Mordecai Richler, by. M.G. Vassanji, Penguin Canada, 236 pages, $26
For his fine series of biographies of Extraordinary Canadians, John Ralston Saul brings together important and visible figures from the remote or near past, with, as he writes in his introduction, "imaginative, questioning minds from among our leading writers and activists. They have, each one of them, a powerful connection to their subject."
The crucial component is the connection, real or imagined, between the biographee and the biographer. For his portrait of Lester B. Pearson, for example, Andrew Cohen was the detached but informed observer, recording Pearson's many remarkable achievements and failures and rendering a superb biography of the prime minister "who for two decades was the best-known Canadian in the world and one of the pivotal figures of our country's existence."
On the other hand, M.G. Vassanji knew Mordecai Richler, had met him on a few occasions and uses his biography "to get to know him." Respectful yet probing, he creates a solid and intriguing biography of one of the most private yet profound writers of the Canadian scene.
Beginning with Richler's grandparents, Vassanji weaves a complex web of influences on the young writer. In Origins, the book's longest chapter, we learn that Richler's maternal grandfather was an eminent Hasidic rabbi and scholar from Poland, who had immigrated to Canada in 1912; his paternal grandfather had arrived in 1904 from Galicia, a province in Eastern Europe, and was in the scrap-metal business. When the latter, stern and dictatorial in all matters, died, 14-year-old Mordecai, already the family rebel, was not allowed to touch his coffin, the grandfather's final punishment of his erring offspring.
In his early correspondence with friends, Richler writes exuberantly about his vocation as a budding writer. But Vassanji finds, in Richler's letters to his father, the private man, "son and child, struggling with emotion, survival, family." Richler even evidences fear of abandonment, which Vassanji sees as significant for someone struggling with the question of Jewish identity and assimilation. Richler and his friends, Vassanji notes, "a generation or a little more removed from their Eastern European Jewish ancestry, were North Americans formed in the cauldrons of the immigrant neighbourhoods of the great cities to which their grandfathers had arrived to start their new lives."
Charting Richler's many literary triumphs, Vassanji offers poignant synopses of these many books, always bringing them to bear on Richler's personal life. The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is "first and foremost a novel about a pusherke who happens to be a Jew in Montreal." There is "the brilliant and complex novel St. Urbain's Horseman ." There is Solomon Gursky was Here , "his most ambitious and riskiest book, linking his personally staked-out space of Jewish Montreal with the Canadian North, the rituals of Judaism with the rituals of the Inuit, the history of Canada with the history of the Jews. Daring and brilliant in its conception, it is in a sense a Jewish and personal appropriation of Canada." And then there is Barney's Version , Richler's greatest achievement, "at its core the tender love story of an irrepressible but declining man, with a soupçon of mystery."
Richler, Vassanji concludes, "broadened the cultural scope of Canadian fiction; he brought to it an exuberance it had not seen, with his vernacular, his wit, his indomitable though often tortured characters."
Any good biography engages the biographer. Mordecai Richler is no exception. The portrait painted is of a tortured and questing Jew coming to terms with his complex past. And though Vassanji does quote a young Richler on the opening page - "I don't consider myself a Jewish or Canadian writer. I am a writer" - his focus is on the outsider, the exile, the Jew trying to ascertain his own identity.
Both Richler and Vassanji grew up, as Vassanji observes, "in an urban colonial setting, in closed, religiously observant, jealous communities. One in Montreal, the other in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania." And when Vassanji writes of Richler, he often writes about the writer, perhaps himself: "The truth of course is that the next book awaits to be accomplished, writing which means to return daily to the loneliness of the work desk, stare at the raw page on the typewriter, and resurrect all those doubts of before."
In the penultimate chapter, the language issue in Quebec summons Vassanji's perspective. "My own community of Indians in East Africa forwent their native tongue for English in schools, to great advantage, but then have always grappled for cultural integrity and memory."
Mordecai Richler is a dialogue between a great writer, Richler, and a commanding contemporary writer, Vassanji, in which the lines of demarcation between biographee and biographer are sometimes blurred, the spectre of the biographee inviting commentary and personal reflection from the biographer.
For Vassanji, Richler "escaped, discovered himself, and returned, but stayed at an angle with his world, always the exile, the writer." Perhaps Vassanji too?
A professor of English at the University of Ottawa, David Staines is general editor of the New Canadian Library, which contains nine fiction titles by Mordecai Richler.