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Mordecai Richler's greatest private sorrow, and the one story he could never tell

A young Mordecai Richler with his mother in an undated photo.

"If your old age tastes of ashes," Mordecai Richler wrote in August, 1976, "if you are wretched, lonely, worried about your health, money, I am sorry. But now that you are 70, can't you at last grasp that you have brought most of this on yourself. Will your life, such a ball of rage, inchoate rage, go forever unexamined?"

He then proceeded to examine that life with no less acuity, or plain speech. But admirers of Richler's 10 novels, three Jacob Two-Two stories, and 10 works of non-fiction will be forgiven for wondering where in his opus these uncharacteristically sombre words can be found.

The answer is: They can't.

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Until now, they were never published - and had only been read by one person.

That would be Lily, the troubled mother of the iconic Montreal novelist. The words, all 2,400 of them, came to her in a letter - at turns excoriating, tender, furious and sad - that had been building inside her son for years. It was typed, revised, typed again and finally mailed to a boarding house in lower Westmount.

It was the 45-year-old's last communication with his mother. She died in 1997, and he neither attended her funeral nor visited her grave.

I found the letter mid-way through working on my biography of Richler. He had sent it to his archive in Calgary, but placed it in a restricted section, not to be opened until two decades after his death. Though he died only in July, 2001, the restriction was, surprisingly, lifted in 2008 - and eventually I was given permission to share what was probably Richler's greatest private sorrow, a secret that would change his relationship to his family; his own character; and perhaps how we see one of our most beloved literary icons, in a biography of him released this week.

On first reading the document, I thought the top of my head was going to come off. Here was Richler's fraught, tragic relationship with his mother outlined in the most intimate form: person to person, with no one else invited into the conversation.

Its revelations certainly affected her: At the time I found the letter, I already knew she had had some kind of nervous breakdown in 1976 in the wake of opening her mail. "He robbed me of my will to live," Lily explained a year later in a note to Richler's close friend Bill Weintraub, "to enjoy my old age after years of struggle and deprivation."

His tone with her was certainly startling, and a few of his comments were aimed to cut deep. But it was the shocking account of a defining incident from his childhood that may have caused Lily to lose her will to live. That account also sheds new light on what the novelist was, and wasn't, willing to reveal in his work.

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This, after all, was Mordecai Richler, the great taboo-breaker; the raging, brilliant, take-no-prisoners satirist of public folly and private manners. He wasn't above portraits, always comedic but often unflattering, of friends and family members. Or above casting a cold eye on his own misbehaviours, misbegotten appetites and regrets. And yet - one taboo went unbroken.

It all hinged on an incident the child witnessed in 1944 in the family apartment on St. Urbain Street.

His parents, Moses and Lily, were deeply incompatible. She was bright and intense, the daughter of a revered rabbi who wished she had been born a man, so she, too, could join the rabbinate. He was amiable but inward, the underachieving eldest son of a tyrannical junk dealer. Their marriage was arranged by their parents - an exchange of presumed material comfort for Talmudic lineage prized by Orthodox Jews.

The union was disastrous. The more so after the birth of Avrum in 1926 and Mordecai in 1931. Lily despised her feckless husband, and told him so in front of their sons. Hapless Moses retreated to cinemas and card games. The boys had nowhere to go.

Then, in that winter of 1944, she began a secret affair with a German Jew renting the spare room at the back of the apartment. Believing herself in love, Lily threw Moses out and filed for divorce - more than a scandal in the Orthodox community: a kind of breach, a gash in the social fabric.

But the humiliation of watching his father pack up and move to a rooming house, or the burn of gossip at synagogue, were nothing, it turned out, compared to what Mordecai had to endure behind closed doors. At last, in August, 1976, possibly intending to cause a permanent break, but more likely simply needing her to know why he could never accord her the respect she sought, he finally wrote of it.

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"When I was 12," he accused Lily in the letter's furious ending, "and had the misfortune to share a front bedroom with you, it did not strike you as undignified to consider your appetites first, your children later." What he saw: his mother and the boarder "humping together only 12 feet from a boy."

It was a Shakespearian tragedy writ small in Jewish Montreal: the father cuckolded and expelled; the mother sleeping with his usurper; the seething adolescent son, forced to witness the outrage, and then keep it a dark secret. Hard to imagine how the incident would not have affected Richler. Affected him, and changed him forever.

With some trepidation, I spoke with Florence Richler about using the letter. Richler's widow is executor of his estate, and has been generous, insightful and frank, insisting on an honest portrait of her famous husband.

I didn't want to excerpt, or to provide any editorial comment. Instead, I wanted to include the entire letter. There was no other way to do justice to the document's ragged glory, except to show it in full, and to surround it by the circumstances - 45 years of being the son of Lily, in effect - that induced such an explosion. To honour, even, Richler's humanity, and not diminish it by half-measures or cautious glosses.

After some deliberation, Florence Richler agreed. Dear Maw, as the chapter is called, retains its ability to shock and move me, even after dozens of readings. As important to Richler's life and legacy, though, and to my sense of how Lily's action ultimately affected him, it's preceded and followed by pages telling the story of a life well, and productively, lived.

But the question, of course, still stands: Why was this incendiary material never visited in his books?

Actually, it was used. At 19, a raging, disaffected Richler drafted the novel he called, with all intended insult, The Rotten People. That manuscript contained a version of the affair and the devastation it wrought on the young protagonist. It's just that it was never published.

He later wrote a scabrous, almost ad hominem attack on his family and community in Son of a Smaller Hero. But it didn't include any veiled mention of his cheating mother, and he soon regretted publishing it, refusing to have it reprinted.

His published apprentice novels are indeed ruled by rage over what he had been exposed to, and how he had been raised. They are also grim, finding little to laugh about in such sordid human behaviour.

That absence of humour in his painfully autobiographical early fictions may be one of the reasons he never used the story of Lily and the boarder. Because in 1958, Mordecai Richler began work on a new manuscript, and it was, to his own surprise and initial unease, funny.

"I had no idea that you had a sense of humour," an editor wrote to him after reading The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.

He did have one, of course: a wild, joyful sense of funny. And once Duddy Kravitz changed his career forever, he was never unfunny in a novel, or even a newspaper article, again. A great comedic writer was born.

What happened between him and his mother could not find a place on his comedic canvas. It was too dark, and too tragic, for his matured vision of life.

Charles Foran is a journalist and novelist, the author of eight previous books. His new biography, Mordecai: The Life & Times, was released this week.

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