M.G. Vassanji, one of Canada’s pre-eminent novelists, experienced his first moment of kinship with the late, great Mordecai Richler at a writer’s festival in Sydney, Australia, more than two decades ago. At that time, Vassanji—born in Kenya, raised in Tanzania, and settled in Canada in 1978—had just published his first novel, The Gunny Sack. A nuclear physicist by training, Vassanji was entirely new to the literary “scene,” and he knew none of its luminaries, or its etiquette. But he knew about Richler. “Fortified by Scotch, his elegant wife, Florence, by his side,” Vassanji writes, Richler was in his glory, already a star.
For Vassanji, the prospect of reading aloud in a cramped, narrow bookstore that day felt nightmarish, a sentiment that Richler seemed to easily recognize.“I recall Richler’s sympathy and encouragement during that occasion,” he writes in his new biography, Mordecai Richler, “and his telling me I should do more justice to my work in my readings, I had spent time on it, it was mine.” He was touched that Richler—Canada’s illustrious enfant terrible—addressed him as a peer, as “just another Canadian writer.”
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Back in Toronto, Richler and Vassanji talked about arranging a chat to better know each other, but neither man was really the chatty type, and those conversations never happened. Richler died of cancer, at 70, in 2001. Many years later, as Vassanji delved into Richler’s life and work, he realized they would have had much to talk about. “We both grew up in an urban colonial setting,” Vassanji writes, “in closed, religiously observant, jealous communities. One in Montreal, the other in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Who could have guessed such a commonality in two such diverse lives?”
In his journalism, Richler notoriously railed against nationalistic jingoism—his disgust for flag-waving was so bitter that it formed the basis for what Vassanji calls the “media caricature” of the man: Richler as curmudgeonly polemicist, pushing buttons for the thrill of it. But in his fiction, Vassanji says, complex questions of identity and belonging—to Canada, and to the tightly knit Jewish community within it—obsessed him. “Through most of his adult life, it was these two inheritances—on the one hand, a small nation with only a thin veneer of history, as he saw it, culturally and politically inconsequential on the world stage, and on the other, an ancient tradition with a baggage of too much history and tradition—that he battled to come to terms with.”
Richler’s story begins and remains deeply rooted in the Montreal of his youth, St. Urbain Street in particular, the heart of the Jewish working-class ghetto. Montreal, Canada’s most cosmopolitan city at mid-century, was a city of solitudes, where French-Canadians, WASPs and Jews lived side by side in isolation and mutual contempt, “a wonderful breeding ground for stories,” says Vassanji.
Richler famously rejected the confines of traditional Jewish life and the “boring” and “apathetic” nature of Canadian culture. Still, though he spent decades living abroad, mostly in London, he kept his focus firmly trained on home—and kept his Montreal alive in the pages of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, St. Urbain’s Horseman and others, until he returned to Canada permanently in 1972.
It was not until after a visit to Israel in his sixties that Richler publicly reconsidered his feelings about his native land, offering up this heartfelt, if backhanded, tribute: “After five weeks in a land choked by the clinging vines of its past, a victim of its contrary mythologies, I consider the watery soup of my Canadian provenance a blessing.” If he was not always consistent, Vassanji writes, he was always honest—“a man who escaped, discovered himself, and returned, but stayed at an angle with his world, always the exile, the writer.”