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Review: Biography

Mordecai, then and now Add to ...

This season belongs to Mordecai. Barney's Version, starring Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman, has premiered at two Canadian film festivals and Noah Richler has published a long magazine piece mixing memoir with life on the film set. There is even to be a TV documentary - all of this following a 2008 biography by Reinhold Kramer and M.G. Vassanji's Mordecai Richler, a short account published in 2009.

To some, Richler was "the poet of the colloquial," but to others, he was a crass, loud-mouthed, drinking, in-your-face un-Canadian Canadian who hated cant and hypocrisy. This new biography merges both views.

Charles Foran's comprehensive, richly written life is the first to have the support of Richler's family, especially his widow, Florence. Foran also had access to a restricted archive of about 1,000 letters housed with the general archive at the University of Calgary. There, among other papers, he located a scathing letter written in 1976 of about 3,000 words by Richler to his estranged mother.

A more accurate title for the biography, however, might be Mordecai: Twelve Bagels on a String. Both the virtue and the vice of Foran's work is its detail, alternately enlightening and enervating. The detail about the 12 bagels comes from Foran's description of Richler's neighbourhood bagelry on Montreal's Fairmount that sold a dozen bagels on a string. It was around the corner from Wilensky's restaurant, which offered "sour pickles at the front, along with cigars, used books and magazines." Further detail explains the popularity of the telephone booth at the restaurant: Many patrons had no home phones and those sitting on the counter stools were just waiting to make calls.

Such detail overpopulates the biography and becomes the catalyst for various imaginary passages. Describing one of Richler's final walks through Montreal with his close friend William Weintraub, Foran appears to join both on a Sherbrooke Street bench near the Le Chateau apartment building to describe what Richler might have seen. This becomes a travelogue of almost every building westward to Westmount, eastward toward McGill, northward to the top of Mount Royal and then down to Jeanne Mance Park, formerly Fletcher's Field, "at the bottom of its eastern slope." It's an unusual scene, as if Foran felt compelled to situate Richler at the centre of a bird's-eye view of the entire city.

But such treatment should not be a surprise: Foran has published four novels, and the presentation of Richler throughout the biography reflects his skill at fiction. Scenes dominate the story, supported by detail that substitutes for interpretation. He even admits his preference for "novelizing" the story in a bibliographic essay where he confesses that in Part I there is a single, if blatant, "biographical 'invention,' " an event that has "more narrative authority than memories allow." It involves Richler's grandfather, the Hasidic Rabbi Yudel Rosenberg, retelling stories of the Golem to his grandsons. Additional scenes possess a similar vitality, the product of imagination rather than fact.

One consequence of the family's approval, however, is Foran's hesitation to make judgments about Richler's behaviour. The conflicts that ran through his life, from the psychological impact of his mother leaving his father and taking a lover while sharing a bedroom with her young son in the boarding house she ran, to Richler's 40-year estrangement from his brother Avrum or falling in love with another woman at his pre-wedding dinner and plotting divorce in the years that followed, are reported but not analyzed. The scornful letter Richler wrote to his mother in 1976 simply appears without comment.

At other times in Foran's narrative, Richler appears only as a compass to the city's ethnic life. Stepping on to St. Urbain Street gives Foran an opportunity to give the history of the neighbourhood. Identifying Richler's Hampstead neighbourhood in London becomes an occasion to mention Blake, Keats and Dickens, as well as Freud and T.S. Eliot, all one-time residents.

The most vibrant passages in Foran's account are direct statements from individual letters, memoirs, documents or criticism. In these sections, Richler and others speak caustically and candidly. In the most personal passages, such as Florence Richler's account of her final moments with Mordecai, there is an intensity and closeness to the subject that cuts away much of the distracting and often superfluous detail.

There are highlights: Richler's meeting Florence Mann on the eve of his wedding to Catherine Boudreau; his meeting with and assessment of Pierre Trudeau, who could never be elected prime minister because "he was impaired by wit. Compromised by irony. Disqualified by an inability to suffer fools"; his amused pleasure at winning the Giller Prize for Barney's Version. And throughout the life, Foran emphasizes Richler's commitment to his writing. He worked every day at being a writer, even during his illness (Richler died of cancer in 2001 at the ago of 70).

Foran's combination of daunting research with novelistic writing has "reconstructed" rather than "interpreted" Richler's life, though occasional moments underscore Richler's rare displays of deeply felt emotions and his resistance to curbing his two obsessions: smoking and drinking. But Mordecai remains a history more than a portrait, with all the requisite dates, locations, actors and drama. Every bagel is counted.

Ira Nadel is the author of Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen and the recently published Leon Uris: Life of a Bestseller.

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