Register Saturday | April 1 | 2023

Me & Mordecai (an excerpt)

Reflections on the late, great novelist

—an excerpt

. . . Mordecai Richler was, as a writer and a man, impossible to pin down. He loved literature with a capital “L” and he loved cheap jokes. An inveterate curmudgeon, he was also painfully shy. He was a misanthrope and a devoted family man, a boor who could also be the perfect gentleman, a wit who hated small talk. He shot pool with his regular barfly buddies in the Eastern Townships; he hung with Doris Lessing and Conrad Black. He wrote repeatedly about his life on the half dozen Montreal streets where he grew up, but vehemently denied that he was an autobiographical writer. (It wasn’t until Barney’s Version that he used the first-person in a novel, something he admitted he was uneasy about.) How else to put it? Mordecai Richler may have been, in the end, the most interesting character Richler never wrote about.

As a literary journalist and a book reviewer in Montreal, I ended up writing about him a lot, one way and another. I did reviews and profiles and comments about comments he made. I also went to his public appearances on those infrequent occasions when he made them. He wasn’t the most comfortable performer. Standing on a podium, he looked an awful lot like a man crouching in a foxhole. Still, you could always count on him to be funny and to light one of those Monte Cristos he smoked, usually in direct view of a NO SMOKING sign. You could also count on him, at some point during the proceedings, to be indignant.

In 1989, he gave a reading from Solomon Gursky at The Montreal Jewish Public Library. After he finished, he agreed to take questions from the audience, though his body language was full of reluctance. (It always was in public.) Of course, everyone knew what the first question would be; it was just a matter of an elderly woman at the microphone spitting it out. “Is your novel about the Bronfman family?” she asked. Though Richler was very good off the cuff, this time he seemed to have an answer, an indignant one, rehearsed. He raised his shoulders a bit for the first time in the evening and said, “I will not have seven years of my work reduced to gossip.”

That was telling us. But what was it telling us? Seriously, who else was Solomon Gursky about if not the Bronfmans? Richler had even lifted a line from Peter C. Newman’s book about the Bronfmans and plunked it down verbatim into his novel. When Mr. Bernard, the engagingly vulgar character Richler modeled after Bronfman patriarch Samuel, is asked if he gets ulcers, he replies, “I don’t get ulcers, I give them.”

And what did Richler have against gossip anyway? His novels were packed with it. “Literature is closer to gossip than it is to art,” Mary McCarthy said, and she was exactly right. When Jacob’s Ladder, my own undeniably autobiographical novel – I know it’s undeniable because I’ve tried to deny it – was published four years ago, Richler’s high-minded comments came back to me as a kind of reverse mantra. I would repeatedly tell interviewers and audiences, when I attracted them, that Richler anecdote. Then I would add that it was my own most fervent wish that people gossip about my book. I encouraged it, the more the merrier; in fact, I volunteered to help them with any gaps in knowledge they might have. I was kidding, though not entirely.