One of Canada's most accomplished writers, Mordecai Richler (1931-2001) produced screenplays, novels, children's literature, and essays. At the time of his death, he was acknowledged as Canada's leading curmudgeon for his witty insights on topics such as the Canadian personality and the foibles of Quebec separatism.
Mordecai Richler was a prominent figure on the Canadian literary landscape for more than 40 years after the 1959 publication of his breakthrough novel, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Richler was much more than just a popular novelist, however; as a prolific contributor to magazines, movies, and children's literature, Richler probably reached a broader audience than any contemporary Canadian writer. His blunt words on Canadian political affairs also made Richler a household name throughout the country, particularly for his unsparing criticism of the ongoing battles over Quebec sovereignty. His description of the conflict as "Canada's longest running opera bouffe, a far from life-and-death struggle over the size of English lettering and outdoor commercial signs in Montreal," in a 1999 Stanley Knowles Lecture at the University of Waterloo was just a sampling of Richler's disdain for the separatist forces in his native province.
St. Urbain Street Childhood
Richler's grandfather, a rabbinical scholar, emigrated to Montreal in 1904 from Galicia, a region then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and today split between Poland and the Ukraine. Establishing a scrapyard, the elder Richler gradually built the concern into a successful business that employed some of his fourteen children. Moses Isaac Richler, the eldest of the Richler sons, followed his father into the family business; however, unlike his younger brother, Solly, he was never made a full partner. Moses Richler's failure to achieve as much as his siblings was later explored in the writings of his son, Mordecai Richler, who was born on January 27, 1931.
A family of devout Orthodox Jews, the Richlers lived in the Jewish enclave in Montreal centered around St. Urbain Street; at one time, three generations of the family lived across the street from one another. Richler later immortalized the area in his novel St. Urbain's Horseman as a lively, nurturing place despite the economic hardships that many of the residents faced. At home, however, the young Richler was witness to his parents' increasingly unhappy marriage, which he attributed to his father's passive nature. In 1943, his mother, Lily Richler, had the marriage annulled on the grounds that she had been an underage bride and had married without her parents' consent; although Richler and his older brother were then adolescents, the annulment was granted.
Richler was encouraged in his religious studies at a Jewish parochial school; his parents hoped that he might become a rabbi. After entering Baron Byng High School, however, Richler began to develop a more secular identity. Even though Richler's Jewish roots remained central to his identity for the rest of his life, he abandoned most of the Orthodox practices that he had been taught. His greatest rebellion, however, occurred when he abandoned his course work at Sir George Williams College (today known as Concordia University) after his second year. Richler was uninspired by his studies and longed to break free of his provincial life and pursue a career as a writer.
In 1949, after a brief stint on the staff of the Montreal Herald, Richler began traveling in Europe and eventually spent an extended time in Paris, where he published his first piece of fiction, "Shades of Darkness (Three Impressions)" in the literary magazine Points. Encouraged by this early success, Richler also worked on the manuscript for a novel, The Acrobats, about a wandering Canadian idealist inspired by the International Brigades of the Spanish Civil War.
With his pockets empty, Richler returned to Montreal in 1951 while his first manuscript made the rounds of several European publishing houses. He worked as both a salesman and as a radio editor for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation while he revised The Acrobats following its conditional acceptance by a British publisher. In 1954, the book finally was published. It received fairly good reviews, but sold only about 900 copies in its first few years in print in Canada. As Richler recalled in his debut essay in 1958 (reprinted in commemoration of his death in 2001) in Maclean's, a Canadian news magazine, "My last royalty statement from New York cost me a good deal of sleep. It covered the last six months in 1956, and in that period two copies of The Acrobats had been sold. One domestic and the other Orient. For nights, I was kept awake thinking, 'Who in the hell do I know in the Orient? Would it be possible to trace the buyer? Shouldn't we correspond? Or did he, perhaps, buy the book in error?"'
Richler returned to Europe to take up life as an expatriate writer in London. An early marriage ended in divorce, but his second marriage in 1960, to onetime couture fashion model Florence Wood, lasted until his death; they had three sons and two daughters.
After two more novels that received fairly positive critical notices, yet disappointing sales figures—Son of a Smaller Hero in 1955 and A Choice of Enemies in 1957—Richler published a breakthrough work, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, in 1959. Set in Montreal, the novel explored the rise of an ambitious young Jewish man determined to be successful; praised by critics, the book eventually became part of the modern canon of Canadian literature. Richler also established his reputation as a screenwriter for television and film during this period; perhaps his best-known early contribution was his uncredited work on the classic British film on class conflict, Room at the Top and his acknowledged work on its sequel, Life at the Top.
Demonstrating his versatility as a novelist, Richler published two works of humorous fiction, The Incomparable Atuk (distributed in the United States as Stick Your Neck Out) in 1963 and Cocksure in 1968. Both works used fish-out-of-water protagonists to illuminate larger observations about contemporary society, particularly the pretensions of the academic and artistic elites. Together with a collection of essays, Hunting Tigers Under Glass, Cocksure received the Governor General's Award in 1968, one of the highest honors bestowed by the Canadian government. Richler continued his string of successes with the 1971 publication of St. Urbain's Horsemen, which again received the Governor General's Award. A novel that included more autobiographical elements than any of his other fictional works, St. Urbain's Horsemen followed the life of an expatriate Canadian living in London as he made sense of his life in middle age.
Canada's Leading Curmudgeon
In 1972, Richler returned to Montreal with his family. He remained a resident of the city—which he claimed was the most culturally sophisticated in Canada—for the rest of his life. Over the next decade, his output as a writer remained as varied as ever. In addition to various projects for television, Richler wrote the screenplay for the movie adaptation of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, which earned him an Academy Award nomination in 1975. That year, Richler also published a novel for children, Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang, about the travails of a young boy who had to repeat everything he said twice for adults to understand him. The novel won the first Ruth Schwartz Children's Book Award in 1976.
In 1980, Richler reemerged as a novelist with the publication of Joshua Then and Now. Another work that incorporated some autobiographical elements, the novel explored the life of a Jewish-Canadian writer coming to terms with the past; the book was made into a film in 1985, with Richler as screenwriter. In 1990, Richler touched off controversy when he published Solomon Gursky Was Here, a novel inspired by the real-life history of Canada's Bronfman family. The country's wealthiest family, the Bronfmans made their fortune from their Seagram's Whiskey business and later built a wide-ranging entertainment empire including large holdings in Universal Studios and Time-Warner; one member of the family, Edgar Bronfman, also served as the head of the Jewish World Congress. Richler's last novel, Barney's Version, appeared in 1998.
Although he enjoyed uninterrupted success after The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Richler became far better known as a humorist and social commentator in the last decade of his career. In addition to his regular essays in Maclean's, Richler published humorous and nostalgic pieces in magazines and journals ranging from Playboy to Atlantic to the New York Times Book Review. A lengthy piece he published in the New Yorker, however, gained Richler the most attention with its examination of the attempts to restrict the use of the English language in public places in Quebec. Richler eventually published an entire book devoted to the subject of Quebec separatism, Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Requiem for a Divided Country, in 1992. Richler's defiance of Quebec separatist demands made him a reviled figure in some quarters, and death threats were made against him after the book was published. Richler fought the separatists with satire and humor. As he told an audience at the University of Waterloo in 1999, "I manned the barricades, so to speak, for the legal right to munch unilingually labeled kosher matzos in Quebec for more than sixty days a year. I also protested the right of a pet shop parrot to be unilingually English. As a consequence, nice people still stop me on the street and thank me for taking a stand. It's embarrassing, for my stand, such as it is, hardly qualifies me as a latter-day Spartacus or Tom Paine or Rosa Luxemburg."
In declining health for some time, perhaps due to his favored pastimes of drinking malt whiskey and smoking, Richler had his kidney removed in a 1998 operation. A recurrence of cancer led to more treatment, but Richler died on July 3, 2001. He was one of the most respected literary figures in Canada by the time of his death.
Colleagues and friends memorialized Richler as a writer who was not overawed by his own success. His readers mourned the loss of one of the first internationally renowned Canadian writers. Indeed, Richler's ability to describe the Canadian perspective was one of his greatest contributions to the country's culture. Speaking at the University of Waterloo in 1999, he said: "One of our most attractive qualities, I think, is that we are a self-deprecating people. Had Babe Ruth, for instance, been born a Canadian rather than an American, he would not be celebrated as the Sultan of Swat, the man who hit 714 home runs. Instead he would be deprecated as that notorious flunk who struck out 1330 times."
Richler, Mordecai, Home Sweet Home: My Canadian Album, Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.
Richler, Mordecai, Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Requiem for a Divided Country, Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.
Maclean's, July 16, 2001.
Toronto Star, July 5, 2001.
"The Apprenticeship of Mordecai Richler," CBC News, http://www.cbc.ca/news/indepth/richler/ (October 24, 2001).
"Canadian Conundrums," University of Waterloo, http://www.arts.uwaterloo.ca/ECON/needhdata/richler.html (October 24, 2001).
"Mordecai Richler," Internet Movie Database, http://us.imdb.com/Name?Richler,+Mordecai (October 24, 2001).
"Mordecai Richler Biocritical Essay," University of Calgary Library, http://www.ucalgary.ca/library/SpecColl/richlerbioc.htm (October 24, 2001).