Non-Fiction

Mordecai Richler: Leaving St. Urbain

Mordecai Richler: Leaving St. Urbain
Reinhold Kramer

McGill-Queen's University Press
$39.95
cloth
524pp
978-0-7735-3355-4

It’s a measure of just how central Mordecai Richler was to the Canadian cultural landscape, and of how much he is missed, that since his death in 2001 one often finds oneself thinking, “What would Mordecai have thought?” How might he account for the phenomenal popularity of Barney’s Version in Italy? What would he have to say about the spectacular downfall of Conrad Black, or the rise of Mario Dumont? More poignant still is the thought of the fiction he might have been writing now, given that he was on a remarkable creative roll when he died.

The scope and thoroughness of Reinhold Kramer’s engrossing new biography is evidence, if any is still needed, of Richler’s importance. Granted access to the family archives and the cooperation of seemingly almost every living person who ever knew Richler, Kramer has struck the fine balance between academic rigour and popular biography, representing Richler’s life with the epic narrative scope it deserves. Best of all, by spotlighting and elucidating Richler’s artistic achievement while fully acknowledging the writer’s tendency toward devil’s advocacy, Kramer is true to his subject’s irreverent spirit.

Richler represents a historical shift unique to writers of his time and background. Within a mere two generations, his family tree encompasses the extremes of ultra-orthodox European Jewry, first-generation immigrant struggle, and secular Left Bank bohemianism. Intimate as he was with all three, Richler struggled at various times to accommodate, reconcile, and rebel against them; it was that lifelong identity quest, rooted so firmly on St. Urbain Street, that fuelled him, and Kramer examines it all lluminatingly.

While careful to respect his subject’s firm claim that his fiction was indeed fiction, Kramer nonetheless makes a good case for how two particular things-lingering resentment at his father’s ineffectual family role, and a long-suppressed traumatic incident involving his mother and a boarder-underpinned his life’s work. “He didn’t start out as a funny writer,” Kramer saliently reminds us, “but as a romantic, confronting the experiences (especially with his mother) that so troubled him.”
Kramer does what all good literary biographers should but so few do, sending readers back to the original work with a new understanding, without reducing it all to disguised autobiography. Along the way, standard objections to Richler, particularly his alleged misogyny, are addressed and, through textual evidence, pretty effectively refuted.

It’s by no means all literary detective work, either: Kramer pays due tribute to the nuts and bolts. An abiding impression is of the sheer hard work behind Richler’s writing life. Five novels in before he found his real voice with The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, in his forties before the first of his four acknowledged masterpieces was published, Richler was subject to the same occupational vicissitudes as any other scribbler: rejected screenplays, novels with gestation periods of a decade or more, journalism work long past the point where most writers of equivalent stature settle for academic sinecure.

Running parallel to the career of Richler the fiction writer was that of Richler the public mischief-maker. Diving gleefully, some might say recklessly, into the political waters of the day, he managed, in Kramer’s words, to “harry the far right from the pages of right-leaning newspapers.” The late chapters, particularly those dealing with Richler’s complex response to Quebec’s fraught politics, are among the most entertaining in the book; Richler’s celebrity peaked even while, with
-a novel where Kramer finds “the same beautiful forest of detail, the same precise satiric missiles as all of Richler’s major novels”-he confronted deeply personal themes of mortality, family, and friendship.

Richler Studies is a growing field: witness Joel Yanofsky’s acclaimed fan testimony Mordecai & Me. A few other biographies are in the pipeline, too, among them a much-anticipated one from Charles Foran. How they might differ from Kramer’s will be very interesting to see, but one thing is certain: the bar has now been set very high.

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Ian McGillis writes about books and visual arts for the Montreal Gazette.

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