Posts Tagged ‘Mordecai Richler’

The Great Comic Book Heroes and Other Essays by Mordecai Richler ~ 1978. This edition: McClelland and Stuart, 1978. New Canadian Library # 152. Selected and Introduced by Robert Fulford. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7710-9268-7. 194 pages.

I haven’t been reading much this last while, as I’m rather deeply involved with our regional performing arts festival which had its first session this past week, and when the various disciplines are running there isn’t much down time for the organizing team.

It’s taken me that whole week to get through this slim volume of essays, and some of what I read is a tad bit blurred around the edges because of how tired I was whenever I managed to sneak a few pages in, but I must say that it was, overall, an engrossing read. All of these essays are very good; some are superlative.

The essays were written by Richler between 1961 and 1971, first appearing in various periodicals, and then being among others collected into two compilations: Hunting Tigers Under Glass ( 1968), and Shovelling Trouble (1972). This collection is therefore a gleaning of the best of two other collections, and the standard is expectedly high.

If there is any sort of a uniting thread running through these varied musings, it is that of Jewishness. Mordecai Richler in his fiction writing – The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz et al – was a great examiner of what it meant to be Jewish, and more specifically, to be Jewish in Canada.

Richler’s essays in some ways reach farther than his novels did, in their range and subject matter, but they remain intimately connected to the writer’s cultural roots, and this accounts for a great degree of their humour and their poignancy.

Maple Leaf Culture Time (first appeared in the New Statesman, 1967): A brief introductory essay on the occasion of Canada’s Centennial in 1967.

Today we are well into the sweeter hour of Canadian romance, maple leaf culture time, an era at once embarrassingly grandiose, yet charged with promise. We are smitten with an unseemingly hasty tendency to count and codify, issuing definitive anthologies of 100 years of poetry and prose and fat literary anthologies, as if by cataloguing we can make it real…

“Êtes-vous canadien?” (first appeared in the New Statesman, 1969): On receiving the Governor-General’s award for literature in 1969, Richler muses on many things, ranging from the office of the Governor-General itself (the Queen’s representative in Canada, for those not in the loop), the perennial French-English divide, and how to best balance ethical trueness-to-one’s-art with the very human wish to bask in the spotlight of receiving a major (if possibly flawed) national literary award. Leonard Cohen and compatriots are referenced, with Richler’s eyebrow quirkily raised.

Bond (first appeared in Commentary, 1968): This essay alone is worth the price of the book. Mordecai Richler, father of young sons, is appalled (loudly) by the current popularity (in 1968) of the suave Mr. Bond, and a scathing examination of the fictional hero himself and, more to the point, Bond’s creator Ian Fleming, follows. The gist of the thing is that Richler asserts that Ian Fleming was fundamentally anti-Semitic, and that his fictional alter-ego exhibits extreme bigotry of various sorts. Did I say “scathing”? Yes, indeed. And also thought-provoking, and very funny. Agree or disagree, I suspect you will never look at Bond (or Fleming) the same again.

A Sense of the Ridiculous (first appeared in the New American Review, 1968): An aging Richler (forty looms!) muses on the hungry generation following his, and the reluctant transition between being a striving young writer, and one who is “expected to deliver”. A slightly melancholy, wryly humorous, and ultimately rather charming revisitation of the life-changing Parisian episode of Richler’s youthful days.

Why I Write (first appeared in Works in Progress, 1971): More looking back, and another wonderfully composed snippet of autobiography and writerly self-analysis.

As I write, October 1970, I have just finished a novel of intimidating length, a fiction begun five years ago, on the other side of the moon, so I am, understandably enough, concerned by the state of the novel in general. Is it dead? Dead again. Like God or MGM. Father McLuhan says so (writing, ‘The Age of Writing has passed’) and Dylan Thomas’s daughter recently pronounced stingingly from Rome, “Nobody reads novels any more.”

I’m soon going to be forty. Too old to learn how to teach. Or play the guitar. Stuck, like the blacksmith, with the only craft I know. But brooding about the novel, and its present unmodishness, it’s not the established practitioner I’m grieving for, it’s the novice, the otherwise effervescent young man stricken with the wasting disease whose earliest symptom is the first novel. These are far from halcyon days for the fledgling novelist…

O Canada: An essay on the arts, on the occasion of Canada’s Centennial.

At the time [1954], it seemed to many observers, myself included, that the country was starved for culture, and nothing could be worse. How foolish we were. For now [1967] that the country is culture-crazed and more preoccupied than ever before with its own absence of a navel, how one longs for Canada’s engaging buckeye suspicion of art and artists of not long ago. I was brought up in a folksy Canada. I remember the bad old days when it was necessary to come to the defense of artistic youngsters, and we suffered a weave of enlightened CBC radio and TV plays which educated the public to the fact that we were not all notoriously heavy drinkers, like William Faulkner, or queers, like Jean Genet. We strung words together sort of, but we were regular fellers: Canadians. In a typical play a sensitive little twerp named David or Christopher, usually son of a boorish insurance agent, roused his dad’s ire because he wouldn’t play hockey or hit back. Instead he was studying piano with an effeminate Frenchman or painting with a tricksy Hungarian Jew (“A piece of blank paper! Mit a brush und paints, vot an opportunity for beauty!”) and in the end made dad eat his words by winning the piano competition in Toronto or, if the writer was inclined to irony, by being commissioned to paint a mural for the new skyscraper being built by the insurance company dad worked for…

Expo 67: More of the same – the arts in Canada circa the Centennial – with a bonus on-the-ground visit to Expo itself.

The Great Comic Book Heroes: Mordecai Richler delves into the wonderfully strange world of the comic book heroes of his youth. Another 5-star essay in this collection.

The Batman and Robin, the unsparing Dr. Wertham [author of Seduction of the Innocent, a passionately negative critique of the comic book genre] wrote, were also kinky. “Sometimes Batman ends up in bed injured and young Robin is shown sitting next to him. At home they lead an idyllic life. They are Bruce Wayne and ‘Dick’ Grayson. Bruce Wayne is described as a ‘socialite’ and the official relationship is that Dick is Bruce’s ward. They live in sumptuous quarters with beautiful flowers in large vases …. It is like the wish dream of two homosexuals living together.”

Unfortunately I cannot personally vouch for the sexual proclivities of ‘socialites’, but I don’t see anything necessarily homosexual in “beautiful flowers in large vases.” This strikes me as witch-hunting. Sexual McCarthyism. Unless the aforesaid flowers were pansies, which would, I admit, just about clinch the good doctor’s case. As, however, he does not specify pansies, we may reasonably assume they were another variety of flora. If so, what? Satyric rambling roses? Jewy yellow daffodils? Droopy impotent peonies? Communist-front orchids? More evidence, please…

Writing for the Movies: On the soul-destroying occupation of writing for the silver screen.

Once, it was ruled that any serious novelist or playwright who tried his hand at film-writing was a sellout. Indeed, many a novelist-turned-screenwriter next proffered a self-justifying, lid-lifting novel about Hollywood, wherein the most masculine stars were surreptitiously (not to say gratifyingly) queer, the most glamorous girls were empty inside, deep inside, but lo and behold, the writer, on the last page, had left the dream palace, fresh winds rippling through his untamed hair, to write the book-of-the-month you had just finished reading. Later, the novelist returns to Hollywood, but on his own terms, to do the screenplay of his novel. It was filmed frankly, outspokenly, and everybody felt better inside, deep inside…

The Catskills (first appeared in Holiday, 1965): Recreation, upper class Jewish style, in the lavish mid-century resorts of New York’s Catskill Mountains.

This Year in Jerusalem (first appeared in Maclean’s, 1961): The most serious essay in this compilation, and much the most pertinent to present-day current affairs, as Richler visits Israel and reports on its aggressive optimism, its bitter origins, its deep cultural divides (Jewish/Palestinian, Old World/New World/African Jew, rural kibbutznick/urban dweller), and some of the more surreal aspects of “development” in the old-new Hebraic homeland.

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My personal rating for the collection as a whole: a strong 8/10.

 

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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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