Archive for the ‘Mordecai Richler’ Category

Tthe incomparable atuk mordecai richlerhe Incomparable Atuk by Mordecai Richler ~ 1963. This edition: McClelland and Stewart. Hardcover. 192 pages.

My rating: Unrateable. This is one strange little book. Repellant and mesmerizing in equal quantities.

Despite the post heading above – lifted from some pertinent dialogue in the book – I think I can safely say that this is one of Richler’s relatively more obscure works, though the title is sure to be more immediately recognizable than those of his first three brooding novels, The Acrobats(1954), Son of a Smaller Hero(1955) and A Choice of Enemies(1957).

Richler’s fourth novel, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, was published in 1959, and its resounding success made readers and critics eager for more. What showed up next, after a four year hiatus, was this small but seethingly ultra-satirical novel. Duddy Kravitz, take a hike. Atuk the Eskimo is here.

Yes, I said Eskimo, because back in 1963 that was the term-in-use for people of Atuk’s ethnicity. Better let it roll right over you, because if you’re at all sensitive to what would nowadays be severe political incorrectness, this thing will have you breaking out in hives before you can say…well…never mind. Won’t go there.

Here is the front flyleaf blurb from my tattered ex-library first edition.

THE INCOMPARABLE ATUK

‘Eskimo poetry’ – words calculated to chill the blood of all but the devoutest Canadian egg-head patriot. So when Atuk, the Eskimo poet, first came to Toronto as the ‘discovery’ of a Twentyman Fur Company public relations officer, all he got out of it was a slim volume and a few literary cocktails. Prestigewise, as his new friends would have said, it was not too bad; moneywise it stank.

But Atuk did not focus the gentle savage’s traditionally innocent eye on the Toronto scene – far from it. One gimlet glance at the delights of civilization and he was on the ball. Soon his stocky figure was to be seen stepping out of a black Thunderbird at the doors of TV, movie and press magnates – or rolling on a divan with the country’s darling, Bette Dolan, record-breaking swimmer and the wholesomest girl in the land. Atuk’s downfall only came when …

But no: we cannot do this to you. The beauty of this book lies in its surprises: in its lunatic twists and turns, in the laughs it startles out of you by outrageous shock tactics. Because one of Canada’s most serious young writers has here turned a somersault and has come up with – we are weighing our words – a tour de force of comic invention unrivalled since Juan visited America. It is possible that, as a result, when he next sets foot on his native soil it will bounce him back into the sea – but whether Canada likes it or not, it has now produced a comic writer and satirist of whom any country in the world could be proud.

Atuk, playing the enigmatic Eskimo card for all it’s worth, runs rings around the Toronto intellectuals and artsy types and bleeding heart do-gooders keen to adopt him as this week’s picturesque indigenous person. He bluffs his way into an intimate relationship the ever-helpful and soon to be ex-virginal Bette Dolan, brings his extended family to Toronto to dwell in a basement sweatshop turning out crude specimens of “genuine Eskimo art”, and schmoozes his way into all sorts of circles, from upper-crust to deeply dodgy. But an incident from his past is about to catch up with him…

Mordecai Richler nails everyone in this midnight-black satirical romp, with the notable exception of that most expected Canadian target-of-scorn: Americans. By and large the field is made up of north-of-49thers, of every stripe and hue and political persuasion.

Deeply dated and terrifically politically incorrect by the standards of both then and now – a casual gang rape is played for cheap laughs, and there is an abundance of crude bedroom and bathroom humour – but I must say I laughed outright at several bits, most notably Atuk’s successful attempt at fratricide by traffic light.

Now that I’ve read this dark little period piece, I find myself quite happy to quietly slide it back onto the bookshelf. I don’t know as I’ll ever take it down again, but at least I’ve quelled my curiosity as to its contents.

Recommended? Probably not, unless you’re Canadian and keen on exploring the seedier back alleys of our national literary heritage.

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the street mordecai richler 001The Street by Mordecai Richler ~ 1969. This edition: Panther Books, 1971. Paperback. 142 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

It’s been a good many years since I’ve read anything by Mordecai Richler, and reading The Street reminded me why: a little goes a long way. And I mean that in the very best way.

The Street was just long enough, at 142 pages, to be a quick one-evening read, a bracingly rude and somewhat startling experience which balanced the well-meant inanity of my other recent reading. The naïve earnestness of D.E. Stevenson’s rather silly Miss Buncle and the good natured ramblings of Georgette Heyer’s handsome dilettantes are decidedly mild pleasures in contrast to Richler’s sly, cheeky, say-anything Montreal ragamuffins and their bluntly outspoken elders. And I find that the mixing of genres here adds piquancy to all, with Richler’s pungent acidity emphasizing the good brown bread and airily sweet meringue of the others.

The Street is a collection of ten linked stories-slash-memoirs – fictionalized memoirs? – mostly following the narrator – Richler himself, one assumes – from childhood to adulthood. The anecdote here is everything, and Richler’s authorial voice is perfectly suited to these short pieces.

From the author’s Foreword:

‘Why do you want to go to university?’ the student counsellor asked me.

Without thinking, I replied, ‘I’m going to be a doctor, I suppose.’

A doctor.

One St. Urbain Street day cribs and diapers were cruelly withdrawn and the next we were scrubbed and carted off to kindergarten. Though we didn’t know it, we were already in pre-med school. School starting age was six, but fiercely competitive mothers would drag protesting four-year-olds to the registrarion desk and say, ‘He’s short for his age.’

‘Birth certificate, please?’

‘Lost in a fire.’

On St. Urbain Street, a head start was all.  Our mothers read us stories from Life about pimply astigmatic fourteen-year-olds who had already graduated from Harvard or who were confounding the professors at M.I.T.  Reading Tip-Top Comics or listening to The Green Hornet on the radio was as good as asking for a whack on the head, sometimes administered with a copy of The Canadian Jewish Eagle, as if that in itself would be nourishing.  We were not supposed to memorise baseball batting averages or dirty limericks.  We were expected to improve our Word Power with the Reader’s Digest and find inspiration in Paul de Kruif’s medical biographies.  If we didn’t make doctors, we were supposed to at least squeeze into dentistry.  School marks didn’t count as much as rank.  One wintry day I came home, nostrils clinging together and ears burning cold, proud of my report.  ‘I came rank two, Maw.’

‘And who came rank one, may I ask?’

The Jewish mothers in The Street fulfill every stereotype, being supremely ambitious for their children, yet never letting them get too full of themselves; chicken soup and sharp cuffs being administered with equal enthusiasm as maternal whim decides. To get ahead, to make good, to get away from St. Urbain Street and its taint of poverty-ridden struggle and the worst lingering despairs of the “Old Country” is what they wish for their children, and their self-imposed self sacrifice is both the bane of their families’ existence and the driving force which propels them all onward. In adulthood the children of those ubiquitous mothers begin at last to understand this and give homage; in childhood they merely endure and dodge the good advice and the blows with equal agility.

These stories are full of a sense of a very particular place and time, Montreal of the early 1940s, captured in microscopic detail of sight, sound and smell in Richler’s steel-trap memory. His boyhood companions are familiar to us from similar narrators and from Richler’s previous works; Duddy Kravitz is present, spouting off his knowing comments, and the author assumes we know who he is, assumes that his readers already know the context and are willing participants in the narrative. And while the scene here is unmistakeably this very small corner of Montreal, it is evocative of similar boyhoods and experiences in New York and London and any of the other key locales in the continual global diaspora and resettling of the Hebrew race.

For this is, above everything else, a very Jewish book, as well as being a Montreal book, and a Canadian book; Richler makes no bones about the uniqueness of this aspect of his own experience and of the importance of it in the scenes he so meticulously describes. His Jewishness is at the core of his very being; everything else is layered on top.

Heads up, gentle readers expecting a mildly humorous memoir, for this author is proud of his outspokenness and his humour has a cutting edge; it is also frequently bawdy, and full of the smuttiness of guffawing enclaves of adolescent boys. That hoary old dirty joke, “Bloomberg’s dead!”, is here on page 23, told with especial glee, and more of the same is scattered liberally throughout.

Mordecai Richler can be terribly rude, but he is also very, very good. I had forgotten quite how good. I do believe it is time for another visit with the one and only Duddy Kravitz.

Here are some other thoughts on The Street.

Kevin from Canada: The Street

Humanities 360: Erin Yorke reviews The Street

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