World Literature

Mordecai Richler

 

BORN: 1931, Montreal, Canada

DIED: 2001, Montreal, Canada

NATIONALITY: Canadian

GENRE: Drama, fiction

MAJOR WORKS:

Son of a Smaller Hero (1955)

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959)

The Incomparable Atuk (1963)

Solomon Gursky Was Here (1989)

Jacob Two-Two’s First Spy Case (1995)

 

 

Mordecai Richler. Richler, Mordecai, photograph. © Jerry Bauer. Reproduced by permission.

 

Overview

Among the most prominent figures in contemporary Canadian literature, Richler is best known for the darkly humorous novels in which he examines such topics as Canadian society, Jewish culture, the adverse effects of materialism, and relationships between individuals of different backgrounds. Richler left Canada at the age of twenty and lived in Europe for more than twenty years; he usually set his fiction in the Jewish section of Montreal where he was raised, or in European locales. And indeed, it is surely no mistake that in a Europe longing to be reminded of the world before the massive cultural and physical trauma of the Holocaust and of World War II, Richler felt himself compelled to look back to his Jewish roots in Montreal. Although Richler is sometimes faulted for excessive vulgarity and for being overly judgmental of both Canadian nationalism and Jewish culture, he is widely praised for his sense of humor and his skill at blending realism and satire.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Jewish Montreal and Cosmopolitan Europe Mordecai Richler was born in the Jewish ghetto of Montreal to a religious family of Russian emigres in 1931. After a stint at a university, Richler cashed in an insurance policy and used the money to sail to Liverpool, England. Eventually he found his way to Paris, where he spent some years emulating such expatriate authors as Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller, and later moved to London (in 1954), where he worked as a news correspondent.

Finding a Voice. In the same year he moved to London, Richler published his first novel, The Acrobats, a book he later characterized as ‘‘more political than anything I’ve done since, and humorless.’’ Richler himself characterized the novel as somewhat derivative. He found his own voice soon after, with novels like Son of a Smaller Hero (1955), A Choice of Enemies (1957), and The Incomparable Atuk (1963).

Praise for Novels that Draw on Montreal Roots. Richler gained critical acclaim with three of his best-known titles, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959), St. Urbain’s Horseman (1971), and Joshua, Then and Now (1980). These books share a common theme—that of a Jewish-Canadian protagonist at odds with society, a theme based loosely on Richler’s own life—and all three novels revolve around the way greed can taint success. The novels also reveal Richler’s flair for dark humor and racy content. Richler’s screenplay adaptation of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz won him an Academy Award nomination in 1975.

A Successful Comeback Novel. After Joshua, Then and Now, nine years would pass before Richler published another novel (although he was a widely published journalist throughout that period). When he broke the silence in 1989 with Solomon Gursky Was Here, several reviewers welcomed the novel as worth the wait, and England’s Book Trust honored it with a Commonwealth Writers Prize. In these years—between 1970 and the late 1990s—Richler also conducted a long-running sort of feud with Quebecois nationalists, activists in favor of Quebec’s secession from Canada and often in favor of Francophone-oriented language laws. Richler has described various Quebecois stances as anti-Semitic, with predictably outraged reactions from a number of Quebecois commentators and pundits.

Children’s Books and Final Novel. Richler introduced his children’s book hero Jacob Two-Two (so called because, as the youngest of five children, he has to say everything twice to be heard) in 1975 with Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang. Jacob Two-Two and the Dinosaur appeared in 1987, and Richler rounded out this much-loved trilogy with Jacob Two-Two’s First Spy Case in 1995. Jacob was based on Richler’s own youngest son Jacob Richler. Two years later he published his last novel for adults: Barney’s Version. The book won that year’s Giller Prize. Richler died in 2001 of complications resulting from cancer.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Richler's famous contemporaries include:

Gaston Suarez (1929-1984): A Bolivian novelist and dramatist.

Philip Roth (1933-): An American novelist whose work has both been highly praised and condemned as anti-Semitic, despite the fact that Roth himself is Jewish.

Seamus Heaney (1938-): The Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet who translated Beowulf into contemporary English and received much acclaim for making the work accessible to modern readers.

Boris Yeltsin (1931-2007): The first president of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (Russia), Yeltsin served from 1991 until 1999.

Margaret Thatcher (1925-): The first female prime minister of the United Kingdom, Thatcher served in office from 1979 until 1990.

Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968): An American civil rights leader whose efforts were critical in helping the United States begin to overcome its institutionalized racism, King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968.

 

Works in Literary Context

Full Tilt Toward Satire. Two tendencies dominate Richler’s fiction: realism and satire. The first three novels, The Acrobats (1954), Son of a Smaller Hero (1955), and A Choice of Enemies (1957), are realistic, their plots basically traditional in form, their settings accurately detailed, and their characters motivated in psychologically familiar ways. Even in these works, as George Woodcock has noted, there is at times a drift toward satiric caricature. At the other extreme, The Incomparable Atuk (1963) and Cocksure (1968) are pure satiric fantasy along the lines of Voltaire’s long-celebrated Candide, or Optimism (1759), their concessions to realism slight. In them Richler indulges the strong comic vein in his writing as he attacks Canadian provincialism and the spurious gratifications of the entertainment media. Beginning with The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959) and continuing in St. Urbain’s Horseman (1971) and in Joshua, Then and Now (1980), the two strands of realism and fantasy-satire come together, and this distinctive blend becomes Richler’s greatest narrative strength.

In these highly satirical and highly fantastical novels, Richler’s work is in the same vein as his contemporaries Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon, and such later writers as David Foster Wallace.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

One of the primary targets of Richler's satire was the entertainment industry. Here is a selection of other works that take aim at the entertainment world:

For Your Consideration (2006), a film directed by Christopher Guest. In this "mockumentary" film—a satirical, scripted film that is made to look like a documentary—the cast of the film Home for Purim is nominated for several awards. Ultimately, viewers understand how scheming and selfish the characters are.

The Truman Show (1998), a film directed by Peter Weir. The protagonist of this film, Truman, is a man whose whole life from the time of his conception onward has been the center of a reality television show. But Truman is unaware that he is being filmed and that his friends and family are actors in the drama.

Network (1976), a film directed by Sidney Lumet. This highly acclaimed satire demonstrates the depths to which a fictional network will sink in order to improve ratings. The film won four Academy Awards.

 

Works in Critical Context

Although Richler’s early work received mixed critical responses—particularly his works of satire—his later work has received almost universal acclaim. Both the early and the late fiction tend to revolve around protagonists on moral quests of one sort or another. As G. David Sheps has observed, Richler’s heroes ‘‘insist that salvation lies only in the adoption of personal values, but they are not sure which personal values to hold.’’ Richler’s Solomon Gursky Was Here is largely considered a deft balance between satire and realism, and the result is a highly readable and enjoyable text that does not lose any of the wit and cynicism of earlier Richler works. Nonetheless, Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz remains his best-known and most highly regarded work.

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Comparing The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz to such other coming-of-age stories as James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, A. R. Bevan, in a new introduction to Richler’s novel, finds that the book, ‘‘in spite of its superficial affinity with the two novels mentioned above, ends with [none of their] affirmation.’’ The character of Duddy, ‘‘who has never weighed the consequences of his actions in any but material terms, is less alone in the physical sense than the earlier young men, but he is also much less of a man.... He is a modern ‘anti-hero’ (something like the protagonist in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange) who lives in a largely deterministic world, a world where decisions are not decisions and where choice is not really choice.’’ In Modern Fiction Studies, John Ower describes The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz as ‘‘a ‘Jewish’ novel [with] both a pungent ethnic flavor and the convincingness that arises when a writer deals with a milieu with which he is completely familiar.’’ For the author, Ower continues, ‘‘the destructive psychological effects of the ghetto mentality are equalled and to some extent paralleled by those of the Jewish family. Like the society from which it springs, this tends to be close and exclusive, clinging together in spite of its intense quarrels. The best aspect of such clannishness, the feeling of kinship which transcends all personal differences, is exemplified by Duddy. Although he is in varying degrees put down and rejected by all of his relatives except his grandfather, Duddy sticks up for them and protects them.’’

Solomon Gursky Was Here. The story focuses on Moses Berger, an alcoholic Jewish writer whose life’s obsession is to write a biography of the legendary Solomon Gursky. Gursky, who came from a prominent Jewish-Canadian family of liquor distillers, may have died years ago in a plane crash, but Berger finds numerous clues that suggest he lived on in various guises, a trickster and meddler in international affairs. Jumping forward and backward in time, from events in the Gursky past to the novel’s present, Richler ‘‘manages to suggest a thousand-page family chronicle in not much more than 400 pages,’’ observes Bruce Cook for Chicago’s Tribune Books. The critic lauds the novel’s humor and rich texture, concluding, ‘‘Page for page, there has not been a serious novel for years that can give as much pure pleasure as this one.’’ Acknowledging the inventiveness of Richler’s narrative, Francine Prose in the New York Times Book Review nonetheless found the book somewhat marred by predictable or flat characters. Other critics have suggested that there was too much going on in the novel, and that some its humor seemed a bit too black. Village Voice writer Joel Yanofsky applauds the book despite its weaknesses: ‘‘If the structure of Richler’s story is too elaborate at times, if the narrative loose ends aren’t all pulled together, it’s a small price to pay for a book this beguiling and rude, this serious, this fat and funny.’’ And Jonathan Kirsch, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, calls it ‘‘a worthy addition’’ to Richler’s canon, the work ‘‘of a storyteller at the height of his powers.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Read Cocksure and watch the film American Dreamz. Nearly forty years passed between the publication of Cocksure and the release of American Dreamz, yet their topics are very similar. In a short essay, compare the satire of each. What is each making fun of? Why? How do you react to these critiques? In what ways do they seem accurate, and in what ways do they seem exaggerated?

2. Read The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. This novel is considered a ‘‘coming-of-age’’ novel. Generally, in coming-of-age texts, the protagonist must battle through adversity to grow into a mature, well-balanced human being. In what ways does The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz fit this mold—for example, what adversities must be overcome? In what ways does it defy conventions?

3. After having read Cocksure and The Incomparable Atuk, you should have a good sense of how satire works. Now, write a short story or short film that is a satire of a topic on which you have a strong opinion.

4. Solomon Gursky Was Here is considered a kind of family saga. Writing a novel in which all the members of a family seem real—not flat and uninteresting—is very difficult. Some have argued that Richler was unsuccessful in having done that. What do you think? To what extent are his characters in the novel realistic? Support your thesis with detailed analysis of the text.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Darling, Michael, ed. Perspectives on Mordecai Richler. Downsview, Ont.: ECW, 1985.

Gibson, Graeme. Eleven Canadian Novelists. Toronto: Anansi, 1973.

Klinck, Carl F., et al., eds. Literary History of Canada: Canadian Literature in English. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1965.

New, W. H. Articulating West. Toronto: New Press, 1972.

Northey, Margot. The Haunted Wilderness: The Gothic and Grotesque in Canadian Fiction. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976.

Ramraj, Victor J. Mordecai Richler. Boston: Twayne, 1983.

Sheps, G. David, ed. Mordecai Richler. Toronto: McGraw- Hill/Ryerson, 1971.

Woodcock, George. Mordecai Richler. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1970.