Mordecai, Mavis, Moore and me

Getting Started: A Memoir of the 1950s

By Denis Sampson

A review of Getting Started: A Memoir Of The 1950s by William Weintraub

Published on October 1, 2001

Getting Started: A Memoir Of The 1950s
William Weintraub

Macmillan Canada
$34.99
cloth
304pp
0-7710-8914-7

City Unique: Montreal Days and Nights in the 1940s and ’50s, William Weintraub’s affectionate documentary of the city in those days, was published in 1997 and stayed on the bestseller lists for a year. With a sure touch for capturing the texture and the underlying energies of the time, Weintraub wrote a classic. Now he is back with a book that documents his own milieu during the ’50s, relying heavily on a treasure trove of richly detailed letters. The letter writers were his close friends Mordecai Richler and Brian Moore, and since Weintraub kept copies of his side of the correspondence, parts of this book read like an epistolary novel.

In these years Weintraub went from a reporter at The Gazette to a freelancer in Europe to a maker of NFB documentaries and a comic novelist, but his aim here is to document those friendships. Some of the most spirited writing is about his own work for the NFB, but he modestly gives pride of place to his celebrated correspondents.

The book opens with the story of how he was fired in early 1950 from his Gazette job. At first dismayed, Weintraub soon set off for Europe where he would travel widely for two years. He left behind Brian Moore, who would continue to work at The Gazette for a few more years. Awaiting him in Paris was Mavis Gallant, who had left her journalist’s job in Montreal a year earlier. It was she who put Weintraub in touch with Mordecai Richler, a young dropout from Sir George Williams University who had moved on from Paris to the Spanish island of Ibiza.

Here, in the still undeveloped Mediterranean paradise, Richler had housing, sex, and booze for next to nothing and was trying his hand at writing a novel. Soon Weintraub would be there with him, and so it was that in 1950-51 all four Montrealers formed a circle of companionship and support that lasted for many decades.

Young, ambitious, and searching at the beginning of the ’50s, at the end they are successful and worldly writers. Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Moore’s The Luck of Ginger Coffey, and Weintraub’s Why Rock the Boat? all appeared in 1959-60, and all were made into movies. Gallant, too, had established herself as an exemplary writer of short stories, and if this book has a point to make, it seems to be that Montreal writing was already internationalized long before CanLit was heard of.

The most extraordinary thing revealed in this book is the intimacy and solidity of the writers’ friendships through tumultuous years of growing international recognition and success, much displacement back and forth between Montreal, Europe, and New York, and upheavals in personal lives.

These friendships, especially those between the men, reflect the attitudes and behaviour of their era. Weintraub is bemused and wise about the way times have changed, but his method is to let the evidence speak for itself, to let that time be as it was, warts and all. This is a largely male world – boozing is a prominent part of it, competition is strikingly invisible, and jealously, rivalry and self-importance do not disrupt the bonds of friendship and loyalty.

At another level, however, Weintraub seems to imply that his own increasing unhappiness later in the decade may have been due to a sense of failure – if it was not actually due to, or compounded by, alcohol. There is a subtext here that Weintraub touches on and then moves briskly by, for this is not a confessional memoir.

Many readers will want to read Getting Started for the gossipy revelations about Richler and the others. They were smartasses who wrote amusing reports of their adventures, but they were also talented, ambitious and extremely hardworking. Weintraub has written a book that complements City Unique by providing a vivid inside view of his youthful years. mRb

Denis Sampson is the author of Brian Moore: The Chameleon Novelist. The Enigma of Normandy has just appeared in Brick magazine.

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