Mordecai Richler's Imperfect Search for Moral Values. McGill-Queen's University Press
Since his death in 2001, Mordecai Richler has been the subject of five biographies, including Joel Yanofsky’s Mordecai and Me (2003), Michael Posner’s oral biography The Last Honest Man: Mordecai Richler (2004), Reinhold Kramer’s Mordecai Richler: Leaving St. Urbain (2008), M.G. Vassanji’s Mordecai Richler (2009), and Charles Foran’s award-winning Mordecai: The Life and Times (2010). Richler is clearly an irresistible subject: a satirist whose views are difficult to pin down, but whose literary status and legendary crustiness still tantalize. That he has received so much recent attention confirms the continual hold of his once larger-than-life character.
Richler’s body of work, although not to the same degree as his person, has also received renewed scrutiny. There have been at least two Richler conferences held in Montreal, hosted by the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada in 2004 and by Concordia University in 2019. Concordia’s acquisition of Richler’s personal library (some 6,000 books) and its 2013 installation of the Mordecai Richler Reading Room, which features the author’s personal writing desk, chair, and typewriter, and other memorabilia, is a site for study and further research. In addition, Richler’s fiction has been the topic of criticism in both English and French. As Shana Rosenblatt Mauer notes in Mordecai Richler’s Imperfect Search for Moral Values, publications by “francophone scholars and journalists” (14) demonstrate new interest in Richler.
It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that Mauer’s monograph is the first to examine Richler’s entire corpus, as per the promotional statement on the publisher’s website. Indeed, hers is a sweeping study of all of Richler’s novels, from first to last—The Acrobats of 1954 to Barney’s Version of 1998—informed by his non-fiction and recorded views. In this analysis, Mauer pays “special attention to the interplay between the novels and the [author’s] social, historical, and cultural” (4) environment, as well as his public commentary. By attending to these “inter- and extra-textual elements,” she seeks to offer a “multi-layered reading” (4) of Richler’s work. Mauer succeeds admirably, largely by bringing a deep knowledge of Jewish laws and practice, history and literary traditions to her study.
Mauer focuses on the Jewish sensibility of the writer and his work and discerns a “quest for a feasible moral outlook” (7) at the core of Richler’s oeuvre. Across six chapters, she traces the search for meaning undertaken by Richler’s various protagonists, all of whom are “Montreal-bred Jewish men”—like their creator—and whose lives “are bound to the constraints of the quotidian” (23). In each novel, the protagonist looks up to a hero figure, who are also men mostly “native to Montreal’s Jewish ghetto” and “who exhibit integrity and live by an honest, if not perfect, moral posture” (23). This “pattern” of pairing protagonist and hero, a “doubling” that remains consistent across Richler’s oeuvre, brings into relief the moral pursuit that underpins his fiction and serves as “a strategy for imbuing the novels with positive values” (7).
Chapter one identifies the “ordinary” Jewish values that implicitly shape the lives of Richler’s protagonists: loyalty to family and the ideal of the “family man” (35), identification with Old World Jewish culture and rejection of the Jewish nouveau riche for their materialism and desire to be accepted by Gentiles. Chapter two lays out the opposing qualities of Richler’s heroes who appear as empowered and self-assertive, lawless and vital pleasure seekers. Mauer reads these less conventional heroes as forcing a new interpretation of what it means to be a modern Jew in the New World.
In chapter three, she posits a further contrast between the “messianic” hero figures and the obvious “charlatans” (87) who populate Richler’s novels. They may not be fully “devoted to a benevolent, redemptive mission” (87)—for example, they see Israel as a place to visit rather than the Jewish homeland, even as they lament the “vulnerability” (90) of Diasporic Jews—but Richler’s heroes do expose the false fanaticism and immorality of “creative con” (88) men, like Ephraim Gursky of Solomon Gursky Was Here (1989). Mauer claims that Richler’s particular notion of the hero evokes Jewish writing of earlier centuries that also explores “variants of messianism” (96), ranging from the nineteenth-century stories of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav to Cynthia Ozick’s 1988 novel The Messiah of Stockholm.
Chapter four reveals the complexity of Richler’s heroes. In part, they are “driven to resuscitate Jewish dignity in a post-Holocaust world fraught with moral instability, to unmask anti-Semitism and expose its cowardly underpinnings, and to defend the state of Israel when it is besieged by its enemies” (97). But they also tend toward political incorrectness, which leads to the most biting satire on topics such as feminism and gender politics, Indigenous rights, homosexuality, racism, and academia. The result, as Mauer points out, is that these heroes generally go “too far . . . to elicit [readers’] empathy” (129)—though protagonists invariably and eagerly await their “messianic” return. In the end, readers are called to re-evaluate their “own ideological positions” (129) in light of the attitudes of Richler’s heroes, the values of his protagonists, and the satire directed at political correctness, all of which remain unreconcilable.
In chapter five, Mauer reconsiders Richler’s fictional representation of Canada in terms of his own fraught relationship with the country and especially Quebec. To her study of Richler’s “embattled position vis-à-vis Canada” (153), Mauer brings a nuanced understanding of how his domestic reception, on the one hand, and perception of the country, on the other, were affected by his Jewishness. Critics, she contends, hesitated to acknowledge Richler as a foremost Canadian author “because the Jewish fibre of his novels seemed to place him on the margins of the Canadian literary establishment” (159). At the same time, Jewishness afforded him the invaluable viewpoint of an outsider to mainstream culture, which gave rise to his controversial rendering of both the insular Jewish community of Montreal and broader Quebec society.
The final chapter analyzes the close relationship between culture—specifically literature, art, and aesthetics—and morality that distinguishes Richler’s fiction. For Mauer, all of Richler’s protagonists place their “faith in true artistic greatness” (179), even if they are disappointed by individual artists and writers. Richler appears to have held a similar faith in authors as “unfrocked priests” who write with “intellectual and moral authority” (179). If that authority is flawed, as Mauer shows it to be in the case of Richler, that does not diminish the moral integrity of his writerly quest to engage staunchly and vigorously with the issues—both Jewish and secular—of his time and place.
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