Mordecai Richler was many things to many people: to devoted fans of his sprawling novels he was the larger than life St. Urbain Street scribe; to newspaper and magazine readers he was a scathing political satirist and commentator; to his wife and five children he was a devoted family man; to many Jewish commentators and community leaders he was a self-hating Jew; to Quebec nationalists he was the epitome of English-language boorishness; to his supporters he was a fearless truth-teller; and to cultural protectionists, feminists, and leftists he was a reactionary buffoon.
Richler’s death in 2001, followed by the first stages of legacy assessment, have narrowed and softened that focus. Though a few hardened separatists may still be lobbing darts at yellowing Aislin caricatures of Richler, the official portrait of the late Montreal writer has by and large coalesced into that of the country’s “Last Honest Man.”
Charles Foran’s new, encyclopedic biography has done a great service in collecting and ordering the thousands of stories that trailed Richler like a whirlwind of scribbled-upon bar napkins. Whether the book does justice to its contradictory, cranky subject is another matter.
The biography’s best sections display Foran’s obvious gifts as a novelist and storyteller. He is especially good on the first two decades of Richler’s life, charting the complex intersection of familial, ethnic, cultural, and historical forces that shaped the young man.
Richler’s domineering and painfully sensitive mother, Lily, wanted her youngest son to follow in the hallowed footsteps of his maternal grandfather, Rabbi Yudel Rosenberg, a legendary scholar and teacher in Montreal’s Hasidic community. The paternal side of the family was apparently a tribe of grindingly pious merchants and obedient wives who browbeat Richler’s father, Moses, into submission and largely cut him out of the family business. Richler’s fractured upbringing in the teeming St. Urbain streetscape provided him with enough emotional, intellectual, and sensual detail to explore for the rest of his life. Anyone interested in that rich lode of material should definitely read Foran’s account.
The rest of the 700-page narrative rarely lags (though it would have benefited from fewer descriptions of film scripts that never made it to the big screen and other aborted projects). The narrative almost seamlessly guides readers through Richler’s apprentice years in France, Spain, and England, his courtship of and marriage to Florence, the love of his life, and the ensuing years of success and family life in London and Montreal.
But when Foran steps away from the story of Richler’s life to an analysis of his work and reputation, he too often morphs into a literary hagiographer, offering puffy sentiments that would not be out of place on the book jacket: “At twenty-seven, [Richler] had found the love of his life and his literary voice more or less simultaneously. This was more than luck, talent and timing mixed together…. The apprenticeship of Mordecai Richler, in print and in life, was complete.”
Foran never tires of reminding the reader that Richler was “forever his own man, contrarian and cynical,” the unapologetic slayer of sacred cows, the truth-teller who exposed hypocrisy and pretense wherever he found it.
Whenever the facts force Foran to acknowledge Richler’s often contradictory, self-serving, and at times needlessly offensive public remarks, the biography politely notes the lapse before speeding ahead to a more flattering incident. The truth is, Richler’s war with the great white whales of Canadian and Quebec cultural nationalism rarely inspired his best prose and more often drained time and effort from the novel writing.
Foran also seems loath to connect the psychological forces that shaped Richler’s life to the widely acknowledged weaknesses of the fiction. Richler’s comic portraiture was not quite as accurate and sharp as the biography would have us believe, especially where his female characters were concerned. Richler enjoyed a loving and intellectually stimulating relationship with his wife and daughters, and he cultivated friendships with such strong-willed and intelligent women as Doris Giller and Beryl Bainbridge. Why, then, the parade of harpies, good-hearted floozies, and saintly wives in his fiction? Foran does not speculate.
Richler himself argued for a less reverent approach to biography in one of his last published columns: “Too many celebrity writers,” Richler wrote, “were outrageous liars, philanderers, drunks, druggies, unsuitable babysitters, plagiarists, psychopaths, parasites, cowards, indifferent moms or dads and bad credit risks.” Future Richler biographers will hopefully heed this advice a little more. Richler wouldn’t have had it any other way