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Mordecai & Me: An Appreciation of a Kind

by Joel Yanofsky

Sure, most men lead lives of quiet desperation, but fans of serious literature have honed quiet and desperate into a science. There’s no better reminder of this than the literary-stalker bio, that slightly creepy sub-genre in which the biographer records the life of a famous author through the lens of an unhealthy personal obsession with said author. Ian Hamilton did it with J.D. Salinger, Nicholson Baker with John Updike, and James Atlas with Saul Bellow. And now Montreal author and lit critic Joel Yanofsky has done it with the great, grumpy Mordecai Richler.

Richler was a long-time mentor figure to Yanofsky, an obvious choice for a young Anglo-Jewish Montreal writer with a mile-wide sardonic streak. The only problem: while the two men met several times over the years, Richler was at best indifferent to his would-be apprentice, at worst actively dismissive of his work.

As a straight biography, Mordecai & Me is a breezy quickie, sketching the major outlines of Richler’s life, largely from secondary sources. As a navel-gazing autobiography, it’s often very funny, although at times the neurotic monologues drag on. (I can picture Richler meeting his junior colleague for the first time and concluding, after about two minutes, that this guy talks too much.)

Yanofsky’s critical analyses of Richler’s books – balanced, insightful, and jargon-free – are strong. And he’s great when he broadens out from his Richler obsession to a general look at our bonds with our literary parent-figures. The relationships of hard-core readers to their favourite authors are almost always desperate, dysfunctional. We think we know them, as friends and equals in the struggle against the cold, indifferent world. But that’s really just an illusion, a magician’s trick.