Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Subject Over Style - Charles Foran's Mordecai: The Life & Times

Nearly ten years after his death, Canadian writer/provocateur Mordecai Richler is still in the news. Two Montréal city councilors are facing flack from Quebec nationalists for daring to suggest that the city name a street after one of its most famous native sons. The film adaptation of Richler’s last novel, Barney’s Version, is opening wide on Christmas Eve. And writer Charles Foran has penned the ultimate Richler bio, Mordecai: The Life & Times (Knopf Canada, 2010), a problematic but fascinating look into the life of one of the most original, free thinking and courageous writers of our age. 

As a Montreal-born Jew, though one who came along almost thirty years later than Mordecai and grew up in the suburban (but mostly Jewish) City of Cote St. Luc, far from his St.Urbain Street haunts, I have always found Richler to an interesting enigma. And not the least because my own community had such ambivalent feelings towards him. As I wrote in my 2001 obituary for him in the Jerusalem Report magazine, the Jewish community went from being uncomfortable with his often scathing, satirical, warts-and-all portraits of his people to viewing him as something of a hero, even someone to be proud of, because of his forthrightness in confronting Quebec’s separatist and/or intolerant French nationalists. Mordecai was particularly scathing in his disdain for the province’s asinine language laws which decreed that English, one of Canada’s two official languages, be deemed second rate or non-existent on street and business signs. You get a vivid sense of how strongly he felt about those oppressive laws in his superb non-fiction book Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Requiem For a Divided Country (1992). 

I must confess that I, too, changed in my early views about Mordecai Richer. Though my Jewish high school, Bialik, featured The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959) on its curriculum, many of the Jews around me, including my parents, disapproved of him and being an insecure and somewhat sheltered young person, I was uncomfortable with how he wrote about his own. (I still maintain that the non-Jews in Duddy Kravitz come across consistently better than the Jews in the book.) Later, I loosened up and began to recognize that Richler was, in fact, proud of being a Jew – like most Jewish writers but not actors, singers etc., he never anglicized his name – and, in fact, was dedicated to exposing the hypocrisy, self-serving nature and bombast of the Jewish establishment and its most prominent citizens. That’s something that I can relate to, having had more than a little, and mostly unpleasant contact with some of those very same types of Jewish machers. (That’s Yiddish for movers and shakers.)

I also got to meet Mordecai later in life - calling him by his first name seems apropos somehow - when I became Director of Programming of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. (Ironically, I never met or saw him in Montreal where he lived.) I lined up to get his signature on his excellent book of essays Belling the Cat (1998) and took the opportunity to slip him a couple of tickets to the film festival fundraiser showing of Aviva Kempner’s documentary The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg. That was her portrait of the legendary American-Jewish baseball player, who, most famously, garnered nationwide respect, when he refused to play on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. I knew Richler was a baseball fan, and keenly interested in famous Jews who broke the mold, so there was a good chance he’d show up for the screening. What I most recall from that signing was how disinterested and removed he was during the process, not making eye contact with anyone and clearly not relishing being part of the book signing experience. I felt sorry that a writer of his stature should still have to submit himself to something he hated so much, even at this famous and celebrated stage of his career. (I am now sorry, too, that I did not get his autograph on any of his novels. I had already read Barney’s Version (1998), which I'd gotten from the library, and, at the time, didn’t own any of his other books. I dearly wish I had gotten my hands on a hardcover to have had signed by Richler.) When he showed up for the screening, with his good friend publisher Jack Rabinovitch, I was thrilled. Modestly, Mordecai asked me to not mention that he was in the audience but his appearance at the film festival remains one of the most cherished memories of my eight years at its helm.

In this light, I was looking forward to Foran’s definitive tome, a 700 page opus, written with full access to Richler’s archives, including previously unseen letters, generously supplied the author by Richler’s widow, Florence. And while, I pretty much zipped through the bio, it still disappointed, mainly because Foran doesn’t bring any real artistic talent to the table. Mordecai: The Life & Times is better crafted than it is written. That said there’s no questioning Foran’s dedication to his material. His research is impeccable, speaking to virtually everyone who played a part in Richler’s life, and unearthing even the smallest details that help in the depiction of the man, husband, father and writer. One early anecdote concerns Mordecai’s slapping the face of a fellow Baron Byng student, who had not delivered a present the student body was to present to a favourite teacher. That student, who was in charge of procuring the gift, had an explanation of why he was late bringing it in but Mordecai would not hear of it. How do we know this story is true? Well, the student whose face was slapped was one of my students, and he told me this tale last year long before the book had even seen the light of day.

Divided into eight parts, Mordecai: The Life & Times sets forth the entire trajectory of Richler’s life, from his upbringing in and rebellion against an Orthodox Jewish environment, his contentious relationships with his parents and older brother Avrum to his European sojourn, when he set out to find himself at 19 years of age, and his return to Canada nearly twenty years later. It tracks his success, as part of a mostly American Jewish writer’s movement, that included Philip Roth, Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow, that affected and influenced society after World War Two, his travails and the controversy he often courted until his death at the age of 70 in the summer of 2001. All that information is already known but Foran manages to find and add some new previously unknown facts about Richler, notably a bitter letter written in 1976 to his manipulative mother Lily, wherein he castigates her for having sex with her boyfriend, while he, then 12 years old, and sharing a front bedroom with her, heard and saw everything. That chapter entitled Dear Maw, which lays out virtually the whole letter Richler wrote, speaks volumes about the formative years of Mordecai’s life, including, I think, his anger and determination never to be treated with such disdain and disrespect. It’s also why, I suspect, he was so quick to warm up to or curtly dismiss those he met. And, likely, why, after meeting his second wife Florence, whom he was married to for more than 40 years, he treated her with such love and devotion. The book paints a complex, contradictory portrait of Mordecai, an inattentive but good parent, a shy and laconic individual who needed ‘props’, specifically scotch and cigars, as fellow writer Margaret Atwood put it, to cope in social situations and an uncorrupted man. He nevertheless took on many writing gigs just for the money, which, admittedly, was needed to raise a family of five children. Mordecai: The Life & Times reveals someone very much out of the ordinary. 

The book also covers with precision and tact his steadfast, lifelong loyalty to such friends as directors Ted Kotcheff (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz) and Jack Clayton (Room at the Top) as well as writer Bill Weintraub (Why Rock the Boat?) and also his sad falling out with others, such as fellow Canadian writer Brian Moore (The Luck of Ginger Coffey). And, of course, there’s Richler’s famous cutting wit, my very favourite anecdote being his caustic exchange with Saidye Bronfman, widow of Sam Bronfman, the liquor tycoon who began his career as a bootlegger and whose clan formed the fictional basis of one of his most acclaimed novels, Solomon Gursky was Here (1989). Upon encountering him at the Montreal première of the 1974 film version of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, she said to him, “Well, Mordecai, you’ve come a long way for a St. Urbain St. boy,” to which he retorted, “And you’ve come a long way for a bootlegger’s wife.” That is the perfect definition of chutzpah. 

Director Ted Kotcheff
I also got a visceral kick out of the many stories of the people Mordecai met and befriended over the years since I have crossed some of their paths, too, over the years. A good friend’s invitation to lunch allowed me to (briefly) socialize with Sylvia and the late Bernard Ostry, two Canadian politicos, as well as author Kildare Dobbs. I interviewed playwright and writer Ted Allan (Lies My Father Told Me), another close friend of Mordecai’s, when Bethune: The Making of a Hero, about the famous Canadian Communist doctor, which Allan write, came out in 1990; and last year, as chair of the Toronto Jewish Film Society, invited Ted Kotcheff to introduce and speak on his 1985 film of Richler’s novel Joshua Then and NowJ (1980). Florence Richler attended the second screening of that movie and she was as elegant and beautiful as Foran describes her in the biography. I don’t actually know any of those people but I felt a bit closer to Mordecai when I read about them in Mordecai: The Life & Times.

What’s missing in Foran’s book is what I would call tam, a Yiddish word that means spirit but can also mean flavour, both of which are lacking here. Part of that is that relatively little of his actual work, from such novels as St. Urbain’s Horseman (1971) and Barney’s Version, is excerpted – you have to take it on faith that Richler was a good writer – but also because the book’s copious, myriad details overwhelm any subjective analysis of its subject. Foran has observations on the man, which he tosses out from time to time, but in many ways Mordecai never really comes alive in the pages of this book. (You actually get a more pungent sense of the author in Michael Posner’s fine 2004 oral history, The Last Honest Man: Mordecai Richler: An Oral Biography.)

Author Charles Foran
Tantalizing asides, such as the suggestion that Richler himself never felt he’d written a book that would outlast him, untrue in my opinion, or his noting that Mordecai’s son Jacob, in his eulogy for his father, praised Mordecai as a better husband and parent than author, remain unexplored. Regrettably, Foran even backs off of his laudatory commentary on Richler’s language fights in the superficial television documentary he co-wrote with Francine Pelletier that just aired in Canada. Entitled Mordecai Richler: The Last of the Wild Jews (an apt title), it allowed critics such as left-wing polemicist Rick Salutin and even Richler’s friend cartoonist Terry ‘Aislin’ Mosher to castigate Mordecai for being oblivious and/or unfair to the arguments of Quebec’s French nationalists.

Fortunately, and it’s why I can still recommend Foran’s book, Mordecai Richler is one of the best subjects you could ever hope for as a biographer. He was so interesting, brave and uncompromising – a Canadian Mark Twain, in fact – that you can’t help but be riveted by his adventures. Mordecai: The Life & Times may not a great biography but in this case, because of who it’s about, it’s an indispensable one.

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He will be teaching a course on film genre this winter at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute.

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