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Mordecai Richler (The Globe and Mail)
Mordecai Richler (The Globe and Mail)

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Why Mordecai Richler isn't being studied in Canadian universities Add to ...

Judged by his profile in the media and entertainment industries, no Canadian author alive or dead is as popular today as Mordecai Richler, the subject of a thick new biography ( Mordecai: The Life and Times by Charles Foran), an upcoming documentary ( Mordecai Richler: The Last of the Wild Jews), as well as the posthumous inspiration for the soon-to-be-released film adaptation of Barney's Version.

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Judged by his profile on university courses that teach Canadian literature, however, Mordecai Richler barely exists. No other author so widely admired both in his day and after is less conspicuous in the emerging canon of Canadian literature - a continuing irritant his admirers are eager to redress.

A quick survey shows that neither Queen's University, nor the University of Toronto, Concordia University, Dalhousie University, University of Alberta, York University, the University of Saskatchewan and Simon Fraser University name a single work by Richler in lists of texts for either undergraduate or graduate-level courses on Canadian literature.

Among the dozens of authors listed for study in the University of British Columbia's undergraduate courses in Canadian literature, Richler is mentioned only once. And the Montreal author gets equal treatment in both undergraduate and graduate CanLit courses at McGill University - appearing on only one course list on urban writing as author of The Street, a little-known volume of early stories.

That alone does not make Richler neglected, according to McGill English professor Peter Webb. "He happens not to have been on either of my courses at McGill in the fall, 2010, term, but one should not imply any aversion to Richler on that basis," he wrote in an e-mail, adding that he has, in the past, taught Richler work to undergraduates.

But lagging academic interest is also evident in the lists of research grants given out by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council over the past dozen years. Margaret Atwood has been the subject of 10 SSHRC-funded studies in that time frame, with popular colleagues Michael Ondaatje and Alice Munro the focus of seven studies each. Six projects studied the comparatively little-known Toronto writer Dionne Brand. Richler, by contrast, has been the subject of only one SSHRC-funded study since 1998.

"The sense that the teaching of Mordecai Richler's work is in decline within the Canadian academy is not new," according to Karis Shearer, a Montreal academic who teaches a graduate course at Concordia University on the teaching of Canadian literature, including the all-important business of "canon-making." The issue first came to a head six years ago, when the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada organized a Richler symposium to make up for what organizers called the "remarkably little academic attention" he has achieved.

But little changed as a result, and Richler's status remains at best indeterminate. One of the reasons, according to Shearer, is the sheer diversity of course offerings in Canadian universities. "That's not a bad thing," she says, "but it can make it more difficult to speak generally about an author's status in the academy."

The author's many non-academic fans are less reticent. Richler is "both misunderstood and totally under-represented," according to Toronto literary agent Michael Levine, who worked closely with the author in his later years. Levine blames "elements of the community, including elements of the Jewish community and French community and others," for repressing academic research on Richler.

Levine says he is determined to rectify the situation but has "no master plan and green eye shade" prepared for the task. "To me it is simply a matter of speaking to a wide swath of people," he says. "There are many sympathetic academics."

Like other Richler admirers, Levine expects the publication of Mordecai, Foran's weighty and well-received biography, to redress the perceived academic neglect. But Foran - like Richler a non-academic, full-time writer with several novels behind him - is not so sure. Since publishing the book this fall, he has discovered during various interviews and Richler-related events just how deep-seated the old antipathies remain, both among the Quebec nationalists whose project Richler savaged so effectively and among fellow Jews who saw him as a renegade exposing his community to the ridicule of anti-Semites.

Richler likewise offends contemporary literary sensibilities, according to Foran, especially what he considers to be the "pinched and ahistorical and impoverished notion of literature" that currently rules the academy. "More and more we want our novels - even those novels taught at the university level - to have simple and clear, preferably progressive thematic concerns," he says. "They have to relate to progressive politics, they have to relate to social justice. What are these words doing mixed up with literature?"

There are no such programs in Richler novels. The author is condemned because "Duddy cashes the cheque," according to Foran. The final event of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is the hero swindling his friend. The moral is opaque, to say the least.

University of Toronto professor Sam Solecki, who regards Richler as "one of the two or three most talented and interesting writers in the Canadian canon," and who has taught his work frequently, agrees with Foran that contemporary readers "tend to avoid politically incorrect or troubling ironists and 'contrarians' like Richler."

A raunchy sex scene from Cocksure involving an elderly school teacher and her unruly boy pupils was a typical Richler provocation, according to Solecki, "a middle finger raised at anyone obsessed with propriety and middle-class morality." Richler took pains to offend as many minorities as possible, including his own Jewish community, and is paying the price posthumously.

Solecki also accuses contemporary academics of "terminal 'presentism' in their rush to be relevant," which leads them to ignore even the recent past. "Contemporary works, those that are up-to-the-moment, have an added attraction for the professoriat: No one has written about them yet," he writes in an e-mail. And some students think a writer who uses words or allusions they don't know "is an elitist who is insulting them," according to Solecki, while others accuse Richler of being sexist, irreligious or insufficiently multicultural.

Solecki speculates that Richler, who died in 2001, is "perhaps suffering the dip in reputation that occurs after the death of any prominent writer" - not unlike what happened to Montreal-born Saul Bellow, with whom he compares Richler. What sets him apart from the CanLit canon is that fact that so much of his work remains in print. "He's being read," the professor said. "That's what matters."

The documentary Mordecai Richler: The Last of the Wild Jews will be aired on Bravo! at 8 p.m. Sunday.

The feature film Barney's Version opens in Canadian cinemas next Friday.

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