Mordecai Richler, CC, novelist, essayist, social critic (born 27 January 1931 in Montréal, QC; died 3 July 2001 in Montréal, QC).
A singular figure in Canadian literary and cultural history, Richler remained, in the words of critic Robert Fulford, “the loyal opposition to the governing principles of Canadian culture” throughout his long and productive career. His instincts were to ask hard, uncomfortable questions and to take clear, often unpopular moral positions.
Born into an Orthodox family in Montréal’s old Jewish neighborhood, a community he immortalized in his work, he was from the start a complex and uncompromising figure, at once rejecting many of the formal tenets of his faith while embracing its intellectual and ethical rigour. That tension, along with an innately absurdist vision of life, a raw, bracing comedic sensibility, and a fearlessness about speaking his mind, as both artist and citizen, ensured that nearly every word he published displayed a distinctive sensibility. No one else sounded like Mordecai Richler, and few other writers in Canada have ever demanded, and maintained, such a high profile as both an admired literary novelist and a frequently controversial critic. A Companion of the Order of Canada, two-time winner of the Governor General’s Award (1968 and 1971), and winner of the Giller Prize, Mordecai Richler is without question one of Canada’s greatest writers.
Only with his fourth novel, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, published in 1959, did he learn how to translate his ferocious, satiric, funny take on human behaviour onto the page. With this novel, and its anti-hero, the hard-nosed, unscrupulous, but also energized and empathetic young hustler, Duddy Kravitz, Richler gave Canadian literature one of its most challenging and unresolved protagonists, and one of its first important novels. It won him admirers in London, New York and Toronto, but not so many, it often seemed, among his “people” in Montréal — a pattern that would persist for decades.
By the time he published Solomon Gursky, Richler was a household name in Canada. Often that name was being taken in vain, especially in French-speaking Québec, where his status as a biting and mocking commentator on aspects of the nationalist movement, in particular the language and sign laws introduced in the late 1980s, earned him much enmity. In contrast, for English-speaking Canadians, most piquantly for Jewish Montrealers, many in their fourth decade nursing a grudge against their most famous offspring, he became a kind of reluctant hero, standing up for their community, their city, and for a united Canada, in his own candid, irascible way. Reams of journalism came out of his powerful, bare-knuckled engagement with Québec nationalism, most famously his 1991 New Yorker piece, and the quick, cutting book that grew out of it. Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! (1992) is far from his best non-fiction. It is, however, arguably one of the most influential works ever published in the country.
The Final Decade
In his final decade, the now-veteran novelist produced one very good travel book, 1994’s This Year in Jerusalem,and the charming novel that appears, at present, to be the people’s choice among his works. On its appearance in 1997, Barney’s Version became an instant bestseller and, shortly, winner of the Giller Prize, a still relatively new literary award that Richler had himself helped set up a few years earlier. The tale of the outsized, unapologetic, apostate Jew Barney Panofsky was presumed by many to be closely autobiographical. It isn’t, most significantly its portrait of a man who destroys his one great chance at enduring love, but much about the character’s appetite for life, and his philosophy for living, is close to its author’s way of being in the world. New, almost, to Barney’s Versionwas a degree of pathos, and an emotional tenderness, that won Richler new readers and admirers in what was his fifth and, it turned out, final decade of a significant career as a man of letters and that loyal member of the opposition. His death in 2001 was mourned nationally.
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