Forum dedicated to the memory of Florence Richler
Mordecai Richler liked to joke that he was world-famous in Toronto, and he was certainly unusual in becoming a national writer before he had been a regional one. Rather than locate him within Quebec, he has been more often either balkanized as an “Anglo-Quebec writer” or exalted as an international one. Polemical broadsides against the francisation legislation of the Parti Québécois ensured that Richler’s place in Quebec’s culture would be resented more than understood. But Quebec has never been homogenous, as his own career demonstrated, and spearheaded by popular new translations of his novels, produced for the first time by Québécois translators, readers have been able to recognize the extent to which he was a Quebec writer.
Mordecai Richler was here, indeed, and in the fall of 2019 a gathering of native, adoptive, and erstwhile Quebecers assessed his legacy at the conference Mordecai Richler against the World/contre le monde. Convened by the Richler Library Project, the conference was held on the Sir George Williams campus of Concordia University, which houses the library and office furnishings bequeathed by his widow Florence, and where Richler, perhaps the university’s most distinguished dropout, served in 1969 as writer-in-residence. This forum owes its initial impetus to that homecoming,1 and each contribution affirms that Richler’s cosmopolitanism issued as much from the peculiar character of Quebec as from defiance of it. Lori Saint-Martin and Paul Gagné’s ongoing translation of Richler’s novels for the Montreal publisher Les Éditions du Boréal has overturned stereotypes in Quebec, as the translation theorist and translator Judith Woodsworth writes in her contribution. Where the first translations of his work were by gaffe-prone Europeans unfamiliar with Quebec, the Montreal translators preserve the local character that, in his contribution, Adam Gopnik stresses is a hallmark of Richler’s fiction. Engaging the translators in conversation, Woodsworth stresses how the much discussed new set of translations provides not simply a likeness of the original novels but a textual critique releasing fresh conceptions of Richler’s oeuvre. In her essay on translating Joshua Then and Now, Saint-Martin describes the lexical choices made to maintain the particular terroir of Richler’s work, to which Québécois readers have responded.2 They have been surprised to discover as well that no Quebec writer more pitilessly burlesques the complacent anglo aerie of Westmount than he, nor more fervently celebrates the city’s east side proletarian vitality, with its boxing rings, hockey rinks, saloons, pool rooms, nightclubs, delis, and contraband stills.
Gopnik, the New Yorker writer and erstwhile colleague of Richler, identifies several familiar Richlers, including the hometown chronicler, the diasporic comic romancer in a North American field of self-invention, and the working-class satirist of defunct empire, but he argues for the precedence of the postcolonial fabulist of an ascendant nation. Rather than satirizing the shrunken grandeur of the imperial capital, Gopnik observes, Richler satirizes an aggressively expansive province subject to many of the same pretensions, follies, and false pieties as the metropole. To Gopnik’s “Many More Mordecais” my essay adds another, the Quebec writer who, though still unacknowledged, contributed to the Quiet Revolution, embracing the polemical civic role adopted by his francophone literary peers and sharing their opposition to the clerico-authoritarian political establishment, the mercantile dominance of the English elite, and conservative social morality.
An established novelist who, like her father, settled in London, Emma Richler contributes a filial memoir that is equally a searching meditation on inheritance: the ambivalent terms by which a budding novelist draws on her father’s daunting literary and personal entail. When, for instance, he responds to her frank admission of psychological disorder by trivializing mental illness, she reminds her father that he poignantly depicted Duddy Kravitz’s nervous breakdown, while readers of Joshua Then and Now will recall that after the suicide of her playboy brother Joshua’s adored wife is institutionalized, her collapse linked to innuendoes of incest.
The memoir also conjures her mother in the last year of her life. Several of Mordecai Richler’s books are dedicated to Florence Richler, their first reader and editor, including what Gopnik contends is the great Canadian novel, Solomon Gursky Was Here. The book closes with an acknowledgement to her: “Finally, I would like to acknowledge the help of my wife. Over the years, Florence had to endure this novel in many drafts. Without her encouragement, not to mention crucial editorial suggestions, I would have given up on Gursky long ago.” When Linda Morra interviewed her in the Richler library, Florence continued to understate her editorial prominence. She implied that she first saw Solomon Gursky Was Here only upon completion, when tasked to read the colossal manuscript in a single marathon, omitting to mention her scrutiny of the many previous drafts. Since Robert Gottlieb, Richler’s editor at Knopf, largely refrained from editing closely his friend’s prose, it was really Florence who performed that task.
So, while dedicated to Mordecai Richler’s work, this forum is dedicated to Florence Richler’s memory. I met the couple in 1984, when journalists had been invited to the set of Joshua Then and Now. The novel’s risibly anglophile garden party was being shot on an estate in the Thousand Islands east of Kingston, Ontario. The crew scurried between interminably repeated shots in the sweltering heat, scores of extras panted under tottering Beefeater costumes, the stars took questions from reporters inside the mansion, and scrums surrounded Richler, director Ted Kotcheff, and producer Robert Lantos on the lawn, where caterers were preparing a luncheon. Though I could not get Richler’s attention, a striking woman got mine: seated just beyond the tumultuous set, on the grass under an oak tree, she was serenely reading a book. In a light muslin dress, her face shaded by a wide-brimmed hat, she might have belonged to a scene—not in a Kotcheff-Lantos flick but a Merchant-Ivory production. I approached close enough to recognize the book, Dorothy J. Farnan’s recently published biography Auden in Love: The Intimate Story of a Lifelong Love Affair. The epigraph of Joshua Then and Now is from Auden’s “Lay your sleeping head, my love.” This must be Florence Richler, inspiration of Joshua’s glamorous shiksa wife Pauline, being played here, between reporters’ questions, by Gabrielle Lazure.
Summoned to the luncheon, I stalked Mrs. Richler to the table and gained her permission to sit beside her, where she talked about Auden, biography, the harmonious disarray of the set, her own experience as an actress and model in London, advising her husband on manuscript drafts. From our conversation it was soon clear that Florence Richler was the placidly cryptic heart of this whole tumultuous enterprise. Joshua Then and Now was unimaginable without her, and here, where it was being clamorously reimagined as a film and TV series, she walked aloof and unregarded through the dream she had partly inspired. She graciously permitted me to take notes of our conversation for my article, which I realized had found its proper focus, and I jotted while she talked until a pushy rival tried to cut into my turf. Before I could shove him off I saw that the burly intruder was her husband, volunteering himself for yet another tedious press interview. While Richler answered questions about the screenplay (Lantos wanted a flashier ending), his wife ate and then took her leave, smiling radiantly to us both—but it was not the same smile for both of us. Richler in love, indeed. He had a reputation for truculent irascibility, yet the forbearance with which Richler took my banal questions so that his wife could eat her lunch in peace and then get away with an absorbing book was a consummate act of gallantry.
Auden in Love ended up on Joshua’s desk in a scene of the movie, for Joshua writes a homage to the Spanish Civil War Loyalists eulogized in Auden’s poetry. But the volume had not yet completed its circuit. Thirty years later, as we unpacked the library that Florence Richler had bestowed on us, where Jason Camlot found the inventory poem included in this forum, I drew from a box Farnan’s book, last seen tucked under Florence’s arm as she made off for the oak’s shade. When, near the end of her life, she again graciously consented to an interview, now with Linda Morra in the Richler library, accompanied no longer by her husband but by another family novelist, her daughter Emma, Auden in Love stood on a shelf before her, as I pointed out to her. Though she could no longer see that far, she could still smile with the same radiant ambiguity.3
- Particular thanks are owed to Deanna Radford and Piyusha Chatterjee for transcriptions and recordings, as well as to conference organizers Yuliya Kondratenki, Samuel Mercier, Klara Duplessis, Andrew Roberge, Emma Telaro, Chalsey Taylor, and Maxwell Stern. The Richler Library Project and Reading Room are funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada and Concordia University.
- For an English translation of Saint-Martin’s essay, see https://canlit.ca/article/one-sentence-one-world-translating-mordecai-richler/.
- For Linda Morra’s interview with Florence Richler, see https://canlit.ca/article/the-book-is-certainly-better-for-it-florence-richler-in-interview/.
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