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Mordecai Richler Biography

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Nationality: Canadian. Born: Montreal, 1931. Education: Attended Sir George Williams University, 1949-51. Career: Freelance writer in Paris, France, 1952-53, London, England, 1954-72, and Montreal, 1972—; writer-in-residence, Sir George Williams University, 1968-69; visiting professor of English, Carleton University, 1972-74; member of editorial board, Book-of-the-Month Club, 1972—. Awards: President's medal for nonfiction (University of Western Ontario), 1959; Paris Review humor prize, 1967; Governor-General's literary award (Canada Council), 1968, 1971; London Jewish Chronicle literature award, 1972; Berlin Film Festival Golden Bear, 1974; Screenwriters Guild of America award, 1974; ACTRA Award for best television writer—drama (Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television), 1975; Book of the Year for Children award (Canadian Library Association), 1976; Ruth Schwartz Children's Book award, (Ontario Arts Council), 1976; London Jewish Chronicle H. H. Wingate award for fiction, 1981; Commonwealth Writers prize (Book Trust), 1990; Giller award, 1997; Stephen Leacock Award for Humor, 1998. Agent: Lynn Nesbit, International Creative Management, 40 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10019, U.S.A.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

The Acrobats. New York, Putnam, 1954; published as Wicked We Love. New York, Popular Library, 1955.

Son of a Smaller Hero, Toronto, Collins, 1955.

A Choice of Enemies. Toronto, Collins, 1957.

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Boston, Little, Brown, 1959.

The Incompatible Atuk. Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1963; published as Stick Your Neck Out. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1963.

Cocksure. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1968.

St. Urbain's Horseman. New York, Knopf, 1971.

Joshua Then and Now. New York, Knopf, 1980.

Solomon Gursky Was Here. New York, Viking, 1989.

Barney's Version. New York, Knopf, 1997.

Fiction (for children)

Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang, illustrated by Fritz Wegner. New York, Knopf, 1975.

Jacob Two-Two and the Dinosaur, illustrated by Norman Eyolfson. New York, Knopf, 1987.

Jacob Two-Two's First Spy Case, illustrated by Michael Chesworth. New York, Farrar, Straus, 1997.

Short Stories

The Street: Stories. Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1969.

Plays

Duddy. Edmonton, Alberta, Citadel Theatre, 1984.

Radio Plays:

The Acrobats (based on his novel of the same title), Toronto, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), 1956; Benny, the War in Europe, and Myerson's Daughter Bella, Toronto, CBC, 1958; The Spare Room, Toronto, CBC, 1961; Q for Quest (excerpts from his fiction), Toronto, CBC, 1963; It's Harder to Be Anybody, Toronto, CBC, 1965; Such Was St. Urbain Street, Toronto, CBC, 1966; The Wordsmith (based on a short story), Toronto, CBC, 1979

Screenplays:

No Love for Johnnie (with Nicholas Phipps), Embassy, 1962; Tiara Tahiti (with Geoffrey Cotterell and Ivan Foxwell), Rank, 1962; The Wild and the Willing (with Nicholas Phipps), Rank, 1962, released in the United States as Young and Willing, Universal, 1965; Life at the Top, Royal International, 1965; The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Paramount, 1974; Fun with Dick and Jane (with David Giler and Jerry Belson), Bart/Palevsky, 1977; Joshua Then and Now (adapted from his novel of the same title), Twentieth Century-Fox, 1985.

Television Plays:

Friend of the People, Toronto, CBC, 1957; Paid in Full, London, ATV, 1958; The Trouble with Benny (based on a short story), London, ABC, 1959; The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (based on his novel of the same title), Toronto, CBC, 1960; The Fall of Mendel Krick, London, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), 1963.

Other

Hunting Tigers under Glass: Essays and Reports. Toronto, McClelland& Stewart, 1969.

Shoveling Trouble (essays). Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1973.

Notes on an Endangered Species and Others (essays). New York, Knopf, 1974.

Creativity and the University (with Andre Fortier and Rollo May).Toronto, York University, 1975.

The Suit (animated filmstrip). National Film Board of Canada, 1976.

Images of Spain (text), photographs by Peter Christopher. New York, Norton, 1977.

The Great Comic Book Heroes and Other Essays. Toronto, McClelland& Stewart, 1978.

Home Sweet Home: My Canadian Album (essays). New York, Knopf, 1984, published as Home Sweet Home, New York, Penguin, 1985.

Broadsides: Reviews and Opinions. New York, Viking, 1990.

Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Requiem for a Divided Country. New York, Knopf, 1992.

The Language of Signs. New York, McKay, 1992.

This Year in Jerusalem. New York, Knopf, 1994.

Belling the Cat: Essays, Reports, and Opinions. Toronto, KnopfCanada, 1998.

Editor, Canadian Writing Today. Magnolia, Manitoba, Peter Smith, 1970.

Editor, The Best of Modern Humor. New York, Knopf, 1984.

Editor, Writers on World War II: An Anthology. New York, Knopf, 1991.

Contributor, A Climate Changed, edited by B. W. Powe. New York, Mosaic Press, 1984.

Introduction, The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain. New York, Oxford University Press, 1996.

*

Manuscript Collections:

University of Calgary Library, Calgary, Alberta.

Critical Studies:

Literary History of Canada: Canadian Literature in English, edited by Carl F. Klinck, et al. University of Toronto Press, 1965; Hunting Tigers Under Glass: Essays and Reports by Mordecai Richler, Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1969; Mordecai Richler by George Woodcock, Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1970; Mordecai Richler, edited by G. David Sheps, New York, McGraw Hill/Ryerson, 1971; Articulating West by W. H. New, New Press, 1972; The Haunted Wilderness: The Gothic and Grotesque in Canadian Fiction by Margot Northey, University of Toronto Press, 1976; Mordecai Richler by Victor J. Ramraj, Boston, Twayne, 1983; Mordecai Richler by Arnold E. Davidson, New York, F. Ungar, 1983; Perspectives on Mordecai Richler, edited by Michael Darling, Toronto, ECW Press, 1986; Broadsides: Reviews and Opinions by Mordecai Richler, New York, Viking, 1990; Belling the Cat: Essays, Reports, and Opinions by Mordecai Richler, Toronto, Knopf Canada, 1998.

* * *

In Canada Mordecai Richler is as well known for his acerbic ornery persona and his biting columns on the state of Quebec politics as he is for his numerous popular and critically acclaimed novels. Born to a second-generation Jewish family in Montreal, and raised in the working-class Jewish neighborhood associated with St. Urbain Street, Richler briefly attended Sir George Williams College before relocating to Paris, then England to work as a freelance journalist and scriptwriter. While he did not return to Montreal until 1972, the city and its people nevertheless retained pride of place in his imagination and writing, particularly those who populated his former neighborhood. Many of his novels trace the development of St. Urbain's inhabitants and former inhabitants as they negotiate the later half of the twentieth century facing rising and falling fortunes, shifting politics, the realities of aging, disillusionment, and betrayal. At the center of Richler's writing is usually a protagonist whose lapses in morals or conduct are nevertheless matched by the character's own sense of what is right, and his passionate howls of injustice at the world, even in the face of his own failings. Fiercely moral in his criticisms of the modern world and never afraid to ridicule that which he disdains or disapproves of, Richler's novels are often darkly humorous revelings in, and satirizations of, the less flattering side of human nature.

Richler's first novel, The Acrobats, was published to mixed reviews, though most acknowledged its power and intensity. At its center is André Bennett, a Montreal gentile who has fled to Spain to escape the guilt associated with his Jewish girlfriend's accidental death following an abortion gone awry. Carnivalesque in both style and setting, it foregrounds Richler's vicious satire, his flawed self-absorbed characters and their tendency to flee relationships and countries, and his preoccupation with relations between Jews and gentiles. Occurring during the festival of Saint Joseph, earthly father of Christ, the novel also foregrounds Richler's invocation of biblical sub-texts throughout his fiction. His second novel, Son of a Smaller Hero, continues these themes with its depiction of Noah Adler's merciless desire to escape the Montreal ghetto of his youth and what he perceives as its sanctimonious hypocrisy and claustrophobic insularity. In a critical dissection of the community he knows so well, Richler exposes the kinds of lies families and communities willfully propagate as a means of concealing their imperfections, insecurities, and petty jealousies. This dissection resulted in his being castigated by some as anti-Semitic, but time has proven that Richler's intensely moral criticism is not limited to a single caste or creed. In his next novel, A Choice of Enemies, Richler demonstrated this in his construction of a protagonist, Norman Price, whose latent anti-Semitism is indicative of his inability to discriminate between individuals as such, rather than as representatives of ideas or ideals. In a plot that can only be described as possessing the strained coincidence of Greek tragedies, Price discovers that the man whom he has befriended has not only cuckolded him but also killed his brother in a bar brawl. However, these characters are all revealed to be acting out their pre-ordained fates as determined by their character, just as unable to alter or retrieve past possibilities as they are incapable of altering their essential being. In Richler, God alone is not to blame for this proscriptive fate; modern society is also implicated as morally tenuous and fundamentally unreliable. Brutally unflinching in his depiction of his characters' defects, Richler also characteristically does not ignore their darkly comic possibilities.

Despite the recognition accorded his first three novels, it was not until the 1959 publication of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz that Richler cemented his literary reputation. Both the plot and the irrepressible, morally bankrupt title character are maniacal forces with which to be reckoned. A classic anti-hero, Kravitz sacrifices his childhood to ambition and his personal relationships to commercial greed and exploitation. In Kravitz, Richler created one of his most believable and sustaining characters, a man obsessed with his grand-father's cliché, "a man without land is nothing." The frenetic energy of the novel is sustained by astute characterization, exceptionally well-written dialogue, outrageous yet believable plot turns, and most of all a compelling depiction of place and community in its Montreal setting. It is not, however, enough to say that Montreal is the setting of this novel; as in much of Richler's work the city is a character in its own right.

Richler's next two novels, The Incomparable Atuk and Cock-sure, shared the fast-paced outrageous energy and fantastical plot twists of Duddy Kravitz while also critiquing the mores of the modern world. Atuk features an Inuit poet whose critical success and popular reception results in his relocation to Toronto, where he exploits his fame and the urban fascination with his ethnic otherness for personal gain. Atuk soon abandons literature, importing relatives from Baffin Bay and setting up a sweatshop for the production of "authentic" Inuit sculpture. Rampant capitalism, racism, and greed abound in the world Atuk enters and quickly adopts. Deliciously satirical, The Incomparable Atuk caricatures the romantic pretensions of 1960s Canadian nationalism and its attempts to articulate an independent national identity. Still, critics did not warm to Atuk, reserving their praise for Cocksure, which received Canada's coveted Governor General's award. Set in urban London, England, the novel chronicles the take over of an established publishing firm by a reclusive Howard Hughes-like character via his henchmen. Canadian Mortimer Griffin must cope with the imposition of eccentric policies while surrounded by fantastical plots and people, all of which violate his own understanding of the world. While Griffin provides the moral core of the novel, he is not without flaws, and in his responses to events and individuals reveals the superficiality and hypocrisy of the 1960s sexual liberalism and racial integration that Richler pillories throughout the novel.

Both Atuk and Cocksure were written during creative breaks from Richler's composition of an ambitious, exceptionally complex work, St. Urbain's Horseman, nominated for the Booker prize and recipient of the Governor General's award. Richler not only returns to the Montreal of his childhood in this novel, he revisits aspects of his own life in imagining the internal life of an introspective protagonist, even going so far as to recycle portions of his published reminiscences. However, St. Urbain's Horseman is very much the story of Jake Hersh and the past he retreats to as a means of escaping his difficult present, which includes criminal charges of sexual misconduct. Central to Hersh's recollections is his legendary cousin, Joey, whose adventures in the Spanish Civil War and as a Nazi hunter transform him in Hersh's imagination into a personal Horseman who will avenge him. While ostensibly it is Hersh who is on trial, via his imagination he tries and punishes mankind at large for its crimes, ranging from Nazi activities to the trivialization of history. Ultimately he must recognize his image of the elusive Joey and become his own Horseman, yet Richler is clear to demonstrate that vengeance is not an uncomplicated moral act, nor are those who enact it necessarily heroic figures. The similarities between Hersh and the structure and protagonist of Richler's next novel, Joshua Then and Now, have not gone unnoted. Structurally dependent upon flashbacks, a technique crucial to Richler's fiction as of St. Urbain's Horsemen, the book addresses the toll of time, mortality, and the irretrievability of a past that continues to signify on the present. The Joshua in the title is a version of Jake Hersh ten years later, having returned to Montreal from living abroad. Equally preoccupied with history, its injustices, and the injustices done to historical fact by those seeking to alternately sanitize, mythologize, and popularize versions of it, Joshua seeks meaning in the chaos of history just as he seeks coherence in the tragicomic chaos of his daily life.

After almost a decade without publishing a novel, Richler returned to the forefront with the 1989 publication of surely his most outrageous work to date, Solomon Gursky Was Here. A subversive, irreverent send-up of Canadian history and the mythologies communities create about selves—Jewish or goyim—the titular character epitomizes Richler's playful attitude towards the likeable scoundrels and scalawags who populate his fiction. Solomon Gursky is a character by now familiar in Richler's fiction, the elusive figure who may or may not be dead, but whose presence continues to haunt and taunt those left behind. The descendent of another evasive figure, Ephraim Gursky, the lone survivor of the famed nineteenth-century shipwreck of the Erebus, both are equally mythologized by outsiders and themselves, and blur the line between fact and fiction. Richler further complicates this blurring, taking giddy liberties with the history and personalities of an actual Montreal Jewish family whose transformation from ruthless bootleggers to respectable liquor barons parallels that of the Gursky family. Given these entanglements, it is no coincidence that the image of the raven is central to this novel, as both a trickster figure in Canadian First Nations cultures, and a bird that feeds on the flesh of others. At the center of the novel is Moses Berger, who is alone in his understanding of the Gursky history, but unbelieved with his tales of impossible histories and filial and paternal betrayal and cannibalism. Nominated for the Booker prize, Solomon Gursky attests to Richler's ability to make improbable plots believable and irascible characters redeemable, all the while pondering the fate of a "lost generation" in a fragmentary immoral world.

It is in Barney's Version, though, that the "lost generation" with which so much of Richler's writing has been concerned assumes its final poignancy. Barney Panofsky, trivialized and misrepresented in the recently published memoirs of a former friend, is motivated to write his own version of his life in a final attempt to set the record straight. A thoroughly unreliable narrator from the beginning, Panofsky's veracity is finally challenged by his mental deterioration due to Alzheimer's. Panofsky progresses from having "lost" his purpose as a youth to having finally lost his grasp on his own life and history (if he indeed ever had it) as an adult. The culmination of over forty years of novel writing, Barney's Version revisits all of Richler's favorite themes—a now fading Montreal, Jewish-gentile relations, the search for values in a hostile world, generational tensions, biblical subtexts, national identity, elusive truths, mysterious characters, etc.—in a comic, touching, but never maudlin reflection on the life of one man.

Over the past two decades, in between the publications of his novels, Richler has put his chronically cantankerous self to work as a commentator on Quebec politics and the issue of separatism. In a political forum renowned for opinionated cranks, Richler has distinguished himself in his application of his moral vision and satirical tongue to critiquing the ridiculousness of the political situation. Still, in all of his comments, his longstanding love of and investment in Montreal remains evident. Recently, in an attempt to stave off the demise of English-language newspapers, Richler has expressed interest in buying the newspaper in the township where he spends his summer. As an accomplished novelist, writer of memoirs, children's author, and political and cultural commentator, the hat of publisher does not seem out of the realm of possibilities for Richler.

Jennifer Harris

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