My favourite Montreal book

Home Sweet Home

By Joel Yanofsky

A review of Home Sweet Home by Mordecai Richler

Published on January 1, 2006

Home Sweet Home
Mordecai Richler

In “Home Is Where You Hang Yourself,” the opening essay in this collection, Richler makes a grudging confession. He was, he says, all wrong about this place. It turns out he needed this country–this city, especially–more than he thought. There’s no shortage of Richler novels immortalizing Montreal – The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, St. Urbain’s Horseman, Solomon Gursky Was Here, Barney’s Version – but it’s in this non-fiction volume that Richler’s affection, for his home, often and inevitably backhanded, is at its most naked and nostalgic.

He recollects his early days: at his old high school (Baron Byng), on his old street (St. Urbain), and in his old haunts, like Wilensky’s. He pines, too, to reconnect with the sight of Jean Beliveau flying down the ice and the taste of a smoked meat sandwich. Home Sweet Home was published in 1984 but most of the essays in it were written in the 1970s, the decade marking Richler’s return to Montreal after living abroad, mainly in London, since the early 1950s. The book is Richler announcing, like Arnold Schwarzennegger in The Terminator, that he’s back. In other words, it isn’t always pleasant. We get our first glimpse of Richler the polemicist here, commenting on Quebec’s cuckoo language laws and troubling nationalist aspirations. He’s none too happy with Canadian nationalism either. He’s out of touch with most of the country and happily admits as much. In the essay “Pages from a Western Journal,” Richler admits the obvious: “Like many Canadians of my generation, I have only a fragmented sense of country. Home, in my case, is Montreal, the rest is geography.”

But what makes Home Sweet Home such a memorable book about the city that ended up meaning so much to Richler’s work is his unusually heartfelt tribute to his late father in “My Father’s Life.” When he left Montreal he was also running from his gentle, ineffectual, put-upon old man; when he returned he was conceding that he was, like it or not, back for good. The city fed a childhood full of slights and an adulthood full of grudges, which in turn fed his best writing. Home Sweet Home is one of Richler’s most unabashed examples of that.

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Joel Yanofsky is the author of Bad Animals: A Father’s Accidental Education in Autism.

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