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Essay published in Brick

Winter, 2011

In 2007, at the outset of writing my biography of Mordecai Richler, I drafted a lengthy preface, in which I itemized, largely unintentionally, many of the concerns I had about the form. By the time I had completed a full draft of the book, those concerns had either been allayed, or deemed unhelpful to bring to the attention of readers about to buy (hopefully) and read (hopefully) a 700-page plus biography. The preface was abandoned in favour, tellingly, of exactly the kind of more conventional opening described below. Here is the first part of the original version.



Mordecai Richler once confessed his impatience with biographies that opened upon fifty pages of ancestry. Anxious to be off on the experience of a life, the reader instead encounters the subject’s grandfather from Poland. The place is Lodz and the year is 1908. Grandpa is a Hasidic rabbi renowned for his translations of the Zohar and mischievous retellings of the Golem and Maharal tales. Bearded and severe, the zeda has fathered eleven children with two women and practises homeopathy and, by the by, draws miniature horsemen. Then there is the grandmother, she of the dark eyes and fragrant poppyseed cake. Married at seventeen by arrangement, the bubbe stoically gives birth to baby after baby, seven of whom survive childhood. Hesil, Aaron, Mair and Sureh belong to the first wife. From her own womb spring Binyamin, Chana, Israel, Broche, Rivkah, Leah, and Avrum. Life in Lodzmay be joyful – the songs and dancing, the cherished company and values – but it is never easy. Not with the state anti-Semitism and, out in the countryside, the pogroms. Not with the poverty that is the lot of the itinerant rabbi. Grandpa steers his sons through studies of Maimonides and the code of Jewish law known as the Shulchan Aruch. Grandma reads aloud from the Tseno-Ureno to her daughters on the Sabbath. Certain prayers that she recites – “Do not forsake me in my old age,” for instance – bring her unfailingly to tears.

Subsequent migrations from Galicia to New World, Yiddish to English, are no less essential background. Consider those fifty pages a corridor of family photographs. Granted, the photos, many never in focus to start with, are now badly faded, trimmed in sepia as though burned by fire. The corridor itself is dim and dusty, being so rarely visited. But here is the Old Testament patriarch in round fur hat and sidelocks and there is the humble matriarch in babushka and apron, thick glass lenses refracting the camera flash. Individual shots of toddler boys attired in regrettable frills and gaggles of yet-unmarried daughters in patterned dresses, of the scholarly brother who took special heed of his father’s teachings of Jewish law in proud rabbinical attire, and of the one who perhaps paid closer attention to A Guide for the Perplexed and so wound up a Yiddish theatre actor and playwright, in bow tie and jaunty fedora – all are evidence of a bequeathment, the very richness of that past.

Then there is the magisterial family portrait, taken on the occasion of the rabbi’s seventieth birthday. Three generations, including the protagonist’s own parents and older brother, gather under one Montreal roof. Resemblances among siblings are striking; one daughter is her mother’s mirror image. And in a couple of the uncles, even in the zeda himself – the yet thick head of hair and high flat brow, the significant nose and sensual lips, a quietly distinguished, and distinctly masculine, countenance – the viewer can’t help glimpsing aspects of the face, in focus and free of sepia, likely to grace the biography’s dust jacket. Finally, the proto-subject. Finally, the reason for all this fuss.

Only two more years, and another ten pages, until the blessed birth.

Richler’s complaint was essentially that of a reader. Major biographies, while never actually judged by their heft, disavow pith the way sumo wrestlers reject skinny. Size matters a great deal, and the aesthetic wisdom of being swift and nimble between the covers appears forever outweighed by the need to be gargantuan, regardless if the bulk is either pleasing or pure muscle. Reader patience with buffed, toned details about the subject’s life – beginning, say, with the name of the midwife and the manufacturer of the bassinette – frequently runs short when such precision spills over, or spills back, into the jaunty Ford sidecar driven, erratically, by suffragette Aunt Rivkah during the Roaring Twenties or the rumours of Uncle Binyamin’s forays, disastrous, into the Soviet Union during the early days of the revolution. Such details may, in fact, be quietly telling – in the brief sketch of Richler’s maternal ancestors, the Rosenbergs, keen eyes may have registered the horseman and Golem as motifs from his novels – but at times they seem to be telling too damn much.

A biography of Mordecai Richler has an additional excuse for bypassing that ancestral corridor. Though not adverse to relaying his background in print or interview, and even fond, for philosophical reasons, of the family story of how he was originally destined to be American (his father’s father had a train ticket to Chicago; on board the ship crossing the Atlantic he swapped with another emigrant and so wound up settling in Montreal), he declined his share of the writer’s rightful inheritance: his own very rich past, the zeydas and bubbesand Rivkahs and Binyamins, story-made and ready for the dramatic rendering.

The absence of a Richler novel set on that immigrant ship, or in the lively Polish city where Jews thrived against the odds, is one degree of refusal. But the non-dramatizing of scrap dealer Shmarya Richler’s hardscrabble early days in the streets of Montreal’s Griffintown is quite another. The same holds true for Rabbi Rosenberg, pillar of the city’s Hasidic community during the 1920s. For his battles to control the kosher meat-blessing business alone, the rabbi might have merited a short story, sardonic and wry, from his grandson. Shmarya Richler’s yard may have been located near the canal, where the equally poor Irish lived, but his community could be found on Colonial and St. Dominique, Clark and St. Lawrence – a.k.a. “The Main.” From his apartment on Esplanade facing Fletcher’s Field, Yudel Rosenberg would have walked to most butchers whose products he sanctified.

Who laid powerful claim to these streets? “Our world was largely composed of the five streets that ran between Park Avenue and The Main,” Richler wrote in an essay about his childhood. “Jeanne Mance, Esplanade, Waverly, St. Urbain, and Clark.” St. Urbain, of course, became “The Street,” Canadian literature’s most ardently mapped and faithfully dramatized urban terrain. Landmarks include particular apartments and laneways, synagogues and schools, pool halls, soda fountains, and barbershops. Among the cast of reoccurring characters are almost certainly versions of actual Richler/Rosenbergs, along with neighbours, schoolmates, and local celebrities from the era. But all this busyness, sharply, obsessively, lovingly, rendered over the course of a half-century-long writing career, is bracketed at the near end by Richler’s death on July 3, 2001, and at the far end by, or around, his birth in January 1931. The near bracket requires no comment. That distant punctuation, however, must be explained.

Take the tale of the grandfather’s swapping train tickets with another Polish Jew. What likely appealed to the grandson about the story wasn’t that he could just as easily have wound up an American, Chicago-born. Almost certainly it was the randomness of the event, a fleeting friendship and hasty decision that ended up redirecting two lives and, by inference, the hundreds of lives of those in their generational orbits. Life, Richler believed, was fundamentally absurd and arbitrary. Better evidence could scarcely be found than in a fable of how fates could be so affected by the mere trading of stubs of paper.

Even then, the anecdote about Shmarya Richler on the boat from Poland never migrated in dramatized form into any of his ten novels. Aside from Solomon Gursky Was Here, a work of distinct dimensions and intents, Richler did not arc back into the worlds on either shore of the Atlantic that preceded the historical bracket of his own birth. Leaving the rabbi’s kosher meat conflict untransformed by fiction represented neither a show of disrespect for family lore, nor any Walt Whitman-like assertion of singing himself electric, nor of a modernity or literary movement starting fresh and unique with the midwife’s slap of the writerly baby bottom. It was, rather, an ongoing dramatization of artistic purpose.

Over and over Mordecai Richler spoke of his ambition to be a witness to his age. His writing was about the search for values, for how “in this time a man can live with honour.” As with all things, he was steadfast about what he did and why he did it, be it through fiction, memoir, journalism, or scriptwriting. Witnesses are authoritative only about what their senses register. Values certainly change. Even the ground beneath the feet of notions of honour tend to shift. For such a writer the time frame has to be, can only be, his own actual lifespan – from 1931 onward, in his time and, once he settled the problem of place in his head, his Montreal streets, the ones he eventually made it his business to capture on the page.

The framing of Richler’s creative canvas is a natural concern of this biography. For the moment, it is enough to mention the most obvious influences, and to remark that they belong – in chronological sequence, at least – to the first half of the twentieth century and, more precisely still, the 1930s and 1940s. In Our Time, Ernest Hemingway’s slim 1924 volume of reportage and short fiction, served to announce almost through its title alone an imperative for those writers who wished to take what they did, and how they did it, as seriously as the era demanded. The call, broadly, was to directness of prose and intent, to capturing the here and now, flinching from neither political engagement nor personal alienation; to being more than just alive to the times; to being out in them, witnessing, reporting, then crafting art from realities as vast and apparently defeating as Stalinism or the civil war in Spain. As a sensibility, it was manly and tough-minded, a way to live as much as a way to write. That Hemingway the blowhard and Hemingway the industry later cast a shadow over or, worse, smothered in a blanket of kitsch, an artistic stance of such integrity is a shame. It was certainly irresistible in its day, and its influence over generations of aspiring writers is beyond dispute. Among the aspiring was a restless Montrealer in the late 1940s.

But before the books, by Hemingway or anyone else, there was the Second World War. Picture young Mordecai Richler in the family apartment on St. Urbain. He is eight years old when Churchill declares war on Nazi Germany and fourteen when the Japanese surrender. He and his friends have already re-enacted the Battle of Guadalcanal in the snowbanks, shouting “Die, you crazy Japs!” Putting aside such childish games a couple of years later, the adolescent tacks a map of the world to his bedroom wall. Using newspapers and CBC radio, he follows the march of Canadian troops up the boot of Italy. He cheers each Russian counterattack and bombing of a German city. After D-Day, he inks in the map to chart the Allied advance on Berlin during the winter of 1944–45. To “every German on the face of the earth” the ardent fourteen-year-old wishes no less than “an excruciating death.”

All this in advance of the early eyewitness accounts of the mounds of corpses and still warm crematoriums at Treblinka and Auschwitz. All this before the trials at Nuremberg. For Richler, as for so many others, the Holocaust opens a Grand Canyon in their sense of history, rendering it forever divided, the chasm unbridgeable.Not yet eighteen, not yet really writing, and only just beginning to be a serious reader – Camus, Sartre and Celine, Waugh, Orwell and Maugham, await him in Europe – he is nonetheless already in the character that he would inhabit for, in effect, the second half of the twentieth century. He is simultaneously absorbing the Nazi attempt to annihilate European Jewry while completing his noisy renunciation of the orthodox Judaism that had birthed and reared him. He is a card-carrying member of the local Zionist youth movement, half-heartedly plotting with Habonim comrades to make aliyahto the new Eretz Israel, there to live stout and righteous lives committed to Zion, while likewise readying to apprentice himself as a novelist in that most goyish and, with any luck at all, decadent of finishing schools, Paris, where ex-pats got to wear berets in Montmartre and sip cognac in Pigalle and claim they sat at the next table over from Sartre and de Beauvoir at Les Deux Magots.

To use a favourite Richler word, he is exactly as “charged” with contradictions and complexities as the age that has likewise shaped him. In Paris, in Spain, and eventually in the London he called home for the better part of the next twenty years, his readings and encounters confirm the rightness of a literary engagement that is direct and temporal, with the leisure neither for niceties (what more glaring confirmation of the absurdity of existence than the Holocaust?) nor for glances too far forward or back. In Europe Mordecai Richler finds an urgent philosophy to match his own urgent impulses, as well as social and political times begging for such a rough, hands-on approach.

Born is a serious-minded young writer hard on the search for values, for how a man/author can live with honour in such existential times. It is that author who opens a 1965 essay titled “The Holocaust and After” with a line of bracing frankness and minimal tact: “The Germans are still an abomination to me.” It is likewise that author who, explaining his decision to repatriate permanently to Canada a few years later, confesses that he is afraid that if he stays in London, further and further cut off from those Montreal streets, he might wind up writing historical novels or books set on other planets. A woeful fate, apparently.

By 1972, Richler is returning to a Canada in the thrall of a cultural self-awakening so striking in its intensity and earnestness it is akin to a teenager being raised in a house without mirrors who suddenly discovers his own image in a glass. All at once there are reflections everywhere. All at once everyone is busy self-regarding. Twenty years earlier the nation, or English Canada to be exact, had been muddling along with few quality literary depictions of its own outline to contemplate. The past wasn’t a foreign country: it was mostly foreign books on local shelves or local books of colonized technique and voice. If a national literature is a road lit by the brilliant lights of individual achievements, and if writers are continually encouraged by those lights, in particular those that illuminate their own locality, then Mordecai Richler in 1950 was glancing back at a highway cast in shade or even darkness, the only flickers courtesy of the softly falling snow. While this wasn’t entirely true, it might well have seemed so to a Jewish kid from The Main as anxious as the next neophyte to find a tradition he could appear to spring from. He was also possibly more needful.

Now, a biography is under no obligation to respect its subject’s convictions, let alone abide his aesthetics. With literary biographies, a certain disrespect may even be wise, given the intersection of forms. Sharing a medium can be tricky. It can also be compromising. Mordecai Richler’s own stated views on the value of personal details in helping understand an author’s work, views formed early and held fiercely, could also be taken as spurs to book-about-book independence, if not outright rebellion. What he told one interviewer in 1991 – “The only interesting thing about a novelist is the work that goes out. The rest is gossip” – was merely the condensed version of a 1971 vivisection of the conventional biographical premise. “Anything you could say about me or feel about me is gossip,” he asserted then. “Whether a writer is a marvellously charming, agreeable, generous man or whether he beats his wife and tortures his children is beside the point. That’s private. The books are what matter one way or another, and the two should not be confused.” At this stage in the encounter he had already driven a stake through the heart of the biographical vampire. “You know,” Richler said, “sometimes it may be a mistake to meet the writer. I’m quite serious.”


Meet Mordecai Richler.

Or maybe not.

If Mordecai: The Life and Times opens, as indeed it does, with a description of the Jewish neighbourhood in Montreal, and the goings-on in an apartment at 5300 Esplanade in the days after the birth of Lily and Moses Richler’s second son on January 27, 1931, it won’t be for fear of annoying the author from beyond the grave with fifty pages of Eastern European shtetl-lore and steerage encounters. Instead, it will be a modest assertion about how a portrait of a writer can succeed in providing a felt experience of a life that is otherwise impossibly subjective and interior; unknowable, more or less, like any life, regardless of the diaries in the archive or the family and friends with vivid memories or even of the published memoir by the subject’s own mother, bursting with details and incident. Experiencing his life and times, in contrast, however fleetingly, isn’t out of the question. A version of what it felt like to be a male Jewish Montrealer within those chronological brackets can be reconstructed. Thus, to better experience how Mordecai Richler experienced the world, it seems wise to accept his conditions of engagement, to start with his own start. To glimpse, even, what he saw as the boy called Muttle, Mutty, or sometimes Mordy. Not every writer believes his sensibility is formed in childhood and thus is forever informed by what he absorbed, soft as a sponge, during those years. But since Mordecai Richler did believe this, it seems wise to also try experiencing that boy, that childhood, and certainly that Montreal, as vividly as possible.


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