It could be that Mordecai Richler has once again had the last laugh: The Barney’s Version author is finally popular among the francophones in his native Quebec.
Newer translations of his work, more sensitive to Montreal’s uniqueness, have made his voice more recognizable. (Older translations into French from France called bagels “little breads with holes in the centre.”) At the same time, interest in Jewish Montreal is on the upswing.
Times have changed in La Belle Province since the author of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz pilloried its language laws, its political bosses, and its Jewish establishment, and this week, scholars, family members and notable Richler fans such as writer Adam Gopnik gathered at a bilingual conference, “Mordecai Richler: Against the World/Mordecai Richler contre le monde” to compare notes.
On the sidelines of the conference at Concordia University, French studies professor Sherry Simon said that “the French are discovering a Montreal they never experienced – look at the tours of Mile End” – referring to the gentrifying Jewish neighbourhood made famous in St. Urbain’s Horseman. "Now that the old Jewish world is on the verge of disappearing, they’re nostalgic for it – now it’s theirs.”
To some Quebeckers, Mr. Richler’s caustic views on Quebec’s nationalism are even proving prescient.
Samuel Mercier, the francophone co-organizer of the two-day conference, says Mr. Richler is increasingly used in Québécois literature departments because he’s “the best weapon against François Legault.” The Quebec Premier, who leads the Coalition Avenir Québec, has brought in nationalistic measures such as Bill 21, the law banning certain public servants from wearing religious symbols.
Mr. Mercier says Mr. Richler misrepresented Quebec’s political reality in his early 1990s writing that took nationalism to task. “But it’s as if the reality caught up: look at the ADQ [Action démocratique du Québec], CAQ, and Bill 21,” said Mr. Mercier at a coffee break.
In Quebec’s debates over literature and nationalism, Mr. Richler has become “weaponized” he says – by those who want a diverse, inclusive nationalism against a conservative ethnic nationalism.
Ever since the New York Times honoured his passing in 2000 with a two-page obituary, Montreal has also honoured him in small but symbolic ways. His scraggy face peers out from a mural on Laurier Avenue. A repainted pagoda on Mount Royal now bears his name. The Mile End library was renamed after him.
But he was not always so beloved. “The only thing the Montreal Jews and French Quebeckers ever agreed on was that Mordecai was the devil,” says Michael Levine. An entertainment lawyer turned literary agent who represented Richler and was a lifelong friend, Levine opened the conference.
New Yorker writer and Montrealer Adam Gopnik’s talk on “Many More Mordecais” was the keynote, which took place in a historic nunnery donated to Concordia by the Grey Nuns who used the very room to watch hockey games.
Mr. Gopnik began by explaining how Mr. Richler would have satirized the opening Indigenous territorial acknowledgement – not because he didn’t have sympathy for the cause, but because he hated “pieties”: anything programmatic said to advertise one’s morality. Mr. Richler’s morality, Mr. Gopnik explained, had to be learned by the individual, who needs heroes “as flawed as we are” so that we can emulate them. Which flaws? For Mr. Richler, the voracious appetites that affirm life itself. How could he be pious, while loving bagels, Macallan whiskey and sex?
Mr. Gopnik later tells us how his Québécoise publisher had originally seen Mr. Richler as a dangerous outsider, but has come to love him, realizing: “He’s just as hard on the Jews as the French!”
This shift in attitude may come from shifting demographics and culture. Catherine Leclerc, who teaches Mr. Richler’s novels in her French literature classes at McGill University, says that “nationalism is no longer the defining character of Quebec literature, so it’s easier to integrate Richler.”
Recent re-translations of Richler works into Québécois French by Éditions du Boréal have sparked interest among a newer generation who “never knew francophone oppression,” added Ms. Leclerc.
Essential to Mr. Richler’s new popularity are those recent re-translations of his books into Québécois French. Pascal Assathiany, the director-general at Boréal, explains that the Paris translations had glaring mistakes.
“Tasse Stanley” sounds more like “Stanley teacup.” And, horrifically, Maurice (Le Rocket) Richard was referred to as “La Fusée” –Quebeckers felt misrepresented when their hero’s nickname wasn’t in Franglais as they knew it.
With the new translations, Quebeckers can recognize themselves, and the city they’re proud of, in Mr. Richler’s novels. Instead of English academia, the realm of francophone Quebec is finding that Mr. Richler still proves relevant, despite his own heroic flaws, to Canada.
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