MONTREAL — In light of the outrage in some circles, Montreal city councillor Marvin Rotrand is losing hope that a street or other prominent public space will be named after writer Mordecai Richler.
Biographer Charles Foran, right, signs a petition to commemorate Mordecai Richler by naming a public place after him. Montreal city councillor Marvin Rotrand, left, is one of the initiators of the project.
“A street is probably not realistic… But I think there has to be some way to recognize him, maybe a prize, if not a place,” Rotrand said at the Montreal launch of Charles Foran’s biography Mordecai: The Life & Times.
Nevertheless, the longtime councillor for Snowdon toted a copy of the petition for a visible commemoration of Richler that he and fellow councillor Michael Applebaum launched this month. They hope to collect at least 2,000 signatures and present the petition to city hall.
“It’s absurd not to have anything marked in this city for him. It’s essential to Montreal’s self-image as a literary and cultural city,” Rotrand said.
One of the signatures he collected at the launch was that of Foran’s.
“I think Mordecai should be made a saint, nothing less will do to my mind,” he joked.
Foran, a resident of Peterborough, Ont., suggested more seriously that the public Mile End Library might be named for Richler. Located on Park Avenue, south of St. Viateur Street, the library is close to the heart of the old Jewish neighbourhood that Richler immortalized. In his time, the building was the Catholic Church of the Ascension, and would befit a literary icon today.
Rotrand is open to an idea from Richler’s son, Noah, who lives in Toronto, that a plaque could be mounted on the old Richler family home at 5257 St. Urbain St.
However, Rotrand fears that a plaque or a statue would be defaced.
Rotrand stressed that the impetus for this project is his and Applebaum’s; it did not originate with the Richler family.
The head of the nationalist St. Jean Baptiste Society quickly denounced the initiative, saying Richler, who died in 2001, was an “anti-Quebec racist.” President Mario Beaulieu believes Richler “hated and denigrated French Quebecers,” causing divisions in society.
Few Quebecers, francophone or anglophone, who were around at the time forget the uproar that ensued after a long article by Richler in the prestigious New Yorker magazine was published in 1991. He ridiculed Quebec nationalism, its history of anti-Semitism and, in particular, its language-of-signs law.
Richler amplified that theme the following year in the book Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Requiem for a Divided Country.
As recalled in detail in Foran’s 738-page book, Richler continued to aggravate Quebecers through his journalism for years after, with his founding of the “Impure Wool Society” and the Prix Parizeau for “ethnic” writers after the 1995 sovereignty referendum.
Foran, a Toronto native, lived in Montreal in the 1990s working as a columnist for the Gazette and reporting on Quebec for Saturday Night magazine. He met Richler at that time and got to know him socially.
Foran had the co-operation of Richler’s widow, Florence and their five children in writing the first major biography on the author. Foran was given access to a voluminous amount of correspondence and other information never made public before, making for a revealing portrait of Richler the man.
Foran noted that the book’s simple title Mordecai is a reflection of how familiar he is to Montrealers and Canadians, and the importance of his work to the country’s literary heritage.
He also observed that Richler was impolite, if not abrasive, with audiences of all kinds ever since he gave his first public talk as an author, in 1960 at the then new Congregation Beth Ora in St. Laurent. But the overheated and personally wounding reaction to his writings on Quebec took a toll on even the tough-minded Richler, Foran said.
He was older, in his 60s, and had just spent long, frustrating years completing the complex novel Solomon Gursky Was Here.
“Being shouted at and stalked by the media, receiving threats, having swastikas daubed on his home in the Townships – it took a lot out of him,” said Foran.
Richler died at age 70 on July 3, 2001.