One of St. Ur­bain’s horse­men

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - GLOBE BOOKS -

David Staines pays trib­ute to ‘one of the most gen­er­ous pa­trons of the arts our coun­try has ever known’

Although

Jack Rabi­novitch, who died sud­denly last Sun­day, was a noted man of busi­ness, he is per­haps best known in lit­er­ary cir­cles for his con­tri­bu­tion to Cana­dian fic­tion.

One of St. Ur­bain’s horse­men – a ref­er­ence to Morde­cai Rich­ler’s 1971 novel – Jack was born and raised blocks east of St. Ur­bain Street in Montreal. He grad­u­ated with an hon­ours BA in English from McGill Univer­sity, and although he wanted to go to the Sor­bonne for fur­ther stud­ies, he had to re­main in Montreal and earn his liv­ing. He took em­ploy­ment as a speech writer for gro­cery-store mag­nate Sam Stein­berg, en­tered the worlds of food re­tail­ing and dis­tri­bu­tion and then moved into real-es­tate de­vel­op­ment, where he found his true call­ing.

His wife, Doris Giller, was seven months younger than Jack and raised a few blocks closer to St. Ur­bain Street. She be­came a sec­re­tary at Stein­berg’s and later joined the Montreal Star, where she be­came its first fe­male en­ter­tain­ment ed­i­tor. She stayed with the Star un­til its demise in 1979, then joined the Gazette, where she was lit­er­ary ed­i­tor un­til 1985 when the cou­ple moved to Toronto. She was in pri­vate, as Jack used to com­ment, shy and re­tir­ing, like Jack him­self to some de­gree.

The last time I saw Doris was lunch at the Stu­dio Café in Toronto’s Four Sea­sons Ho­tel in Fe­bru­ary, 1993. She was al­ready seated when I ar­rived. As she rose to leave, she took hold of a cane hid­den un­der the ta­ble. “What’s this about?” I asked. “Oh, just a lit­tle dis­com­fort in my back,” she replied. “I will have it taken care of shortly.” In the early hours of April 26, a friend phoned from Toronto to say that Doris had died of can­cer the pre­vi­ous evening; like my­self, she knew noth­ing of Doris’s ter­mi­nal con­di­tion.

De­spite my friend­ship with her, which lasted more than a decade, I had never met her hus­band. In early May of that year I re­ceived a phone call in Ot­tawa. “David Staines?” the voice said. “Yes,” I replied. “This is Jack Rabi­novitch,” he said. I ac­knowl­edged my re­spect for his wife, as I had pre­vi­ously done in a long let­ter to him. He be­gan to cry, then abruptly added, “I’ll call again,” and hung up. He called back a week later to an­nounce that he would do some­thing in Doris’s hon­our, per­haps some kind of lit­er­ary prize, and I as­sured him of my sup­port. The prize be­gan as a trib­ute to Doris, as an ex­pres­sion of Jack’s love for his de­ceased wife and their pas­sion­ate love of lit­er­a­ture.

I first met Jack later that year on Sept. 11 at Moishes Steak­house in Montreal, where Morde­cai Rich­ler and I joined him for an early din­ner. Morde­cai averred that the prize was to be given for the best Cana­dian vol­ume of fic­tion pub­lished in a given year. Then we be­gan to iron out the rules for the Giller Prize. We would hon­our the best book of fic­tion (novel or col­lec­tion of short sto­ries) pub­lished in English or trans­lated into English in Canada. We would hon­our the five fi­nal­ists with the an­nounce­ment of the win­ner be­fore an au­di­ence at a lav­ish din­ner. The jury would pick the win­ner in their own pri­vate meet­ing the day of the an­nounce­ment. We would, there­fore, es­tab­lish a qual­ity award for qual­ity work. We then needed an­other jury mem­ber – Morde­cai and I agreed to serve as jury mem­bers for the first three years of the prize’s ex­is­tence – and we turned to Alice Munro, who ac­cepted our in­vi­ta­tion.

Some pub­lish­ers thought an­other prize was ir­rel­e­vant to the lit­er­ary scene. On Jan. 20, 1994, Jack an­nounced the Giller Prize’s es­tab­lish­ment and Morde­cai ad­dressed these pub­lish­ers. “This, af­ter all, be­ing Canada, a grudg­ing coun­try, there have been some com­plaints. Given an ap­ple in this coun­try, you would im­me­di­ately suspect there is a ra­zor blade in­side,” he com­mented. “Even­tu­ally, I hope the Giller, like the Booker in Eng­land, will do a great deal for writ­ers’ sales and that, most of all, every­body in­volved will have fun.”

Morde­cai’s “hope” proved ac­cu­rate. The first win­ner was M. G. Vas­sanji’s The Book of Se­crets, and the next four years (for ex­am­ple) were equally for­tu­itous for the prize: Ro­hin­ton Mistry’s A Fine Bal­ance, Mar­garet At­wood’s Alias Grace, Rich­ler’s Bar­ney’s Ver­sion and Munro’s The Love of a Good Woman. The writ­ers them­selves, ap­pre­ci­at­ing the in­creased at­ten­tion placed on them and their books, rel­ished the Giller Prize as a tri­umphant mo­ment of lit­er­ary suc­cess. And with the in­creased at­ten­tion paid to their work, so did the pub­lic at large. In fact, by ob­serv­ing this de­mand for Giller fic­tion, pub­lish­ers would hear the long list, the short list and the win­ner and rush their books into ex­tended print­ings.

Both fic­tion writ­ers and fic­tion read­ers have been blessed by the im­pri­matur of the Giller, whose ju­ries have boasted the best Cana­dian and in­ter­na­tional au­thors, in­clud­ing Mar­garet At­wood and Roddy Doyle, El­iz­a­beth Hay and Lawrence Hill, Alis­tair MacLeod and Carol Shields, Colm Toibin and Richard B. Wright.

By en­dow­ing the Giller Prize, Jack shone a spot­light on Cana­dian fic­tion, which was al­ready gain­ing in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion. In 1994 this coun­try’s fic­tion was a fully de­vel­oped and vi­brant prod­uct through­out the English­s­peak­ing world and beyond; nov­els and short-story col­lec­tions were be­ing trans­lated into many for­eign lan­guages. The Giller Prize co­in­cided with the ar­rival of the in­ter­na­tional phase of Cana­dian fic­tion, when it was ex­pand­ing through and beyond stereo­typ­i­cally Cana­dian themes to em­brace ad­di­tion­ally the re­gions of the world.

Un­like the Gov­er­nor-Gen­eral’s Lit­er­ary Award for fic­tion, which is an­nounced apart from a later cer­e­mony, the Giller brought a dra­matic ap­peal to the din­ner, ev­ery­one won­der­ing about and/ or bet­ting on the win­ner. Although its ini­tial gift of $25,000 to the win­ner has been in­creased over the years, the magic of the Giller Prize it­self re­mains un­changed. Jack’s con­stant re­frain – “For the price of a din­ner in this town, you can buy all the nom­i­nated books. So, eat at home and buy the books” – has proven true, ar­gu­ing for the books to be a pri­or­ity in fam­ily fi­nances. Ev­ery­one, in­clud­ing writ­ers, pub­lish­ers and Cana­dian read­ers, came to ap­pre­ci­ate the wis­dom of his urg­ing.

The Giller Prize stands as a trib­ute to ex­cel­lence, and Jack achieved his per­sonal de­sire of in­au­gu­rat­ing and sus­tain­ing a prize that cel­e­brates ex­cel­lence in fic­tion. It is also a re­minder of the love of a cou­ple for each other and for the lit­er­a­ture of their coun­try.

Jack Rabi­novitch was – and is – one of the most gen­er­ous pa­trons of the arts our coun­try has ever known.

One of the founders of the Giller Prize, David Staines has most re­cently writ­ten The Cam­bridge Companion to Alice Munro. He is a pro­fes­sor of English at the Univer­sity of Ot­tawa.

JOHN MORSTAD/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Jack Rabi­novitch, seen here in 2000, founded the Giller Prize in 1994 to hon­our his wife, Doris Giller, who died of can­cer in 1993.

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