Mordecai Richler has been a working essayist since the 1950s, appearing in virtually every major Canadian, British, and American journal. Over that time, he has written most often about politics and social customs, travel and sports, Jews and Gentiles. He has also regularly reviewed books. Throughout, the touchstone has been his growing up on Montreal’s largely Jewish and working-class St. Urbain Street, which has also been central to his fiction. His success as an essayist has frequently supported that fiction, which remains the work on which he clearly wishes his reputation to rest. But Richler writes essays not merely to make a living: the genre affords him the obvious pleasure of exercising his “sense of the ridiculous.”
Although Richler has appeared in journals like the New York Review of Books and the New Statesman, he has often written for larger audiences (in Playboy and Inside Sports, for example). Throughout, his voice has been that of a sane man in a world only intermittently sane. His ideal reader, although never surprised by human nonsense, is still astonished by its variety. Critics have sometimes complained that Richler’s work lacks enough of a moral center to be satiric; indeed, he is more likely to puncture the ridiculous than offer remedies. In Richler’s work there is no overarching political or religious “Truth,” but simply the individual, doing his best by family and friends.
Richler’s style reflects the broad audience he has written for: it is readable, smart, and occasionally bawdy, a mix of learning and street talk. It is also funny. A review of Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife (1990) quotes an understandably breathless Talese on the life of the penis—“endlessly searching, sensing, expanding, probing, penetrating, throbbing, wilting, and wanting more.” To which Richler adds: “And not to quibble, but merely to introduce a personal note, in my case, it also pisses.” Discussing Canadian
uneasiness that the world is always happening elsewhere, he notes that “the Canadian kid who wanted to be prime minister wasn’t thinking big” (“The October Crisis, or Issue Envy in Canada,” 1984).
Richler’s Jewishness is seldom absent from his work. His essays, however, do not deal in chicken soup yiddishkeit but in the absurdities of the comfortable Jewish middle class making its way in North America. He lets The Encyclopedia of jews in Sports, for example, self-destruct simply by quoting the jacket copy (“A noteworthy contribution to mankind’s quest for knowledge”); he then suggests it may be a precursor to other bar mitzvah presents such as a “compilation of Famous Jewish Homosexuals, Professional and Amateur, Throughout History.” An essay on the Catskills (a resort area with a mostly Jewish clientele) characterizes one hotel as “a Disneyland with knishes,” then deftly recounts how a militant black civil rights singer (inexplicably booked into the “All Star Friday Nite Revue”) is asked to sing “Tzena Tzena,” a popular Hebrew folksong—which he does.
Richler’s writing about Jews, is, in fact, highly sympathetic—indeed, with a hair trigger look-out for anti-Semites. But like Philip Roth, he has not been especially popular with the pillars of the Jewish community: “‘Why,’ I was once asked … ‘does everybody adore Sholem Aleichem, but hate your guts?’” (“Hemingway Set His Own Hours,” 1990). For Richler, of course, Jewish ridiculousness is merely a subgenre of the much larger human variety. It just happens to be the kind he knows best.
Richler has also written much about Canadian politics. As Quebec has become ever more nationalistic, he has attacked its laws which sharply limit the public display of any language but French. For Richler, these laws do not protect French culture (as their defenders claim) but instead are merely spiteful and xenophobic. Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! (1992) begins with a self-appointed language vigilante solemnly taking photographs of a restaurant menu written illegally in English. Elsewhere, Richler comments that “when thousands of flagwaving nationalists march through the street roaring ‘Le Québec aux Québécois!’ they do not have in mind anybody named Ginsburg.
Or MacGregor, come to think of it.” Not surprisingly, Richer has himself become a target of Quebec nationalists, who see his attacks (especially in non-Canadian publications) as the typical arrogance and treachery of English Montreal. It is a very public debate, and quite a nasty one, with Richler characteristically dismissing one editorial denunciation of him as “the sort of letter many write in anger but have the wit not to mail” (Oh Canada! Oh Quebec).
Canadian nationalism fares little better, especially cultural nationalism. As English Canada has itself become increasingly fixed on expressing its own distinctiveness, Richler has criticized that expression as mere anti-Americanism, parochialism, or greed masquerading as love of country: “The nationalists [were]…determined to win through legislation, for the second-rate but homegrown writer, what talent alone had hitherto denied him: an audience, applause” (“Pourquoi Pas—A Letter from Ottawa,” 1984). Not for Richler is it ever enough to be “world famous in Canada” (“The October Crisis, or Issue Envy in Canada”).
Richler, to repeat, wishes his reputation to rest with his fiction, not his essays, most of which were written to deadlines. Nonetheless, as several collections show, his essays lose surprisingly little of their bite, even years after their targets have been forgotten. If those targets sometimes seem sent by Central Casting solely for his amusement and laceration, they are, Richler would no doubt remind us, not his invention but the world’s.
Born 27 January 1931 in Montreal. Studied at Baron Byng High School, Montreal, 1944– 49; Sir George Williams University, Montreal, 1949–51. Lived in Europe, 1951–52 and 1954–72. Worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1952–53. Married Florence Wood, 1959: three sons and two daughters. Writer-in-residence, Sir George Williams University, 1968–69; visiting professor, Carleton University, Ottawa, 1972–74; judge, Book-of-the-Month Club, 1972–88; columnist of “Books and Things,” GQ magazine; regular columnist, Saturday Night magazine.
Awards: several, including the University of Western Ontario President’s Medal, for nonfiction, 1959; Paris Review Award, 1968; Governor-General’s Award, for fiction and nonfiction, 1968, and for fiction, 1971; Berlin Film Festival Golden Bear, for screenplay, 1974; Jewish Chronicle-
Wingate Award, 1981; Commonwealth Writers Prize, 1990.
Essays and Related Prose
Hunting Tigers Under Glass: Essays and Reports, 1968
Shovelling Trouble, 1972
Notes on an Endangered Species and Others, 1974
The Great Comic Book Heroes and Other Essays, edited by Robert Fulford, 1978
Home Sweet Home: My Canadian Album, 1984
Broadsides: Reviews and Opinions, 1990
Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Requiem for a Divided Country, 1992
This Year in Jerusalem, 1994
Other writings: nine novels (The Acrobats, 1954 [published in the U.S. as Wicked We Love]; Son of a Smaller Hero, 1955; A Choice of Enemies, 1957; The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, 1959; The Incomparable Atuk, 1963 [published in the U.S. as Stick Your
Neck Out]; Cocksure, 1968; St. Urbain’s Horseman, 1971; Joshua Then and Now, 1980;
Solomon Gursky Was Here, 1989), short stories, screenplays, and books for children.
Darling, Michael, “Mordecai Richler: An Annotated Bibliography,” in The Annotated Bibliography of Canada’s Major Authors, vol. 1, edited by Robert Lecker and Jack David, Downsview, Ontario: ECW Press, 1979
Brenner, Rachel Feldhay, Assimilation and Assertion: The Response to the Holocaust in Mordecai Richler’s Writing, New York: Lang, 1989
Brenner, Rachel Feldhay, “A.M.Klein and Mordecai Richler: The Poetics of the Search for Providence in the Post-Holocaust World,” Studies in Religion 19, no. 2 (1990):207
Craniford, Ada, Fiction and Fact in Mordecai Richler’s Novels, Lewiston, New York: Mellen Press, 1992
Darling, Michael, editor, Perspectives on Mordecai Richler, Toronto: ECW Press, 1986
Davidson, Arnold E., Mordecai Richler, New York: Ungar, 1983
Greenstein, Michael, “Breaking the Mosaic Code: Jewish Literature vs. the Law,” Mosaic 27, no. 3 (1994):87
Henighan, Stephen, “Myths of Making It: Structure and Vision in Richler and Beauchemin,” Essays on Canadian Writing 36 (Spring 1988):22–37
Iannone, Carol, “The Adventures of Mordecai Richler,”Commentary 89 (June 1990):51– 53
McNaught, Kenneth, “Mordecai Richler Was Here,” Journal of Canadian Studies 26 (Winter 1991–92):141–43
McSweeney, Kerry, Mordecai Richler and His Works, Toronto: ECW Press, 1984
Ramraj, Victor J., Mordecai Richler, Boston: Twayne, 1983
Sheps, G.David, editor, Mordecai Richler, Toronto and New York: McGraw Hill Ryerson, 1971
Woodcock, George, Mordecai Richler, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1970
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