On July 3, 2001, Mordecai Richler, novelist, essayist, screenwriter and the great provocateur of Anglophone-Jewish Montreal, died, of cancer, at the age of 70. For much of his long writing career, Richler was probably better appreciated outside Canada than at home, but if he was a sometimes scabrous critic of the small-mindedness of the community from which he emerged, he never held himself apart.
Mordecai Richler was born on January 27, 1931, in Montreal, Quebec, and grew up in the Jewish-immigrant Mile End district, on St. Urbain Street, a name that gained worldwide fame thanks to the title of his 1971 novel “St. Urbain’s Horseman.”
On the side of his mother, Lily Rosenberg, who had her marriage with the passive Moses Isaac Richler annulled in 1943, Richler was descended from a Hasidic rabbi. Moses Richler, for his part, was the son of the Galicia-born Shmariyahu Reichler (the “e” was dropped by an immigration clerk), the Orthodox owner of a scrapyard - who stopped speaking with his grandson the day Mordecai ceased laying tefillin and saying morning prayers.
In his 1994 memoir-travelogue, “This Year in Jerusalem,” Richler wrote that when he joined the secular, Zionist youth movement Habonim, it was to spite that same grandfather. But he never seriously considered making aliyah.
After completing a Jewish primary school, Mordecai attended Baron Byng High School, followed by Montreal’s Sir George Williams University (today Concordia University). He left before finishing his second year, drawn to Paris in 1950 by a romantic image of the young artists who congregated there three decades earlier, following World War I.
By 1954, after a brief sojourn back in Canada, Richler had relocated to London. He lived there until 1972, when he and his family returned to Montreal for good. As Richler himself wrote in 1970, “No matter how long I continue to live abroad, I do feel forever rooted in Montreal's St. Urbain Street. That was my time, my place, and I have elected myself to get it right."
St Urbain's Street in modern Montreal. Photo: Pikauba, Wikimedia.
Richler’s need to “get it right” may have been part of the reason he stayed away. He ruffled not a few feathers, both within the defensive Jewish community of Montreal and among pure laine Catholic French-Canadians: The former didn’t appreciate his satirical portrayal of its foibles – social climbing, sexual infidelity, questionable business ethics; and the latter resented being depicted as small-minded, parochial and, especially, anti-Semitic.
Richler’s battles with French-Canadian nationalism and separatism reached a height in the 1990s. Quebec introduced its language laws, which limited the use of English in the public space, and Richler took his gripes to the pages of The New Yorker, among many other periodicals, drawing parallels between the small-mindedness that he saw behind the attempts to preserve French culture by force, and a long, ugly history of anti-Jewish behavior in his native province.
'A little Jew-boy on the make'
As powerful an essayist as he was, Richler built his reputation on fiction like “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz" (1959), the fourth of his 10 novels, a portrait of a young man described by his own uncle as “a little Jew-boy on the make.”
Duddy – played in the film version, directed by Ted Kotcheff from Richler’s screenplay, by Richard Dreyfuss – is unscrupulous and not to be trusted, but he’s not unlovable, and it is with such ambivalence that Richler presents him. The book became a standard in the Canadian university literary canon.
Richler wrote what he knew, and that included Montreal smoked-meat sandwiches, and all his favorite haunts. When, in “Barney’s Version,” his last novel, he described a man who falls in love with another woman at his own wedding, he was portraying something similar to the way he met his second wife, a former model named Florence Wood, whom he met on the eve of his first wedding, when she was married to a screenwriter friend of his.
By the time he wrote “Solomon Gursky Was Here,” in 1989, maybe Richler – and the Bronfman family, whose scion, Samuel Bronfman, is loosely depicted, among one of its many plot-lines – were beyond being scandalized. The book was well received, even earning him a Man Booker Prize nomination.