Mordecai Richler: A local boy at home in the world
Excerpt: Montreal was Richler's place, but there was a larger story going on
ADAM GOPNIK | Oct 27, 2006
Growing up in Montreal -- growing up, especially, as an emancipated but still ethnically unmistakable Jew, and growing up, even more especially, as someone who Wanted To Write -- the novelist Mordecai Richler was the single powerful local presence, the one with whom one had to deal. To read his novels -- Cocksure or The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz -- was to recognize with a thrill, local but not less literary for that, that someone had got it down right, had made of streets and smells and accents something shapely and satirically exact. It was as if, living on the Downs, you read Hardy: it wasn't that you had never known before your experience was worth writing about. It was that you had never known before that you were living in a book. Even if, as I did, you saw the material second-hand and at a distance, and just as it was disappearing, St. Urbain Street already on its way to being Rue St. Urbain, it didn't matter. The Montreal he knew had become the books that he had already written.
Yet there was -- and it was hard not to miss this either -- in the arc of his career, something interestingly double, complicatedly ambiguous. He was there. If Leonard Cohen was the one who got away, Richler was the one who got away and then got back, the one who came home to Montreal.(Where, odd personal history, for many years his large and avid family lived across a courtyard from my own slightly larger and no less avid one.)This made him a central local figure -- for some almost too central a figure, a subject of Montreal lore and wonder to whom legends and(mostly imaginary)scandals stuck.(I recall that apropos of something else, he once quoted to me, with approval, Chekhov's remark that the worst thing in the world is a provincial celebrity.)But it also provided him with that ambiguity, or double message, expressed as clearly in his life as in his work. He ran away from home, and then came home. Choosing to get away and then choosing to go home again, one sensed in his character a motivation more complicated than the obvious one that Montreal was cheap and familiar.
The lure of place and home was powerful for him because he was, in the best 19th-century sense, a local novelist, one who owned a place. Montreal was not his only place -- he wrote well wherever he went, and about whatever he looked at; his first novel was set in Spain -- but it was his chief place, the place where his experience spoke most eagerly to his imagination. And not all or even most of Montreal even. He was a specific, not an encyclopedic, novelist. Montreal around St. Lawrence Boulevard and then over into the conquered territories of Westmount and the other richer Jewish areas across the mountain -- just to write these names down is to recall how wonderfully he imprinted their peculiar presences in his fiction. Local bad makes boy; local boy makes good. It is a familiar story, though never a dull one. But it may make us miss the other, larger and more international story going on in his work.
The importance of locale is one of the many things that separate his work from that of the American Jewish novelists with whom he is often, and wrongly, conflated. When he died, there was a condescending sense, in the American press anyway, that he was a lesser northern light of the American Jewish sensibility -- but in fact his tastes and talents could not have been more unlike those of Roth and Bellow and Malamud and Stern. They were vast cosmic meteors headed for Stockholm -- poets of identity, writers whose dramas were inside the self, not out in the neighbourhood.(Roth is Newark and New York but might be Oak Park and Chicago -- in fact, sometimes is Chicago.)Richler had a great regard for those novelists, but also a slightly amused feeling about the insistent largeness, the American grandiosity that infected them. His own tastes and style had been, I believe -- or at least sensed in the brief time that I "edited" him at a monthly magazine in the mid-eighties, when I was a pup and he was a lion, in no need of editing at all -- most affected by his long years in London in the fifties and sixties. Evelyn Waugh was to him what Melville was to the Americans, his adopted grandfather and model-novelist(one wonders if Roth and Bellow had even read Waugh). Richler was drawn to Waugh, for all Waugh's rabid anti-Semitism and petty snobberies, because he was a comic master who showed a way to be elegant without being "tasteful," a combination Richler found powerful, and, no small thing, because Waugh did his work through dialogue, not monologue.(Richler is a dialogue-and-image, not a monologue-and-idea, writer -- a cinematic rather than a philosophical novelist.)
There was, in his personal presence, as well as in his work, always a certain kind of fifties black and white, drinking club and broadsheet newspaper, BBC -- the old cultured BBC -- English sensibility present; that grim gaiety, born in a cozy but austere cold-water London, that runs through Braine and Amis to the novels of Bradbury and Lodge.(He adapted Braine for the movies, wonderfully well.)In many ways, it was the English satiric novelists of that generation who were his real contemporaries, far more than their cosmically minded Jewish Americans. He shares with Braine and Amis and Sharpe and Bradbury and Lodge and Simon Gray a balloon-puncturing, self-mocking sound -- well-read but frightened of seeming pretentious, allergic to metaphor or self-consciously poetic language, and with them, too, he shared a willingness to render life as it is without trying to make more of it than can be made. It is a form of satiric realism, deliberately circumscribed of obvious ambition -- rooted in a desire not to buy into it all, to make fun of petty grandiosity by refusing to be grandiose oneself.(This Englishness, very different from provincial Anglophilia, was still manifest after he came home: his last published book was on snooker.)
And yet -- and though I am perhaps a Sherbrooke Street chauvinist to say it, still I believe it to be true -- it seems to me that he achieved something larger as a novelist than his English contemporaries mostly did. Theirs was a small subject, the shrinking of England, its power, and its optimism and the range of its writing, and that shrinkage was present in their smallness of tone, and of subject.(Larkin was the one of their number who really counted; when you are writing about the walls closing in on you, it is good to be writing in a small room.)Although the last thing in the world he would have imagined himself is as any kind of Third World writer, still Richler's real affinities are with the other Commonwealth wits -- with Australians of the Clive James generation and particularly with the Caribbean V.S. Naipaul.(A House For Mr. Biswas could have been a Richler novel, in weather 50 or so degrees colder.)Richler had, by luck, a larger subject than his English contemporaries, and, though he would have eschewed anything so pretentious as a Big Theme, he had one: the transformation of a post-colonial culture in a post-modern age, the comedy of emergence from a cultural cringe at the price of vulgarity in cultural assertion. It was not exactly the usual Canadian subject -- survival, the play between the vast nature and minor signs of human persistence -- but in its urban-Jewish specificity it was in some ways more truly universal. Provincial narrowness was what he hated; but provincial narrowness was also the source of his comedy, particularly the comedy of how, by insisting on being neither provincial nor narrow, one was usually both. Where the American Jewish novelists were American first of all -- "I am an American, Chicago born" is how Augie March greets us -- and could lay claim to a whole literature, to Melville and Whitman as much as to their parents' jokes, Richler, like the Australian and Caribbean writers, had first to show that what he was writing about existed at all. He had to show that a language and lore existed before he could attach it to anyone else's tradition.
The satiric, deprecatory tone that he shared with Amis and Braine was therefore allied in his writing to a larger ambition -- he had to write about a city(and country)that didn't quite know it was one, about the manners of a tribe who hadn't been told they had them. The urge to inventory a reality that everyone else thought was merely a dependency, one that didn't really count, is present everywhere in his novels, and it creates an unwilled expansiveness, an appetite for setting down experience, that feels less claustrophobic than the worlds of his English contemporaries. It was the same tone, but they were describing a world shrinking inwards. He was describing one pushing out.
So he had to give form to a world before he could make fun of it, and the two ambitions were so closely allied -- the affectionate urge to inventory a city and tribe already vanishing as he wrote of them; the satiric urge to mock their narrowness and pretensions -- that they became indistinguishable. Reading Duddy or St. Urbain's Horseman one feels, not that "tender affection" which small-town novelists are supposed to have for their subjects, but something better, a knowledge so deep and uncensored that it becomes a kind of love. It was having the two things at once -- a relish for absurdity, a need to get this style of absurdity exactly right -- that made his later fiction, and particularly his masterpiece, Solomon Gursky Was Here, resonate in ways usually unavailable to narrowly satiric fiction. In Solomon Gursky, the renegade Bronfman-Montreal-Jew is also mythologized as a Native American trickster so that the life of the little immigrants clinging to the narrow southern shelf of cities is magically tied to the mysteries of the vast tundra above. This is what makes the book, for this reader, the closest thing we have to a truly great Canadian novel.
Richler, therefore, was no small writer, no secondary figure. But he was not a cloistered artist either. Like Naipaul and James he wrote, of necessity, a lot of journalism. Some of it was written as a way to make money, the most honourable of writerly reasons. But most of it he took dead seriously, because it was a way of articulating clearly themes that his scruples as an artist would only allow him to dramatize, ambiguously, in his novels. His journalism was good-humoured, witty, acerbic, and above all observant. He had no mind for theory, but he had an eye for folly as good as any writer of his time, and he put it down, sometimes pitilessly. He became famous -- notorious, I suppose, but then writers should be notorious -- for his attacks on Quebec nationalism and on the language laws that it brought with it. In retrospect, it is possible that, though he misunderstood his targets, they also misunderstood him. He was not primarily against a Quebec nationalism that was alien and frightening to him, but against a narrow tribalism, which he already knew too well. If, by upbringing and language, he did not know the French Canadian world that surrounded his subjects as well as he might have, he recognized in their nationalism the same stubborn provincialism disguised as "pride" and "identity" that exasperated him in his St. Urbain Street past. It was not that he ever overstated the absurdity of the language laws or the humiliating insecurities they revealed; it was that at times he saw them too narrowly through the lens of an exasperated Anglophone, rather than seeing how much they revealed the same pattern -- of ethnic insecurity, grandiose over-assertion and provincialism -- that he had charted so coolly in his own neighbourhood.
He was above all, and in everything he wrote, including his journalism, a real writer, not a show-off or time-server. He was not an artist who boasted of his sensitivities -- I can no more imagine him teaching "Creative Writing" than fighting bulls -- but a writer, through and through, who hated everything pretentious and academic and fake in the literary world yet who had an unshakable reverence for literature. He believed in books, wanted to write one great one, and did; a provincial boy determined to live by writing, he became a cosmopolitan man who had. He loved his family, lived by his wits, and left behind a book that will last. It's hard to imagine anyone, in any city, doing more.
Excerpted from Mordecai Richler Was Here (October 2006)by permission of Madison Press Books. Copyright 2006.
More Mordecai: Cocksure is being made into a movie musical; a four-hour miniseries based on St. Urbain's Horseman is in production; and the cartoon version of Jacob Two Two is now running in the U.S. on NBC.
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