Adapted from Writers of Montréal
But Richler's acerbic and scatological inventiveness is fired by a secular moralism that is less obvious, though no less important, to an appreciation of his work than is his gleeful obscenity.
"In a time when there really is no agreement on values," he once observed to Tom Harpur, the religion columnist of the Toronto Star, "and a collapse of religious values, which certainly created a certain order, or standard, you are obliged to work out your own code of honour and system of beliefs and to lead as honourable a life as possible."
For Richler, "the honourable life" appears to have meant being a devoted husband and loving father to his family of five grown children (his oldest son, Daniel, a child of his wife's first marriage, is also a novelist and television arts critic) and of writing precisely as he pleases. Stupidity, hypocrisy, pretentiousness and greed have always been the cardinal sins in his canon, targets of the savage wit that is as acidic and uproarious today as it was when he began to write nearly forty years ago.
Raised in an orthodox Jewish setting in the ghetto of Montreal during the Depression ("where you could take in three movies for a quarter, but sometimes felt gray squishy things nibbling at your ankles"), on his mother's side the grandson of a scholarly rabbi, since the publication of his first novel in 1954 Richler has grappled with the same themes: "Man without God. Man embarrassed. Stripped. There is a current chaos in the world, and we no longer know what is right or wrong."
He was born in 1931, the second son of an ill-matched couple. His father dealt in scrap metal and has been described by Philip Marchand in Chatelaine as"a chronic loser"; his mother, Leah Rosenberg, had certain literary pretensions of her own and, in 1981, produced a memoir entitled, The Errand Runner: Reflections of a Rabbi's Daughter. The family lived on St. Urbain Street till Mordecai was thirteen, when his parents separated. Though he left Canada at nineteen to spend nearly twenty years in Europe and now divides his time between an apartment in Montreal and a house in the Eastern Townships, he has written that he feels "forever rooted in Montreal's St. Urbain Street. That was my time, my place, and I have elected myself to get it right."
Robert Fulford has called Baron Byng High School, immortalized in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, St. Urbain's Horseman and Joshua Then and Now as Fletcher's Field High School, Richler's Yoknapatawpha County. (When Richler was there, though, it was no immortal haunt. Said Saidye Bronfman, widow of the distillery magnate Sam Bronfman, patronizingly to Richler at the 1974 premiere of the movie version of Duddy Kravitz, "You've come a long way for a St. Urbain Street boy." Retorted Richler, "You've come a long way for a bootlegger's wife.")
Duddy Kravitz (1959) was his fourth novel and the one in which for the first time "I really came up with an original work drawn from my own real experience." Despite the ambitious scope of Solomon Gursky, the compassionate affirmation of St. Urbain's Horseman and the craftsmanship of Joshua Then and Now, Duddy Kravitz remains the best-known of Richler's works. A comic extravaganza of a coming-of-age novel, it tells the story of a"scheming little bastard," a coarse, driven, young Jew determined to make something of himself at any cost. A critical success both in Canada and beyond, the book inspired a raging controversy and denunciations by the Jewish community that Richler was an anti-Semite.
Richler himself has said, "I'm much more interested in criticizing, always, the things I believe in or I'm attached to, which may be a very perverse kind of love, but it's the only kind I'm capable of." That twenty-year-old interview with Donald Cameron is perhaps the best rejoinder to the latest Richlerian debate over his most recent book, Oh Canada! O Quebec!, in which he denounces, among other things, the anti-Semitic strain in French-Canadian nationalism. (In a recent telephone interview, however, Richler would only comment, "As far as the Quebec book goes, I really don't understand what all the furor is about. All I did was lay things out the way things were.")
The fate of the Jews, in particular during the Holocaust, is an abiding leitmotif in Richler's work: his heroes are frequently successful men haunted by their relatively easy ride through life, too young to fight in the War, and sheltered from the horrors that afflicted fellow Jews in Europe.
Brief stints as writer-in-residence aside, Richler is one of a minority of Canadian writers to make a successful living exclusively by the pen. Unassumingly labelling himself a freelancer, he has written for television and film, and, in between the novels that have become increasingly more laborious for him to craft (five years for Horseman, nearly a decade each for Joshua and Solomon Gursky), produced an impressive body of essays, reviews, anthologies and two highly popular children's books.
Critical response to his work has probably been affected by his curmudgeonliness and his lambasting of Canadian cultural nationalism. He has won two Governor General Awards for his early work (a joint prize for the novel Cocksure and the essay collection Hunting Tigers under Glass in 1968, and the fiction prize for St. Urbain's Horseman in 1971 ) . Solomon Gursky, which was glowingly reviewed in the New York Times, touted for a Booker Prize in Britain and won the $ 20,000 Commonwealth Writers Prize as best fiction for 1990, was not even nominated for a Governor General's Award at home. In Quebec, however, the book received the QSPELL fiction prize. Richler regained recognition in Canada in 1997 when he was awarded the Booker Prize for his latest novel Barney's Version
Critics charge him with repeating himself, with creating stick female characters and of being unable to pull off a credible sex scene. Yet even the most scathing among them concedes that "his prose is lively, he writes nervy dialogue, he has imaginative flair."
But no critic is as hard on him as is Richler himself.
"Each novel is a failure, or there would be no compulsion to begin afresh."
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (London: Deutsch, 1959).
St. Urbain's Horseman (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart; 1971). Home Sweet Home: My Canadian Album (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1984).
Solomon Gursky Was Here (Markham: Viking, 1989).
Broadsides: Reviews and Opinions (Markham: Viking, 1990).
Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!: Reqium for a Divided Country (Toronto: Penguin, 1992)
Barney's Version (Toronto: Random House, 1998)