Prized au­thor who didn’t care who he of­fended

The Canadian Jewish News (Montreal) - - News - — JAN­ICE ARNOLD

Nov­el­ist Morde­cai Rich­ler, creator of such mem­o­rable fic­tional char­ac­ters as Duddy Kravitz and Solomon Gursky, im­mor­tal­ized the work­ing-class Mon­treal Jewish mi­lieu, in which he was born.

In his lat­ter years, he turned in­creas­ingly to jour­nal­ism, pen­ning polem­i­cal es­says ex­co­ri­at­ing Que­bec na­tion­al­ism, which earned him the op­pro­brium of many fran­co­phones and clouded his lit­er­ary legacy in his home prov­ince.

Born in Mon­treal in 1931, Rich­ler died in July 2001.

The son of Lily (née Rosen­berg), whose fa­ther was an chas­sidic rabbi, and Moses Rich­ler, a scrap dealer, the au­thor grew up on St. Ur­bain Street in the district now known as the Plateau and at­tended Baron Byng High School, lo­cales that colour much of his work.

From early on, Rich­ler ex­hib­ited a re­bel­lious, icon­o­clas­tic na­ture, alien­at­ing him from his birth fam­ily and later ruf­fling the feath­ers of the Jewish com­mu­nity with his bit­ing satire. He also chafed against the rigid­ness of the (an­glo­phone) Cana­dian es­tab­lish­ment of the time.

Even be­fore he waded into pol­i­tics, Rich­ler never hes­i­tated to ex­press his opin­ions bluntly, no mat­ter whom he of­fended. He called it be­ing “an hon­est wit­ness to his time and place.”

An in­dif­fer­ent stu­dent, Rich­ler dropped out of Sir Ge­orge Wil­liams Col­lege (later Con­cor­dia Univer­sity) at 19 and headed to Europe, where he spent time in Paris and Spain. In 1954, he set­tled in Lon­don, where he would live for two decades and pro­duce the ma­jor­ity of his 10 nov­els, the ear­li­est of which were The Ac­ro­bats and Son of a Smaller Hero, both dark, se­ri­ous works, quite un­like those he pro­duced later on.

His fourth novel, The Ap­pren­tice­ship of Duddy Kravitz (1959), es­tab­lished Rich­ler as a Cana­dian writer of the first or­der, even as the book aroused mixed feel­ings. The story of a young Jewish man from a poor fam­ily in Mon­treal who was de­ter­mined to make it no mat­ter what it took, be­came a sta­ple of Cana­dian lit­er­a­ture. It has been adapted to film (Rich­ler re­ceived an Os­car nom­i­na­tion for the screen­play of the 1974 movie star­ring Richard Drey­fuss) and the stage.

His other ma­jor nov­els in­clude St. Ur­bain’s Horse­man (1971), the sprawl­ing saga Solomon Gursky Was Here (1989), which was short­listed for the Man Booker Prize and the un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally sen­si­tive Bar­ney’s Ver­sion (1997), his last novel.

His 1992 non-fic­tion work Oh Canada! Oh Que­bec! fol­lowed on an ar­ti­cle in The New Yorker, which mocked the Parti Québé­cois’ (PQ) sep­a­ratist goals and lan­guage laws, while dis­sect­ing his­tor­i­cal anti-semitism among French-cana­di­ans. It caused an up­roar in the prov­ince and deep dis­com­fort in the or­ga­nized Jewish com­mu­nity. Rich­ler cared lit­tle; he dis­missed its lead­ers as “court Jews.”

Jour­nal­ist Jean-françois Lisée, the PQ leader to­day, said back then: “The con­tempt that he has for Que­be­cers, and for the facts … hurt me as a Que­be­cer.… It gave me an enor­mous headache to read this book, it stopped me from sleep­ing.”

Un­bowed, Rich­ler twisted the knife with the cre­ation of the Im­pure Wool So­ci­ety and the Prix Parizeau awards, to be be­stowed an­nu­ally on a non-pure laine Que­bec writer. It ran for a cou­ple of years, by which time Rich­ler had made his point.

Ex­hibit­ing a softer side, the pro­lific Rich­ler also wrote a chil­dren’s se­ries, en­ti­tled Ja­cob Two-two, named for the youngest of his five kids.

In 1994, he pub­lished the travel book, This Year in Jerusalem, a mem­oir of an ex­tended stay in Is­rael. Rich­ler re­con­nected with former mem­bers of Habonim, the sec­u­lar Zion­ist youth group of which he was a part of in the 1940s, who made aliyah. He ex­am­ines his own youth­ful ide­al­ism about the cre­ation of the Jewish state, the com­plex­i­ties of mod­ern Is­rael and what it means to live in the Di­as­pora.

On the 10th an­niver­sary of his death in 2010, Mon­treal coun­cil­lor Marvin Ro­trand launched a cam­paign, with the sup­port of Rich­ler’s fam­ily, to have the city cre­ate a per­ma­nent memo­rial to the writer, such as re­nam­ing a street or park af­ter him. The re­sponse largely ranged from tepid to hos­tile, an in­di­ca­tion of the am­biva­lence, if not an­tipa­thy, to­ward Rich­ler that lin­gered. The ul­tra-na­tion­al­ist So­ciété St. Jean Bap­tiste termed him “anti-québé­cois.”

Af­ter much dither­ing and a change of ad­min­is­tra­tion, the city named the Mile End public li­brary af­ter Rich­ler in 2015.

His abra­sive­ness aside, Rich­ler’s lit­er­ary tal­ent was rec­og­nized with nu­mer­ous hon­ours, in­clud­ing two Gover­nor Gen­eral’s Awards, two Com­mon­wealth Writers Prizes, the Stephen Lea­cock Award for Hu­mour and the Giller Prize. In 2001, shortly be­fore his death, he was ap­pointed a com­pan­ion of the Or­der of Canada.

Charles Fo­ran, au­thor of the award-win­ning 2010 bi­og­ra­phy Morde­cai: The Life and Times, wrote that his sub­ject was “from the start a com­plex and un­com­pro­mis­ing fig­ure, at once re­ject­ing many of the for­mal tenets of his faith, while em­brac­ing its in­tel­lec­tual and eth­i­cal rigour.” The re­sult was “an in­nately ab­sur­dist vi­sion of life.”

There seems to be some soft­en­ing in the at­ti­tude – or at least re­newed in­ter­est – among fran­co­phones in the last cou­ple of years.

In 2015, Les Edi­tions du Boréal be­came the first Que­bec pub­lisher in some 40 years to put out a new trans­la­tion of a Rich­ler work: Solomon Gursky. It has since been fol­lowed by Le Cav­a­lier de Saint-ur­bain, L’ap­pren­tis­sage de Duddy Kravitz and Joshua.

Although Rich­ler’s nov­els have been trans­lated and pub­lished in France over the years, Boréal be­lieves these lo­cal trans­la­tions are truer to Québé­cois French, which is ap­pro­pri­ate, given where the sto­ries take place.

The pub­lisher places Rich­ler “among the great­est names in Cana­dian lit­er­a­ture, and he is cer­tainly, with Leonard Co­hen, the an­glo-mon­treal writer who en­joys the great­est in­ter­na­tional renown.” It hopes the books will at­tract a younger gen­er­a­tion of fran­co­phone read­ers.

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