It has been left to Charles Foran, a Canadian novelist, journalist and book reviewer of Irish and French descent, to write what is surely the definitive biography of Canada’s most accomplished Jewish literary figure, Mordecai Richler, who died at 70 in 2001.
Foran’s Mordecai: The Life & Times (Alfred A. Knopf Canada) takes a reader on a never less than interesting journey from his birth to his death in Montreal, with prolonged stops in Europe, where Richler honed his craft as a writer. The book benefits from its access to family letters, private archives and posthumous interviews with his wife and friends.
Yet Mordecai is not an authorized work. Published on the heels of Reinhold Kramer’s Mordecai Richler: Leaving St. Urbain, Michael Posner’s The Last Honest Man, Joel Yanofsky’s Mordecai & Me and Ada Craniford’s Mordecai Richler: A Life in Ten Novels, Foran’s work is a full-blooded, warts-and-all account of an irreverent man who challenged hypocrisy and valued the truth and was sometimes accused of being a self-hating Jew. It is also a portrait of a son who was estranged from his mother, a husband who dearly loved his second wife and a father who was devoted to his children.
A secular Jew who traded on his roots, he was the scion of Orthodox Jews from Poland. Richler was raised in Montreal’s Mile End district, a city-within-a-city whose poor residents were mostly immigrants. The house on Esplanade in which he, his older brother and parents lived was near local landmarks that found their way into Richler’s satirical and evocative novels: Paperman’s Funeral Home, Baron Byng High School, Schwartz’s Hebrew Deli, the Colonial Baths and the Balfour building, the hub of the garment industry.
Lily, his intense and difficult mother, had contempt for his father, Moses, a gentle and passive person. Lily, whose father, Yudel Rosenberg, was a respected rabbi, divorced Moses as she was having an affair with her boarder, a German-Jewish refugee named Julius Frankel. Lily’s infidelity had a detrimental effect on Richler’s relations with her, as Foran documents at some length. The searingly frank letter Richler wrote Lily in 1976, contained in a chapter titled “Dear Maw,” shattered their relations for good.
Richler was a bold and outspoken boy, and at the Talmud Torah where he studied, his pisk – his mouth – earned him a measure of admiration from fellow students. Although smart, he was not a stellar student. He managed a 78 per cent in English literature, but his overall average on graduation from Baron Byng was 64.6. Falling just short of being admitted to McGill University, he enrolled at Sir George Williams University, where, as an aspiring journalist, he wrote for the campus paper, the Georgian.
In his final year at Sir George, the only “A” he got was in an English course. By then, he was freelancing for the Herald, a racy tabloid that bought his unsigned stories on social and sporting events in and around Sir George at five cents a word.
Foran describes the youthful Richler as a “poser” whose manner resembled that of a pool-hall hustler rather than an up-and-coming man of letters. The only person he could confide in was Evelyn Sacks, his former teacher who may have been his first lover.
At her suggestion, Richler visited her cousin in New York City, Elie Abel, a Montrealer who wrote for the New York Times. Abel advised him to stay in school if he wanted to be a reporter and start writing if he wished to be a novelist. So at the ripe old age of 19, Richler, unhappy at home, set sail for Europe, having decided that Montreal was a boring provincial backwater. Moses, who had bought him a typewriter two years before, voiced support for his decision. Lily cashed in his $800 insurance policy for him.
Richler landed in Paris, where Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Morley Callaghan had preceded him in the 1920s. “Did I tell you about this Richler?” Richler’s older friend and fellow Montrealer, Bill Weintraub, wrote in a letter to aspiring novelist Brian Moore. “He’s from Montreal, has a peculiar first name and wants to be a writer. Very young and rather cheeky.”
Subsisting in Paris on care packages from home, Richler decamped to the unspoiled Spanish island of Ibiza, which was considerably cheaper in terms of its standard of living. From Ibiza, Richler informed Moses that he could no longer accept “the ritualistic dogma” of Orthodox Judaism.
In his one-dollar-a-day room, he mapped out a novel, The Rotten People, which, Foran observes, was “a screed, cross-eyed with self-absorption and judgmental to the point of being hateful.” Mavis Gallant, then an acquaintance, found it a juvenile and pointless exercise in revenge. It remained unpublished.
Returning to Paris, Richler enjoyed its pleasures through alcohol, hash, carousing and jazz and through friendships with Terry Southern and James Baldwin. Still broke, he resided in a grimy hotel that had once been a brothel. Although one of his short stories had already been published, others were summarily rejected by the likes of Harper’s and Atlantic. But he struck paydirt when a British agent accepted The Acrobats, his first published novel.
Back to Montreal for a brief period before settling in Britain for an extended stay, he worked at odd jobs and cranked out radio news copy for the CBC. Richler, then known as Mort, married Cathy Boudreau, a Franco Canadian, in 1954. His parents were not amused.
Richler’s next novel, Son of a Smaller Hero, was generally panned, with the Globe and Mail saying it would hardly “further the interests of the Jewish race.” The newspaper, however, praised his fourth novel, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, which came out two years after A Choice of Enemies. Calling it Richler’s breakthrough novel, the Toronto daily noted that he had now proved himself “a mature and brilliant writer” after three false starts. Richler’s subsequent novels, from The Incomparable Atuk and Cocksure to St. Urbain’s Horseman and Joshua Then and Now, generally impressed readers and critics alike. But in Foran’s considered view, Solomon Gursky Was Here, which was published eight years before his final novel, Barney’s Version, was his magnum opus, one he had been born to write after decades of “lived experience, literary training and deepening wisdom about human affairs.”
As Foran tells it, Richler was a workaholic, hewing to a seven-day work week and always “novelizing.” His second wife, Florence Wood Mann – a beauty with brains and a warm personality whom he married in a church because no rabbi in Montreal would bless an intermarriage – accepted his work ethic because she believed in his gift and loved him.
Apart from novels, as Foran notes, Richler produced one short-story collection (The Street), children’s fiction in the form of the Jacob Two-Two triology, travelogues (including This Year in Jerusalem), film scripts, essays (Shovelling Trouble and Belling the Cat, among other works), magazine and newspaper journalism and anthologies. He had no trouble providing for his growing family, often demanding stratospheric fees.
Foran burrows deeply into his personality, taking note of his silences, his discomfort with strangers (as I personally discovered in two separate interviews with Richler in the 1980s), his enjoyment of material pleasures – whisky and cigars in particular – and the company of old and new friends. Foran, too, delves into Richler’s acrimonious battle with the Quebec separatist movement and cursorily looks at his position on Israel. Foran’s reflections of Richler’s last days before he tragically succumbed to an assortment of ailments is poignant. Mordecai is well worth reading.