In the summer of 1954, Mordecai Richler, age 23, was living in London, England, having just published his debut novel, The Acrobats. In August, he married his first wife, Cathy Boudreau, a gentile, dashing his family’s hopes of his finding a “proper” Jewish lifemate. In the years that followed, critics expressed disgust over Richler’s depiction of Jews in his fiction, calling it “self-hate” literature. Personally and professionally, he struggled to define the terms of his own Jewishness.
Mordecai and Cathy’s civil marriage was something that devastated the family back home, for it went against the tribe.
When news of the proposed nuptial with a shiksa (gentile) reached Montreal, Mordecai’s older brother Avrum sent off a long letter in an attempt to dissuade him. The letter is remarkable, first, because it reflects an attitude to assimilation and intermarriage that for Jews in North America today is no longer so prevalent. And second, it is written, mostly, with their mother Lily in mind. “The shock of the news is still around,” wrote Avrum, “and it was a shock . . . because of what it’s done to Mom . . . She is quite ill over the whole business. It seems that you had given her your word that you wouldn’t marry a gentile, much less an older woman.”
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What lies behind this letter, to which there is more, is anybody’s guess. Did Lily put Avrum up to it? Did Avrum use Lily’s name, knowing Mordecai was close to her? Avrum concluded his letter with a plea for tribal loyalty: “Think it over many times . . . think of your ancestors, & of your descendants . . . It can’t do you or your name, or your career, any earthly good.”
And his father’s response? Moe, who so rarely chided Mordecai, who collected clippings and magazines and sent them to his son, who kept him informed about the family—Clifford got his diploma, Cousin Mike sneezed then fainted. He had already in the past expressed his concerns about Mordecai’s possible “religious deviations,” to which Mordecai had replied that the suspicions were “absolutely silly!” The old man was furious, Avrum now wrote to his brother, punctuating with two exclamation marks. And the old man was. He wrote, on July 24, 1954:
. . . Now you have struck the blow, and where it hurts, not the pocket book this time, but personally. You take it for granted that I would be agreeable, and bless this unholy marriage, and seal it with a gift cheque, but I am sorry that I have to disappoint you. You also know that up till now I always did your bidding without hesitation, with money, with parcels, and also I had to defend your character . . . I was beginning to be proud of you when your first book came out, and was able to have more confidence in you, that some day soon, perhaps you’ll come out with a good book, and being successful, you would find yourself a proper lifemate . . . ”
For Moe, success meant financial, and a good book was one that made money. He had the impression that Cathy was a European, used to chocolates and nylons from expatriate North Americans, who had now latched on to Mordecai as a rich Canadian who could give her a better life.
He goes on, in perhaps the longest letter he wrote to his son. He could be a soft touch with money, but now “I have to be stern and very hard when it comes to honour, and respect. You will dishonour me when you go through with your plans, and I see no alternative but to do what I see fit. You will have to forget my address, and not try to see me, because seeing you after then will only reopen the wounds of sorrow . . . ”
The letter seems to have caught Richler by surprise. He found it somewhat funny, he wrote to his old friend William Weintraub, but also very human. The fact that he confided in his friend suggests that nevertheless he was disturbed by it. What response he had expected from his family is not clear. But in his reply to his father he takes a high tone and states his beliefs as he has developed them:
“The Jewish tradition is not dependent on what kind of meat you eat or what God the woman you love was brought up to believe in . . . I am—like it or not—more within the truly Jewish tradition than any of the Richlers. I know more about it, am better educated to it, and am more sensitive to its implications. Yr father worshiped God the way other ignorant men long before him worshiped stones.” He goes on to call his grandfather, Shmariyahu Richler, a petty thief. “You are, fundamentally,” he says to Moe, “a much more decent person.” And, “my attachment to you is stronger, and I hope you’ll reconsider yr harshness.”
He also can’t resist adding that he will bring honour to the family and lists his accomplishments so far. However far he moves away from them in his attitudes, he seems to be saying, he is still a part of them. His glory is theirs. And we cannot help thinking, he is still young.
It is unclear how and to what degree Moe carried out his threat, what he could actually do. There appear to be no letters from him until several years later. Then, Cathy is referred to as “your wife,” never by name. Mordecai Richler, in his moving tribute to his father upon his death, chose to remain silent about his rejection of Cathy. Lily, on the other hand, as early as 1955 and despite what Avrum wrote to Mordecai about her reaction to news of the marriage, could write (in one of the very few letters available from that time): “Give my love to Cathy. Loads and loads of love. Mother.” She was not one to let go, but then she was the insecure one.
He was doing anything he could to raise money—writing the odd magazine article, selling a story to the CBC or to some periodical, applying to the Canada Council. He even thought of applying to the Canadian Jewish Congress for a $1,000 grant, in return for acknowledging it in all editions of his next book. He gave that up. It was not a good idea, anyway, considering the offence that book would cause. Foreign rights to The Acrobats were gradually selling, though advances were meagre and royalties were not due for months, if at all.
His father, before the breakup with his son, sent food parcels, including precious cigarettes. Weintraub faithfully sent magazines from Canada. Richler read American novels for his publisher, for modest pay. He attempted writing (or having Cathy write) pornography, for quick money. With Brian Moore he discussed collaborating on a crime thriller; that didn’t pan out either.
In 1954, the year of the British publication of The Acrobats, Richler completed a draft of his second novel, called “Losers” and eventually to be published as Son of a Smaller Hero. In a letter to Weintraub, describing the novel, Richler said it would trace the development of Jewish life in the Montreal ghetto. He expected to be criticized. “The only people who would consider this book anti-Semitic . . . are those Jews who are very frightened. I don’t consider myself a Jewish or a Canadian writer. I am a writer. I’m not interested in the fact that Jews can’t get into certain hotels or golf courses. I’m interested in Jews as individual persons . . . ” And, perhaps alarmingly for some, “Briefly, you can put it this way: I think those who were murdered at Dachau should not be mourned as Jews but as men.”
Evidently he’s still struggling with issues of identity and assimilation, as he had done in Ibiza when preparing The Rotten People, which also is a very personal book. In any case, the conclusions of this 23-year-old about the Jews can hardly be taken as written in stone or without inner contradictions. This much was clear: he didn’t want to be corralled into a literary ghetto; he didn’t want to be a spokesman for a people or a country. He simply wanted to write from what he knew. It was not, it is never, an easy place to be.
The hero, Noah, of Son of a Smaller Hero, shares his last name, Adler, with Kerman of The Rotten People. Both protagonists borrow liberally from the life of their author. Noah Adler’s dictatorial grandfather, his uncles, his unsuccessful father, and strong-willed mother, all are based on Richler’s own extended family. To Noah, this Orthodox set-up is a cage, with all its psychic comforts and safety, to which he can no longer belong. He leaves eventually for Europe, but not before discovering that he is still a part of them: “I am going and I am not going,” he tells his zeyda. “I can no more leave you, my mother, or my father’s memory than I can renounce myself. But I can refuse to take part in this.” In demonstrating an understanding of their hurts, the younger Richler is in fact much kinder to Noah’s zeyda and mother than he is to their real-life counterparts in the essays he wrote much later in which he described his boyhood, and in his later novels. Although it is considered an early and therefore not quite mature work, in it the streets of the ghetto come alive, its characters are observed intimately, their voices ring true. It is obvious that here Richler has found his true material, a fictional space he can develop and call his own. One can only imagine his excitement.
His fears about its reception seem surprising today, but he was right, it did cause offence. Maclean’s awarded the novel first prize in a competition, but its editors refused to serialize it—as the award stipulated—calling the book anti-Semitic. Malcolm Cowley, reader for Viking in England, rejected the novel, saying, “it might well become an anti-Semitic document.” Walter Allen for Deutsch, however, said that in it “the Canadian novel emerges for the first time.” Obviously, no one could mistake the Main for anywhere else, and Montreal’s Jews were living a modern Canadian reality. The book was published by Deutsch in England and distributed in Canada; it had trouble finding a publisher in the United States.
William Weintraub, who had seen the galleys, wrote a seven-page letter to Richler expressing disappointment and pointing out numerous errors, instances of bad taste, clichés, and caricatures of Jews. Weintraub warned his friend that he would be accused of anti-Semitism. “But if he [the protagonist, Noah] dislikes Jews I, personally, have trouble feeling sympathy for him. Especially in view of the fact that the Jews he dislikes seem to me to be set up as caricatures and even burlesques . . . The rabbi (p. 171) who dips ‘his beak’ into his black prayer book belongs in an anti-Semitic pamphlet. It’s hackneyed, in awful taste and very ugly. And there are other offensive burlesques.” A damning critique, and Weintraub agonized about having written it, questioning his own motives. But his perceptions echoed those of others.
The novel was published in 1957. The Jewish press condemned it. The Congress Bulletin of the Canadian Jewish Congress placed it in the “genre of self-hate,” adding that it was “a caricature of Jewish life one might expect in Der Sturmer [a Nazi newspaper].” A Jewish reviewer in the Montreal Star wrote that the book “should have been clothed in shiny paper and sold under the counter at the corner newsstand.”
All these reactions, including Weintraub’s, seem gross overstatements by today’s standards, though the offence taken by the Richler family is understandable. Richler had done what young writers often do, and not many readers appreciate that a character in a novel, even when directly inspired by a real person, has been shaped by narrative and form, is no longer real. In the larger world, however, Richler had scored. The dreaded second book was out of the way, and critics were awaiting the big success that was surely to come. No one had created Montreal, or any Canadian city, with this same immediacy.
From Extraordinary Canadians: Mordecai Richler by M.G. Vassanji. Copyright © M.G. Vassanji, 2009. Reprinted with permission of Penguin Group (Canada).