongside that American generation. However, Roth’s suggestion that we should see him in effect as a kind of British novelist has a certain pregnancy, because it is certainly true that Richler came of age in the 1950s alongside a whole generation of British satirical writers: Kingsley Amis, Malcolm Bradbury, and, in another way, David Lodge; and in still another way, Simon Gray in his diaries: the single voice that most resembles the voice in Barney’s Version and elsewhere. There is certainly a commonality there, and I remember from my many conversations with Richler about writing that he tended to single these writers out as people he knew and admired and with whom he felt some kinship. One sees why that might be so, for the writers of that Amis tradition are all involved in exactly that business of battling pieties, the pieties of empire and of the class system. They also tend to take as their subjects the ascent of someone, usually a young man, from the working classes into the literary or educated world, as Richler does in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and elsewhere.
However, it has always seemed to me that at the same time there is a fundamental distinction to be made. All of those British writers, interesting though they are, are engaged in an active diminution. They are all taking the inherited tradition of the British novel and wilfully making it fit into a smaller compass, which seems to them to correspond more cogently to the limitations of British life that they are experiencing. It is the same enterprise that we see in the great poet Philip Larkin. They are very much writers of the “Suez generation,” the moment of the loss of empire, and they bear witness to it with enormous wit and often with great poignancy.
This particular kind of satiric enterprise is, however, not really what Richler is about in his novels. And I think it is no accident and of enormous significance—for reasons that, as I know as a working writer, have as much to do with feeding your children and finding a place to live as with literary ambition— that he chose to return home rather than remain in Britain. Whereas the enterprise of that generation of British novelists involved these acts of miniaturization, making the material of the novel smaller and more pointedly satiric, Richler had a very different story to tell. It was not about diminution; it was about a particular kind of expansion. It was about seeing the people with whom he had grown up, seeing Montreal and indeed Canada itself assume an ever larger and more significant role in the world. At the same time he saw the phony pieties and impostures that this particular kind of expansiveness could generate. In this way he belongs, I think, not to the novelists of colonial shrinkage but to the novelists of the postcolonial cringe. He belongs to the generation of novelists in English who made their work out of the friction and the tension of a provincial life that was newly becoming cosmopolitan.
Still another of these many Mordecais is the Italian novelist. When I was in Rome and Bologna in the spring of 2019, the first question every journalist who interviewed me asked, when they found out that I was Canadian, much less that I was from Montreal, was, “Did you ever meet Mordecai Richler?” Because in Italy, as is well known, Richler is a highly significant figure, an enormously popular writer with an immense literary reputation. This reputation and popularity rest, oddly, like a ballerina on a single toe, primarily on Barney’s Version. The novel has become a kind of testament of grouchiness for two generations of Italian readers. I was is it that Richler seems so at home as an Italian writer?” The answer that struck me most was when a writer from the liberal newspaper La Repubblica said, “Oh, it’s because he reminds us of Fellini.” He explained that in Italian culture there is a place for the divine fools. Italian culture, he said, “loves the inspired grouch.” They love the idea of a man in late middle age whose accumulation of sins, violations, betrayals, and wrongdoings nonetheless provide him with a kind of worldly wisdom that one can truly rely on, that rings true. It is certainly true that the Fellini of Amarcord or 8½, for all their differences, bears an oddly similar tone to Richler: a tone of meaningful disillusion, of weary worldliness that does not reduce itself simply to resignation. The Italian Richler is a Richler that can teach us about all the other Richlers. The Richler that, in a certain sense, interests me the most, or is the one that I think will be most pregnant and available, most powerful and pointed, for this generation and for readers to come, is the one that relates and tries to make sense of the postcolonial experience. As different as they are, if we place Richler alongside V. S. Naipaul, the ambition of their novels is to recognize, to the great annoyance of the people back home, the limits of provincial society, and at the same time to recognize the ascent from the provincial background as always crucially, at times fatally, affected by the imprint of that background. This is a very different drama than that of the British satirists, who are writing about the encroachment of circumstance on what had formerly been a more powerful culture. This is also very different from the story that Jewish American novelists typically tell about the quixotic adventures of the self. This is a story about trying to make sense of your own history, recognizing its limits, recognizing the provincial nature of many of its pieties, but still pressing it against the inherited past, going to the capital, and seeing just as clearly that the capital is itself a provincial place of another kind. This is a theme that comes up again and again in Richler’s work. Barney’s Version spends a surprising amount of time in Paris, where Barney Panofsky goes as a young man. In fact, most of the book’s foundational scenes take place in Paris, very beautifully and lovingly described, again including a repertory of cafes and restaurants, from the Mabbillon to the Old Navy. Anyone who has spent time in Paris will be startled to see so many small endroits named. However, the experience of Paris, indeed the experience of London and elsewhere, is not in Barney’s Version one of having rubbed up against a superior civilization whose values have to be imported home. On the contrary, Richler’s heroes discover that Paris and London are simply other versions of Montreal, governed by the same appetites, ruled by the same human limitations. Therefore, one can have wide-ranging human experiences as richly in the native provincial town as in the much longed-for capital.
This is a very different vision, one shared with a whole generation of postcolonial writers, including V. S. Naipaul, with whom Richler also shares an often-misanthropic humour. A more fruitful comparison is with the Australian novelist and critic Clive James. At the same age as Mordecai, James too had felt the undeniable urge to get to London as fast as possible, only to find that the idealized London literary world and Britain were in a sense replicas of all the things left behind in Australia. This led him back to Australia, where, in ways that Mordecai too would have been familiar with, he found himself a particular object of resentment for having gotten away and made a reputation abroad.
My first job in the literary world was as the literary editor of GQ magazine, which, I am aware, is a little bit like being the poetry editor of TV Guide. One of my tasks was to take Mordecai and another columnist for GQ, Wilfrid Sheed, a friend of Richler’s and a great literary hero of mine, out to lunch at the Four Seasons restaurant once a month. I was about twenty-five at the time, and Bill Sheed and Mordecai took it on themselves to drink me under the table every month on the month. Then as now, drinking me under the table could be accomplished with a thimbleful of vermouth, and they managed to make me limp my way back to the office month after month after month. It was one of the striking things to me as a young man at those lunches to realize how particular the gifts of a novelist were. Richler was above all a dramatic novelist. Wilfred Sheed was a wonderful writer, sentence by sentence one of the wittiest and most captivating writers of his generation. Yet he was not very successful as a novelist, as I know because I edited one of his novels. This was simply because the basic dramatic gift that a novelist has to have was absent from him. I say that with complicity because, as I have discovered in trying to write novels, it is absent from me as well. One of the things that makes Richler’s work so intensely realized and one of the reasons it translates so well, as into Italian, is because the crucial building blocks of his work are always dramatic. In the first twenty-five pages of Barney’s Version the central conflicts are all beautifully articulated, such as the rivalry with McIvor and Barney’s longing for Miriam. That capacity for dramatic structure is too easily overlooked when we concentrate on the satiric aplomb and gaiety of his writing. Those of us who are essayists at heart struggle for the episodic quality that Richler intuitively possessed. Richler’s scenic sense often serves the idea of a true marriage and family. In rereading the range of his writing, one thing that is striking is the degree to which, far from being misogynistic, as he is often accused of being, Richler is almost painfully uxorious. The novels repeatedly turn on the possibility of a happy marriage. It makes Barney’s Version a much more deeply human book than is sometimes remembered. Barney’s love for Miriam is the mainspring of the novel’s action. The sincerity of this conjugal attachment would have been totally alien to a writer like Philip Roth, for instance. Barney has made a terrible error in his life by letting Miriam get away, and all of his actions involve trying to get back this one true love he has abandoned. In trying finally to make sense of all these Mordecais, the one who remains with us most is the moralizing Mordecai.
In rereading his works, it is extraordinary to see how animated they are by an effort to define a good life: how it is, to return to my initial theme, that we discard false pieties and find a genuine human morality. In no book is this more powerful than in the book that is, I believe, the epitome and the height of his postcolonial and indeed planetary occupation, for me his finest work and perhaps the great Canadian novel, Solomon Gursky Was Here. Richler said once that Solomon Gursky Was Here was the first South American North American novel. By this he meant in part that it was a work of magic realism as practised by celebrated South American writers, in which a basic mechanism is supernatural and unreal. Richler’s novel involves, for instance, haunted ravens, a character who lives for more than two hundred years, and a secret bond between the Jews and the Inuit, depicted as essentially the only decent people in Canada. With all these magical qualities, and while masquerading as satire, the novel is really struggling to suggest, in a way that is all the more moving for that struggle, what is the nature of a good life. The novel finally suggests that it is a life open to appetite, to the affirmation of life itself. The Inuit in Solomon Gursky Was Here are not in any sense noble savages. They do not occupy a superior moral plane. On the contrary, they are people who are preoccupied with sex and food and their own ritual life, and who are infinitely smarter and shrewder than the poor British explorers who wander into their territory and manage to become marooned by their own stupidity. The Inuit are infinitely cannier and cagier, but they do not presume to occupy a plane of higher being. What makes these characters so enormously appealing is the fact that they live on the plane of normal human appetites. It is in their voracity and love of the world as it is that they form a strange, comic, and yet very potent alliance with the Jewish trickster figure of Solomon Gursky, which articulates a new vision of what the Canadian experience is. In one of the most moving moments in Barney’s Version, the mask of Barney Panofsky slips slightly, when in the middle of the book he intrudes a quotation from my literary hero, Dr. Samuel Johnson. The mask slips because I am not entirely persuaded that Barney Panofsky would be as familiar with Johnson’s work as was Mordecai Richler. In the passage Barney cites, Johnson declares it essential that the biographer or historian emphasize all of the flaws and human limitations of our heroes as well as praise their virtues and heroism: “If nothing but the bright side of characters should be shown, we should sit down in despondency, and think it utterly impossible to imitate them in anything. The sacred writers (he observed) related the vicious as well as the virtuous actions of men; which had this moral effect that it kept mankind from despair” (Richler 277). This is an enormously earnest and, in some ways, enormously traditional morality for Richler to emphasize at the very heart of the novel. This leads me to a final comparison, one final coordinate that we might offer on this map of many more Mordecais. This is to put Mordecai in opposition to the other great Montreal apostle of English literature whom my generation revered, Leonard Cohen. I have not been able to find Richler writing on Cohen, nor Cohen writing on Richler, even though their lives clearly intersected in time and place. Having watched the documentary Marianne and Leonard, one part of me can imagine Richler writing a wonderful satirical novel devoted to Cohen’s particular ascent. The combination of appetite disguised as spiritual yearning, lust representing itself as a higher form of poetry, are things that he would have found absurd in many ways and, I think, would have loved to take apart. Yet at the same time it seems to me there is between them a deeper commonality that, for lack of a better word, I can only call Canadian. If one compares Cohen to his great American counterpart Bob Dylan, for instance, it leads one to the same place as when one compares Richler to his great American counterpart Philip Roth. In both cases, the Canadian not the American writer seems to be on a larger and more ambitious journey of self-discovery, of self-exploration, of quixotic assertion of one’s own talent and ability. Though the Canadian apostle may seem more narrow in compass and more limited in purpose, it seems to me that in both cases it is Cohen and Richler who ultimately open up to the reality of our broken nature with a broader kind of humanity. They are able to see with a great equipoise that what makes people interesting and what makes them matter is not their impracticable aspirations to existential transcendence but exactly their perpetual immersion in their own frailty. The famous, beautiful lines of Leonard Cohen’s song “Anthem” haunt me as they haunt many:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in[.]
And I hear Richler responding in turn, that the good thing about the light is exactly that it lets us see the cracks so clearly. Seeing the cracks is what the light of literature intends to do.
Richler, Mordecai. Barney’s Version. Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 1997.
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