Sunday, September 21, 2008

Mordecai Richler

The headline read "Quebec concerned that Paul McCartney will "bring back painful memories of our conquest,'" and I found it hard not to think of Mordecai Richler.

Especially when the article also revealed that a letter to the former Beatle endorsed by Parti Québécois Members of the Quebec National Assembly asked McCartney to show the same sensitivity to “the people of French Quebec” as he has shown to “the fate of the seals.”

The Beatles' bassist was in Quebec as part of the city's 400th anniversary. At first he said, "Me and the band are excited to finally get there and rock out with the good people of Quebec."

Later he said, "I'm very friendly with the French people that I know. I know people of all nationalities and, hey, I'm friendly with German people and, by that argument, I should never go to Germany or they should never come here."

This event took place in July 2008. By today (Sept. 21, 2008), the CBC version of this story had accumulated 348 comments.

Oh Canada, Oh Quebec! [Peter Gzowski interviews Richler on his book (1992).]

[The whole CBC archive on Richler here.]


Earlier this year, the first formal biography of Richler (1931-2001) appeared. Mordecai Richler: Leaving St. Urbain (McGill-Queen's, 2008) by Reinhold Kramer, a professor of English at Brandon University, has been reviewed by Darryl Whetter, Steven W. Beattie, Nathan Whitlock, Robert Reid, Ken McGoodgan and probably others...

Previously, an informal biography appeared. The Last Honest Man (M&S, 2005) told the story of Richler's life through the voices of others. The book is full of fragments of interviews with those who knew Richler. The result is a kaleidoscopic view of the man. The general gist of his life come across, but one gets the sense of missing many details.

Kramer's biography fills in some of those details, but not nearly enough. More significant is its attack on the theme of the previous book: honesty. Kramer never calls Richler a hypocrit, but he does undermine the oversimplistic reputation of Richler among his fans that he simply "told it like it was."

"Do you want to be liked?" Joel Yanofsky asked Richler in 1997, and he got the stare of death in return.

"What do you mean do I want to be liked?" Richler finally replied. "I want my work to be well thought of. But myself? I never think of that one way or another. Look, I don't take the temperature every day. I've also been very critical of a lot of things in the past and I continue to be critical, so I'm fair game. I don't solicit affection."
Myself, I miss Richler because he was funny. He was complicated, and unique. I want to know what he would have made of the fracas over Paulie's showcase in Quebec City.


And what of the Kramer biography? First, there is a lot more to be written about Richler. This is not the definitive account. Second, Kramer is excellent in illuminating the consistency of Jewish thought through Richler's work. For example, the golem is a Jewish avenger, and so is St. Urban's Horseman, the hero of the book by the same title (1971). Who knew? Not me.

As noted above, Kramer seems to have gone out of his way to be "fair." That is, he is clearly not beholden to the Richler estate (though he is deferring to Richler's widow) or the myth of Richler as "The Last Honest Man." He has made an attempt to outline the influences and forces on Richler's life, and he has created an alternate account of Richler: one who knows the value of his work and never fails to exact it. He presents Richler as the hero of the common man who later publishes a story in Saturday Night magazine sponsored by Absolut Vodka.

Ken McGoogan in the Globe and Mail said Kramer "sounds like a tenured academic disparaging a professional writer for making a living by his pen." Actually, Kramer twice inserts jokes into the biography about Brandon being the centre of the universe. Funny? No! (Particularly after he botches one of Richler's best lines: how his father responded to his first novel, The Acrobats: "What do you know about the circus?")

There are a number of new biographies of Richler coming soon, one by Charles Foran. Many more will likely follow. I'm looking forward to the review of Richler's career as a screen writer. Kramer outlines it here, but only in the barest details.

Richler led many lives -- and was a remarkable self-creation in a time when Canada had no major writers to speak of. That's the most significant challenge for any biographer of Richler: to explain how he did it, drove himself into the world as he did, with the ambitions that he had, achieving what he did. It was a remarkable life. There is much more to be written about it, and the work, too.



I saw Richler twice. Once at Hart House at the University of Toronto. I'm guessing it was about 1992. And once at the Eden Mills Writers Festival, about 1998?

At Hart House, he presided over a debate about "appropriation of voice." The two sides debated and then he waded in. He didn't take sides. He essentially said it was an unfortunate, irrelevant debate. One, of course, could write whatever one wanted to. To the young, black woman who'd argued that she hadn't read anything that included her point of view, he expressed regret. It was too bad, but the remedy she wanted (a kind of censorship) wasn't realistic.

I'd been reading Richler essays, and I'd noted that he had a couple of favourite quotations that he repeated. In the discussion at Hart House, he used one of them again, and after the debate I went to talk to him about it. I tapped him on the shoulder and said I'd noticed that he'd used one of the quotations he liked. He said, "You're a very perceptive young man," and turned swiftly around before I could reply.

At Eden Mills, he read on a bill with Barbara Gowdy and Gordon Lish. Before Lish read, he warned the audience that any young children should be removed. He was going to read something that wasn't child-friendly. And he didn't. He read a litany of sex acts. After about fifteen minutes, the audience started clapping. Enough already. He stopped, noting that Leon Rooke had been given a similar kiss-off in New York City.

Richler made no comment about Lish's reading, but he did say that he'd been approached by Greenpeace before the reading and asked to make a comment about their good work. "These young people are doing good work," he said, then he read the section of Joshua Here and Now about Jesus being nailed to the stick.

1 comment:

Deloney said...

Well, sometimes googling is worth it. What a funny, smart and entertaining blog this is...and I've only read a bit so far.