A 738-page biography of one of the great irascibles of Canadian letters has won the $25,000 Charles Taylor Prize for excellence in literary non-fiction by a Canadian author.
Mordecai: The Life and Times by veteran Peterborough, Ont. author Charles Foran -- a biography of Duddy Kravitz and Barney’s Version creator Mordecai Richler, who died 10 years ago this July at 70 -- prevailed over four other finalists at a luncheon ceremony Monday to take the prize. It was established in 2000 by arts philanthropist Noreen Taylor to honour the memory of her late husband, Charles Taylor, the prominent Canadian journalist, author and horse-breeder.
The win was greeted by a standing ovation from the crowd in a downtown Toronto hotel ballroom. Described by the prize’s three-member jury as “a rich and compelling portrait,” the book was one of more than 150 titles, all published in 2010, submitted for the award.
The jurors -- Toronto writer David Macfarlane, novelist/creative writing professor Neil Bissoondath from Quebec City, Vancouver comparative literature scholar Eva-Marie Kroller -- said they were unanimous in giving Foran the prize, with the decision to do so made relatively quickly because, as Macfarlane observed, “there was little debate.” Kroller said she was won over by “the range of the book, the storytelling skills, the international allure of Richler,” while both Bissoondath and Macfarlane applauded Foran for his use of language and the reading pleasure that elicited. Indeed, “every book on the short list was a pleasure to read.”
One of Foran’s biggest ambitions -- and that of his Knopf Canada editor Louise Dennys -- was to “keep up the book’s momentum,” as the author remarked in a brief interview after receiving his award. “You want to be thorough but you want to keep the reader engaged. Without Louise, it would have been 70,000 words longer . . . So I’ve been pleased by readers’ reports saying they’d read the biography in three or four sittings because it means they were coming close to experiencing it as a page-turner.” At the same time, Foran, 50, pooh-poohed those who’ve described Mordecai as “authoritative” or “exhaustive . . . It’s nowhere near that; it’s an experience of his life. I could give you the keys to my studio and in four years you’d come out with a very different book than mine.”
Foran’s biography is only the latest instalment in a seeming renaissance of interest in Richler the man and the artist. The film adaptation of Barney’s Version, Richler’s last novel, from 1997, is currently in theatrical release in North America and enjoying particularly strong returns in Canada. Late last year Bravo! aired a documentary on the author, co-written by Foran, called Mordecai: The Last of the Wild Jews. On the horizon is a new musical adaptation of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, expected to premiere in 2012, plus possible movie versions of the novels Cocksure (1968) and Solomon Gursky Was Here (1989).
“It’s not unusual for a writer to experience a dip in interest after he dies,” Foran remarked. “Sometimes the obscurity settles in. Or he or she revives and is returned to prominence. I hope my book will help with that, along with the films and other things. But ultimately it’s the books themselves,” he said, and the approbation of the academy -- “since it still inculcates our young people in many of their interests and disinterests” -- that will determine Richler’s long-term literary health.
Yet Foran didn’t downplay the difficulties Richler faces. “The books are deeply rooted in their time and place, by his own design. Richler liked to describe himself as being nothing more than an ‘honest witness to my age.’ And I know of a professor at Trent [University, Peterborough] who stopped teaching Richler . . . because the kids got bogged down because of that.
“Sometimes,” Foran laughed, “I think the only successful literature of the 21st century will be endless deracinated fables about animals. And I say this as a friend of Yann Martel and someone who loves Life of Pi!”
The other works shortlisted for the 2010-11 Taylor Prize were On the Farm: Robert William Pickton and the Tragic Story of Vancouver’s Missing Women by Stevie Cameron, Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven by Ross King, The Geography of Arrival: A Memoir by George Sipos and The Love Queen of Malabar: Memoir of a Friendship with Kamala Das by Merrily Weisbord.