Leaving St. Urbain
By Reinhold Kramer
McGill-Queen's University Press,
483 pages, $39.95
As I approached the three-quarter mark of Mordecai Richler: Leaving St. Urbain, I found myself reading more and more slowly, and even occasionally setting the book aside. Finally, I realized that I didn't want the biography to end. Mordecai Richler seemed so vividly alive that I wanted to keep hanging out with the irascible old master.
The basics are quickly dispensed. Born in Montreal in 1931 to a hardscrabble Jewish family, Richler ran away to London and, while earning his daily bread by writing and doctoring screenplays, forged an international reputation as a satirical novelist. Before he died at the age of 70, Richler had produced at least four masterpieces: The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, St. Urbain's Horseman, Joshua Then and Now and Solomon Gursky was Here. And some of us, mostly expatriate Montrealers, believe that his polemic Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! made five.
Reinhold Kramer, an English professor at Brandon University, has scoured the Richler archive at the University of Calgary. He has made excellent, almost invasive use of letters, notes and two unpublished manuscripts - a 1950s novel called The Rotten People and a 1970s memoir, Back to Ibiza - to show how Richler drew on his own life in creating his fiction.
By adding a few interviews with family members, and drawing on an oral biography by Globe and Mail writer Michael Posner and a scholarly study by Victor Ramraj, Kramer has produced a meticulous, prodigiously detailed biography. As the subtitle suggests, it highlights the writer's lifelong engagement with Orthodox Judaism and his triumphant emergence as a secular humanist.
Those who followed Richler closely, chuckling at his antics, savouring his victories, will enjoy reliving old favourite moments. Yes, yes, let's go again to the movie premiere of Duddy Kravitz, when the wife of the late Samuel Bronfman congratulated Richler from on high: "You've come a long way for a St. Urbain Street boy." And the author responded: "And you've come a long way for a bootlegger's wife."
Or how about the time, many years before that, while sharing a down-and-dirty London flat with emerging movie director Ted Kotcheff, Richler received a first fat paycheque for his screenplay for Room at the Top. He changed it into £5 notes "and brought the loot home to ruffle under Kotcheff's nose." Before taking his pal out on the town, Richler stashed most of the money among the books in their shared library. Then he forgot which ones and the two men "had to open hundreds of books to find the rest."
The moments keep coming. In 1968, after a young Leonard Cohen declined a Governor-General's Award - "the poems themselves forbid it absolutely" - an infuriated
Richler ambushed the poet during an after-party at the Chateau Laurier: "Richler herded him into the bathroom and bawled him out."
Kramer also turns up surprises. When Stevie Cameron was writing her controversial book On the Take, about Brian Mulroney, the savvy Richler "sketched political alliances for her and told her where the bodies were hidden." Again: While many readers will be aware that two of Richler's salad-days friends, Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg, earned a flat fee of $500 for the wildly popular Candy, few will know that, for the screenplay of Joshua Then and Now, an older-wiser Richler received $480,000.
Kramer certainly has an eye for the telling anecdote. He reports how, when asked to donate his services as speaker for a fundraising dinner for a wealthy businessmen's club, which needed $1-million to refurbish its building, Richler failed to discern why he should work for free. He professed to be deeply touched but proposed a tag day instead: "Various CEOs could take their begging bowls to the Main, the North End, St. Henry, and NDG. The arrogance of the truly rich continues to amaze me."
The biographer reminds us that, during the Quebec language-law debates, Richler led his Montreal bar buddies in founding the Twice as Much Society, created to lobby for an amendment that would require French to be spoken twice as loudly as English. Kramer also captures the master's voice in briefly quoting from Joshua, the bit where the chronic gambler explains to the young man the gist of the Book of Job: "If you continue to believe in God when you're up shit's creek, it can pay off double at the window."
Kramer is not uncritical. He notes that Richler received three Canada Council grants in the 1950s and '60s, and observes that in later years, the author "would manage amnesia about the junior fellowship, its renewal the following year, and a Senior Arts Fellowship in 1966, as he waxed eloquent about being the last of the free-market scribblers, and about how Canada bathed and coddled its young writers in all manner of grants." He rightly torpedoes Richler for alleging "rather simplistically" that John Buchan, author of The Thirty-Nine Steps and once governor-general of Canada, was anti-Semitic. He notes that Buchan supported a Jewish homeland and even turned up on a Nazi hit list because he was too pro-Jewish, and adds that "anyone with blinders and a pair of scissors could have gone to Richler's three most recent novels and easily cobbled together an anti-Semite."
On the other hand, Kramer notes that Richler kept his early novel The Acrobats from being republished, and finds this "rather surprising for someone notoriously fast to pick up a buck by repackaging essentially the same essay for three or four different sales." Here he sounds like a tenured academic disparaging a professional writer for making a living by his pen.
But space grows short. Is this the definitive biography? Given that two more biographies of Richler are in the works, including an ambitious one by Charles Foran, that is what book-trade insiders are asking. Answer: I think not. Kramer, unabashedly academic, focuses too relentlessly on Richler in relation to Judaism. He has almost certainly left room for a more literary work that treats Richler mainly as a master craftsman or an anglophone-Quebecker or who knows what: The man contained multitudes. Even so, from now on, nobody can write about Richler without reading this book.
Ken McGoogan won the Drainie-Taylor Award for Biography with Fatal Passage and the UBC Medal for Canadian Biography with Lady Franklin's Revenge. This fall, he will publish Race to the Polar Sea: The Heroic Adventures of Elisha Kent Kane.