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 second part of the original version.
A convention of the contemporary biography is to begin with a scene lifted from the body of the text. These are teasers, in effect, pitched to intrigue and tantalize, and their tone – funny or sombre, ominous or insouciant – are meant to help establish the book’s own voice and, perhaps, agenda. With Mordecai Richler and Mordecai: The Life and Times, a half-dozen such openings come easily to mind. Here they are in reverse order, as befitting a form often too content to craft and then judge a life from the high perch of hindsight:
1. Fall 1999, St. John’s, Newfoundland. Richler and his wife Florence are having dinner with his only sibling, brother Avrum, and Avrum’s wife Eve. The brothers have seen each other just a handful of times since sitting shiva for their father in 1967, and exchanged infrequent letters. Mordecai Richler has also recently declined to attend their mother’s funeral. Away from their spouses in a cigar room, Richler asks Avrum a question, and issues a blunt remark, that may solve the mystery of not only his profound estrangement from Lily (and, to a lesser extent, from Avrum as well) but the emergence back in St. Urbain Street in 1944 of the angry adolescent, and then furious teenager, who went on to become a fearless and often feared novelist and social commentator.
2. Fall, 1997, Toronto. Richler has won the Giller Prize for Barney’s Version, his tenth and, it turns out, final novel. In his acceptance speech he starts, naturally, with a joke. “The award I’ve coveted since the age of twelve, the Cy Young award, continues to elude me,” he tells the crowd, referring to the prize given the best pitchers in professional baseball. Then he pays tribute to Florence, calling his wife of thirty-seven years his first and most exacting editor. Many in the Four Seasons hotel ballroom are already aware of the role Florence Richler has played as both the eternally glamorous companion to the unglamorous author – “Beauty and the beast,” is how one London friend described the couple in their early days – and the mother of the five grown Richler children, themselves all writers, artists, critics or film-makers. Outside the book industry, however, few are aware that Florence has long served as first editor of Richler’s books. The relationship dates back to The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, published in 1959 and dedicated to her. Barney’s Version is likewise “For Florence.”
3. September 20, 1991, Montreal. “Is it your style or a way of getting attention,” Radio-Canada journalist Madeleine Poulin asks Richler, “or do you really despise everything you set your eyes upon in Canada, including the French in Quebec?” Seated in a chair in his own living room on Sherbrooke St, Richler denies that he hates any thing or place, including the province. “This is my home, and I enjoy here,” he says. For fifteen minutes he defends himself against charges that his New Yorker article on the Quebec language laws is the work of a vengeful, out-of-touch grump who neither understands nor likes French Quebecers. “Why did you do it?” Poulin repeatedly asks him, as though grilling a murder suspect. The interview turns still nastier on the subject of Richler’s refusal to be interviewed in French. He reads the language, he admits, and sent his children to French schools, but, no, he is unwilling to speak it in public. “It’s a lack of interest,” Poulin decides. To which he snaps: “Let’s say it’s [i.e. his French] better than your Hebrew.” He apologies. She does not.
4. Spring, 1969, London. Richler, who has already interrupted the difficult work on St. Urbain’s Horseman once to write Cocksure, a satire of cool 60s Britannia and the movie business, publishes a collection of memoirs and short stories about childhood. The Street includes ten pieces that blur fiction with autobiography and a foreword titled “Going Home Again.” In the foreword Richler, now thirty-eight, writes with open nostalgia for the “hairier, more earthy Montreal” of his youth, a city of outsized personalities and permissive attitudes towards, among other bad habits, “barbotte tables and whore houses.” His career to date has included four novels set in either Europe or the surreal Toronto of The Incomparable Atuk and two books rooted, deep as the trees along the slopes of Mont Royal, in the Montreal of the 1940s and 50s. Within three years he will have published St. Urbain’s Horseman, the first of his four major novels, all committed heart and soul to the city, past and present, and will have permanently relocated back from England.
5. August 27, 1954, London. Richler has just married fellow Canadian Cathy Boudreau. His friend Ted Allan is throwing an after-wedding party for the couple in an apartment in North London. Among the guests are Florence and Stanley Mann, who happen to be staying with the Allans while hunting for a place of their own. They, too, are new to England, and are Canadian. She, in fact, is from Montreal. Florence Mann, soon to be employed as a model for Dior and Sassoon, is by all accounts stunning, her beauty the sort that previously caused men to found religions in order to worship it. Richler is certainly taken with her. He follows her around the flat, offering her drinks, hovering over her in stern silence. Florence later admits that she finds his behavior strange. There is something unfinished and exposed about him, she decides. There is also something quite powerful. Given that he is chatting up a woman on his own wedding day, others find his behaviour no less remarkable. Five years and two divorces later, that mutual attraction results in marriage.
6. Montreal, spring 1944. Lily Richler informs her husband Moses that she no longer wishes to be his wife. She asks that he leave their St. Urbain Street apartment, in no small part to allow her to pursue her romance with a boarder, a German-Jew named Julius Frankel. Thirteen-year-old Mordecai, his bar-mitzvah only a month past, looks on helplessly as his father retreats to a room in a house two streets over while his mother commences a secret affair. Divorce is almost unknown in the city’s Jewish community. A lawyer arranges an annulment, known in Jewish law as a bris, using the excuse that Lily had been under-aged when she agreed to be married into the scrap dealing Richler clan. The adolescent must now deal with the glances of pity from neighbours and the whispers at synagogue. He must also live in the cramped apartment with Lily and Frankel and his older brother Avrum, a student at U de M, in what must have been an uneasy, if not agonizing, arrangement.
Each of these six makes its own pitch. Number Four is a thematic appeal, high-minded and literary, hinting that this biography, at least, will stay focused on, as Richler himself put it, “the only interesting thing” about a novelist – his books. Number Three is likewise earnest, sending out distinctly Canadian signals about the intention to explore and likely affirm his standing as a loyal dissident and, in his final decade, either a fearless slayer of Quebec nationalist dragons or a Quixote, tilting at two solitudes windmills.
Numbers Two and Five, bookends of a sort, sell the promise of intimacy. The 1997 story hints at an impending portrait of the esteemed author in golden twilight, prodigious on the page and in the private life alike, loving and loved, not to mention funny, to the end. Though technically about the personal sphere as well, in this case at the outset of the biography-worthy career, the 1954 anecdote has greater thrust. Without being told so, Richler admirers will be expected to recognize versions of it from the major novels, most outrageously in Barney Panofsky’s courtship of Miriam in Barney’s Version. Slipping in a promise of regular autobiographical resonances, each one affirming a tidy transformative creative equation – experience plus talent equals fiction – is a sly strategy, certain to put readers at ease.
Then there are numbers One and Six. These, too, are bookends, and literally so, denoting the open and close of a long struggle within the subject to work through a deeply private sorrow. The dynamics are Shakespearean: the cuckolded father and usurper father-figure, the traitorous wife, along with the mild, acquiescent older sibling and seething younger son who must endure the double confusion and outrage of being the apple of his smothering mother’s eye. As such, either of these opening is a knock-out, ensuring everyone that the biography has the psychological goods on Mordecai Richler, and will duly spill them. If forced to choose, Number One might get the overall nod for its clever reveal and conceal: What question did he ask Avrum in the cigar room in St. John’s? What blunt remark? Only one way to find out.
So many assumptions about so many things. Presumptions, too, at best half earned. In particular, the assumption that art can be explained by the detailing of a life, with the highest explanatory impact belonging to the most private, and preferably previous undisclosed, details. But suppose that none of the above, or any of the thousand other biographical revelations, major or minor, familiar or fresh, that will fill the pages of Mordecai: The Life and Times can truly account for the quality of his mind and the brilliance of his fiction? Suppose, for instance, that reading All Quiet on the Western Front and the tales of Damon Runyan as a youth were as important in ‘making’ Mordecai Richler as his estrangement from Judaism? Or that Hemingway and John Dos Passos, W.H. Auden and Samuel Johnson, Evelyn Waugh and Isaac Babel, were as ‘influential’ to his work as his marriage to Florence Mann? Or this: daily intakes of the Montreal Herald, a populist tabloid heavy on sports scores and comic strips, and the swallowing whole of Rabbi Rosenberg’s Golem tales, had more impact on the writer Mordecai Richler would ‘become’ than even his difficult mother?
For the biographer, it gets worse. Worth pondering at least is the possibility that major writers, like all major artists, never ‘become’ themselves via any experience or influence. They can’t become what they already are. Being born to do what they do, the gift as innate as breathing and equally essential, they may no more be able to explain how and why they can write novels or paint pictures than the biographer can explain any of these talents to you. Talent is notoriously difficult to account for, or to reign in, especially if you are determined to construct a life narrative built on corralled linkages and tethered epiphanies.
The intent here isn’t to self-destruct this book before it constructs any kind of narrative whatsoever. Nor do I plan to shoot my own biography in the credibility foot every so often in the service of larger questions about the form. Consider those questions duly asked, their underlying anxieties made plain, and then likewise consider this Hamlet-like preamble to the act complete. Except to add this: for all its limitations, a literary biography can still be an experience of a life that helps bring greater pleasure to the reading of the works that, by their singularity and power, have given rise to the project in the first instance. Insofar as the biography is able to enhance an understanding of the sensibility behind those novels – the unmistakable ‘voice’ that marks a great writer – by means as various as detailing the interior of a St. Urbain Street apartment circa 1940 or describing a Montreal shiva on the eve of the Six Day War, then the personal, the private, life of Mordecai Richler is worthy of attention. Yes, it is all about the books but, yes too, all that messy, interior, ultimately unknowable life stuff – mere gossip as far as some authors are concerned – can be a tool to better imagine another person, another life. Also, if a book about a writer of books can be tricky to negotiate, it can also give an edge that a book about, say, a composer or dancer cannot: words about words and stories about a story-teller. Those are pleasing harmonies.