For a time after his death, Mordecai Richler’s profile seemed to recede. The recent CBC production of his mid-career novel, St. Urbain’s Horseman, did little to affect this development, as it garnered largely negative reviews.
But this trend may change with the publication this spring of Reinhold Kramer’s Mordecai Richler: Leaving St. Urbain, the first major effort to take on the Richler canon and his personal and political impact on Canadian culture since the 2003 publication of Joel Yanofsky’s Mordecai & Me: An Appreciation of a Kind. And there is more to follow, as novelist Charles Foran is at work on what might be called the “authorized” biography.
The book to read alongside these contemporary takes on the writer’s legacy is Richler’s 1955 novel, Son of a Smaller Hero. Published first in England, it did not receive a Canadian reprint for more than a decade, when McClelland & Stewart brought it out with an introduction by the B.C.-based critic and editor George Woodcock, who recognized Richler as one of the key young Canadian writers of his time. Woodcock began his introduction by quoting from the novel’s opening paragraphs, in which Richler provocatively depicts what he calls the Montreal Jewish “ghetto.” The streets he grew up on, Richler tells us, are guarded by “atavism,” the attendance to ancient and outmoded custom.
This was the beginning of the Canadian Jewish love-hate relationship with Richler, but Woodcock correctly saw the novel as prescient of changes in both Canadian society and literature. The young man’s view of a minority upbringing and the vistas provided by assimilation, had, in Woodcock’s view, become the pre-eminent Canadian story.
Son of a Smaller Hero is an edgier book than The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, which appeared in 1959. It covers some of the same material and is, in some ways, a tryout for the later breakthrough novel. It is more obviously an autobiographical fiction. The main character, Noah Adler, has a mother and father who mirror Richler’s own, as well as a maternal grandfather who closely resembles Richler’s grandfather, Yudel Rosenberg, a Polish-born rabbi who came to Montreal. The fictional rabbi is referred to as a Chassid and “poet,” while the actual grandfather is undergoing a rather quirky renaissance in Jewish studies circles, as his writings about the Golem and Kabbalah receive renewed attention.
Son of a Smaller Hero is a young man’s book, and it has the rough edges to prove it. Its portentous epigraph from Dostoyevsky signals the author’s postwar existential ideals, but Noah, the Richler alter ego, is not a true hard-boiled Hemingwayesque quester, no matter how much his maker would wish him to be. Noah abandons his St. Urbain Street family, but spends a good deal of the novel mooning about nearby, mourning his loss of male intimacy, bathroom humour and corner-store camaraderie. He even stands by his mother when she enacts what is obviously a high anxiety attack dramatized as a true collapse. A dalliance with a non-Jewish woman is a disaster from the moment it starts.
Son of a Smaller Hero captures Montreal in the 1950s. It alights again and again on St. Catherine Street, which was clearly a different sort of strip after the war than it is today. Richler would have his reader take it to be the city’s Times Square, where streetcars and neon lend the pavement a cinematic sheen. The early ’50s, too, was the time of an influx of Holocaust survivors to Montreal, and Richler is fierce in his satire of the established community’s discomfort with Park Avenue being overtaken by what his characters refer to as greenhorns. Here we have one of Richler’s strong suits: his willingness to say things out loud that others only whispered to themselves. With Son of a Smaller Hero, Richler became a key Canadian voice, as well as a writer ready to make enemies.
Norman Ravvin is chair of Concordia University’s Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies. His essays on Canadian Jewish literature, including Mordecai Richler, are collected in A House of Words: Jewish Writing, Identity and Memory.