Reviewed by Emily Robins Sharpe
Mordecai Richler: Leaving St. Urbain. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008.
From the cover of Mordecai Richler: Leaving St. Urbain, one of Richler’s eyes glowers at the reader. The photo is an interesting pick for Reinhold Kramer’s biography, the 2008 winner of a Canadian Jewish Book Award and the Gabrielle Roy Prize. This image of one-dimensional vision is at odds with the multiple perspectives on Richler in existence: early biographies by Arnold E. Davidson, Victor Ramraj, and George Woodcock have been joined, since Richler’s death in 2001, by no less than six biographical studies (Ada Craniford, Mordecai Richler: A Life in Ten Novels; Charles Foran, Mordecai: The Life & Times; Michael Posner, The Last Honest Man: Mordecai Richler: An Oral Biography; M.G. Vassanji, Mordecai Richler; Joel Yanofsky, Mordecai & Me: An Appreciation of a Kind), as well as Francine Pelletier’s documentary Mordecai Richler: The Last of the Wild Jews. There are, in other words, many versions of Richler out there. Kramer’s biography represents an important one.
Kramer, an English professor at Brandon University, has assembled an impressively researched narrative of Richler’s life (and an amply documented one—the end notes compose nearly one-fifth of the book’s pages). Controversial abroad and at home, with Anglophones and Francophones, Jews and gentiles, left-wing and right-wing alike, Richler was a polarizing figure in Canadian fiction and politics who seemed “both the enfant terrible of Canadian nationalism (the traitor who took potshots at the idols of the tribe) and the poster-boy for Canada (the Canadian who had made an international success of himself)” (168). This version of Richler—the intentionally contentious, curmudgeonly cosmopolite—is perhaps not so different from other representations, but Kramer’s careful use of archival research, interviews, previous studies, and literary analysis, deepens and complicates this understanding. Focusing in particular on Richler’s evolving attitudes towards Israel and Québec, Kramer expands earlier characterizations of Richler’s uneasy anti-nationalism and secular Jewishness, tracing the author’s work from “an early attempt to make himself over as a writer of the Anglo-American avant-garde… towards a more inclusive cosmopolitanism” (4), and elucidating his experimental fiction, his struggles with the role of “ethnic” writer, “simultaneous insider and outsider among the Jews” (3).
With sections divided between Canada and abroad (Paris, Ibiza, London, Rome, and Israel), Kramer provides a detailed overview of Richler’s grandparents and parents (and their unhappy marriage) before introducing us to Richler, his two marriages (to Catherine Boudreau and Florence Mann), five children, many travels, and many more controversies. He does not avoid discussing Richler’s personal foibles, or his always complicated attitudes towards identity politics. Kramer describes the many conflicting beliefs about Richler’s drinking: an alcoholic, some friends and family members believed, a drinker because of his tenuous relationship with his mother, according to another, a drinker because it helped him write, according to his brother, Avrum Richler. Of the possibility of Richler’s racism, Kramer weighs the author’s racially demeaning jokes in private, his misinterpretation of Canadian discrimination—commenting that “[as] for Canada not having a colour problem, Richler simply didn’t know what he was talking about” (207)—and Richler’s similar jokes against his own minority with his literary mockery of racism. Kramer is similarly sensitive in charting Richler’s relationship with Judaism and the Montreal and Israeli Jewish communities, and in describing the author’s vocal role in the separatism wars, as “push[ing] his audiences into extreme positions, [while] his satire against the excesses of nationalist self-congratulation helped to tone down the enforcement of the sign laws” (333).
Despite repeated mentions of Richler’s aversion to literature as therapy, to biographical interpretations of his writings, and to literary biography, throughout Leaving St. Urbain, Kramer emphasizes the autobiographical underpinnings of much of Richler’s fiction, including analyses (and a chart) of family members’ and friends’ fictional counterparts, and discussions of how specific incidents from the author’s life are reflected in the fiction. Kramer concentrates, for instance, on Richler’s ambivalent relationship with his mother, Lily, recounted from her perspective in the 1981 autobiography The Errand Runner: Memoirs of a Rabbi’s Daughter. Kramer attributes much of Richler’s angst to their strained relationship, and particularly to an incident in Richler’s adolescence when he witnessed Lily cheat on Richler’s father. Kramer makes a compelling case for this betrayal—and for the increasing estrangement between mother and son—as a key influence on Richer’s personality, and on his mother characters; however, given Kramer’s repeated invocation of the lingering effects of the affair upon Richler, it is strange to read of her death characterized as “less important” than that of journalist Nick Auf der Maur’s (361). When discussing connections between Richler’s first published novel, The Acrobats, his later novel similarly focused on the Spanish Civil War, Joshua Then and Now, and the unpublished memoir Back to Ibiza, Kramer offers a textual Venn diagram for separating autobiography from fiction, distinguishing between what is “likely fictional,” “likely factual,” and what “may be factual” (76; emphasis author’s). This speculation undercuts what is, on its own, significant biographical and textual research. While Kramer includes many charming and poignant anecdotes from the many interviews he conducted, these strained attempts to speculate on the connections between Richler’s life and fiction can seem contrived, an artificial attempt to unlock the author’s stories.
All this is not to say that Kramer’s comparisons are completely unfounded: his archival research and interview transcripts suggest that many of Richler’s familiars believed his characters and plots to be based upon real people and events. As Kramer notes, Richler was also capable of “laying a trap for biographers” in his archives: “With Richler one can never count out a complex practical joke” (360). My critique, then, is that Kramer’s emphasis on the real-life elements of the works overshadows his otherwise trenchant analyses of the novels. Kramer concludes that Richler grew “more canny in how he used his life” (273; emphasis author’s), and, while it is certainly fair to not take an author at his word, such autobiographical analysis seems to preclude deeper literary analysis, refusing Richler the creative skill to compose a completely fictionalized narrative.
These quibbles with Kramer’s plot analysis are minor, however, compared to Leaving St. Urbain’s contributions to textual scholarship and biographical knowledge, and for the hilarity and poignancy of some of the materials he has unearthed. An early draft of Cocksure, for instance, in which “‘Sturmbannfuehrers and condemned Jews had temporarily put the furnaces behind them, giving their all to [a] soccer game’ on the fields of Dachau, proving how much the two groups had in common” (188), is, in its pointed satire, a harsh critique of “efforts to move beyond the Holocaust” (188). The biography is also entertaining for Kramer’s deft hand with anecdotes: a scene of Margaret Laurence “quietly suffering” at a party with former flame George Lamming; or of Richler “bawl[ing] out” Leonard Cohen for refusing his Governor General’s Award when Richler wanted to accept his (202); or of Richler’s son Jacob using Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang “as a come-on line to get dates” (259); or Isaac Bashevis Singer flirting with Florence (331); or the Impure Wool Society, established by Richler and his friends to award the “Prix Parizeau” for “the best work of fiction by an ethnic or impure wool Quebecker” (350).
Perhaps, then, my real protest is to the biography’s conclusion: Kramer closes with Richler’s death, and little further commentary—an abrupt ending to a book I was hoping wouldn’t end. While Kramer’s biographical interpretations are only one way of viewing Richler’s texts, in its intricate, exacting layering of archives, interviews, and interpretation, Leaving St. Urbain represents an important intervention in developing understandings of Richler and his oeuvre.
At press time: Emily Robins Sharpe is a PhD candidate at Penn State University. Her dissertation focuses on the Spanish Civil War and transnational modernist articulations of multiculturalism. With Dr. Jonathan P. Eburne, she is currently at work on a scholarly edition of Hugh Garner's short stories. She is co-director, with Dr. Bart Vautour, of a four-phase project devoted to the recovery and presentation of Canadian writing about the Spanish Civil War.
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