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Charles Taylor Prize

Exclusive excerpt: Mordecai Richler's struggles with his greatest novel Add to ...

This is the fifth of a series of excerpts from the five books nominated for the 2011 Charles Taylor Prize. We are presenting one every day this week. The prize will be awarded next Monday (Feb. 14) in Toronto.

Solomon Gursky Was Here was launched at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto in October 1989. In addition to giving a reading, Richler participated, alongside Margaret Atwood and the renowned economist John Kenneth Galbraith, in a tribute to Robertson Davies. It was his second year in a row paying tribute to an elder, having agreed in 1988 to salute Morley Callaghan on the same stage. He complimented the stylish Davies for not only being a master of magic but looking like one, in contrast with most writers, who resemble "drug dealers, school mistresses who have been discharged for moral turpitude, card sharpers, barmaids or shoplifters." At a dinner before the event, seated next to the very tall, elegant Galbraith, he deferred to another intimidating Anglo-Saxon. "You're not going to smoke that thing around me, are you?" Galbraith asked, referring to the cigar he was about to light up. "Oh no sir, no sir," Richler replied, butting out. The moment was a foretaste of another impending battle in the new decade: the growing intolerance of public smoking.

"A big, risky marriage of extravagant comic myth and compelling realism," cried Maclean's, and a "stunning triumph of the imagination." In Alberta, critics declared it "a masterpiece of complexity and intelligence" and "a superb work, a rowdy, roistering tour de force." The Vancouver Sun observed "Richler's maturity of style," and even his old sparring partner George Woodcock granted that it was an "admirably sustained novel . . . an impressive balance of comedy and pathos that no writers achieve early and few achieve at all." By February alone, Gurksy would have sold 38,000 copies in hardcover in Canada, with another 20,000 printed once it was named a Canadian Book-of-the-Month Club selection - some consolation for his being terminated as a juror. "So far the reviews have been mostly grand," he informed Deborah Rogers.

The purest insight into Solomon Gursky Was Here came from a ten-minute CBC TV segment that aired on the evening newscast The National. Rex Murphy, forewarned by colleagues that talking to Richler would be bruising, travelled to the Townships ready for a hostile interview. He found him polite and courteous. It didn't hurt that Murphy, the erudite, maverick Newfoundland commentator and critic, passionate about literature and well read, brought the force of his own powerful reading of the novel to the encounter. By devoting years of work to Gursky, a book with "epic appetite," Murphy told Canadians, "Richler has done something large here." CBC viewers, many catching sight of the author for the first time since the debate about free trade, received his thoughtful answers. "I took a lot of risks," he said. "You start off with dreams of perfection. It never ends up that way." But it was notable how much Mordecai Richler had aged during the intervening twenty-four months. He appeared ragged and puffy, his hair gone grey and his voice rasped with fatigue. Penguin, while careful to run each media request by him - he refused about half, mostly those for very small outlets - had nevertheless subjected him to close to fifty TV, radio and print interviews, many of them lengthy. He had done his part; once he agreed to a media encounter, he kept his word and, more often than not, was generous, if also still testy with bad or rude interviewers, and not above walking out of unpleasant encounters.

The cameras hinted at the mental and physical effort he had expended in order to lift Gursky over a decade to its present level. It had begun as a jumble of too many stories and characters spread across too much narrative, with the thematic ambitions threatening to overtax a structure he had to perpetually redesign, leaving him much of the time unsure that his opus wasn't a colossal miscalculation. His greatest book, the one he had been born to write - though possible only after decades of lived experience, literary training and deepening wisdom about human affairs - had been the hardest to get right. Though he would never have said it, Gursky was also both his contribution to Canadian literature, and his challenge to it - to be bigger, bolder, funnier, more profane and outrageous and full of teeming life. This was his testament, his declaration that "M.R. Was Here"; it was the novel he hoped would outlast him. But if either its inherent complexities, its pressuring of the stamina and taste of most readers, or simply its strangeness - strange to Canadian writing, strange even to his own canon - meant that Gursky would be a slow, tough sell, so be it.

The final page, in fact, spoke to the elusiveness of not only Richler's aspirations but those of any artist who seeks to remake the world, fresh and original, in fiction. Like Jake Hirsh with his eternal Horseman, Moses Berger - his own work and life a hopeless muddle - watches as a small airplane is transformed into a "big menacing black bird, the likes of which hadn't been seen over Lake Memphremagog since the record cold spell of 1851." What else could it be but the raven, with its eternal "unquenchable itch to meddle and provoke things, to play tricks on the world and its creatures?"

Excerpted from Mordecai: The Life & Times, by Charles Foran. Reprinted by permission of the publisher

Monday: Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven, by Ross King Tuesday: The Geography of Arrival: A Memoir, by George Sipos Wednesday: The Love Queen of Malabar: Memoir of a Friendship with Kamala Das, by Merrily Weisbord Yesterday: On the Farm: Robert William Pickton and the Tragic Story of Vancouver's Missing Women, by Stevie Cameron

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