Charles Foran's new book, Mordecai: The Life and Times, takes on one of Canada's greatest novelists and provocateurs. Beyond writing classic works like The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Barney's Version, Mordecai Richler also hurled himself into the great debates of his day—notably, and controversially, Quebec sovereignty. Foran, the author of eight previous books, spoke with Maisonneuve ahead of the Montreal launch of Mordecai, tonight at Paragraphe Bookstore.
Caitlin Manicom: It's been four years since you signed with Knopf to write this biography. Can you speak to the process of writing not only a literary biography but also a historical and political text?
Charles Foran: When I first agreed to do the book I did some research into how long biographies of this size take. Four years is a short haul. Mordecai Richler's life was, by his own insistence, aligned directly and forcefully with the times he lived in. He wanted to be "an honest witness" of his own lifespan. My biography of him also wanted to be a record of his time on earth, but also of the social, political and artistic events encircling his private life. To write about Mordecai Richler as a Canadian author is to write about the emergence of Canadian literature itself. Mordecai is an account of the rise of English Canadian culture, for the simple reason that his own career encompassed a significant part of that arc.
CM: You spent a lot of time in Montreal while doing research for Mordecai...
CF: For two years I had the regular use of a room in a house on Rue Esplanade, in front of Parc Jeanne Mance—which young Mordecai would have known as Fletcher's Field. I also spent ten days in London. In London, Florence Richler herself and their daughter Martha showed me around. We wandered around Hampstead, seeking the flats the Richlers lived in, the pubs where he drank. In Montreal, I reached out to people who had grown up in the old Jewish neighbourhood. They gave me tours, showed me where libraries, schools, delis and pool halls had been.
And the extraordinary thing about that part of Montreal—the Plateau area off Boulevard St. Laurent and Mile End—is that it has not changed much. In the biography there's a map of Richler's neighbourhood in the 1930s, and many of those shops and bakeries are still there in 2010. I found that very helpful. I could close my eyes and imagine what the area was like when Richler was a boy. It was important to me to create that Montreal in the first part of the book, both to situate his emerging identity in the city and because his work was so preoccupied with those streets. I wanted readers to be immersed in the Montreal that made and nourished him, the Montreal that he loved.
CM: Questions of nationalism—both Canadian and Quebecois—appear repeatedly in Mordecai. Early in his career Richler states that he is a "de facto American novelist." Later you write that he "disavowed being any kind of nationalist" while outlining his involvement against Quebec separatism and quote him as saying "I'm a Canadian writer. I write about Canadians."
CF: Mordecai Richler's sense of himself as Canadian was complex. He was frank in his self-identification as being foremost a Montrealer, then a Jew, and then a North American writer. Professionally, he felt most comfortable in London and New York. His affinities lay with the lively, raw-knuckled literary scene of London and the intellectual preoccupations of the post-war generation of New York critics and writers, many of whom were of similar disposition and background to himself. Canada—or the vast, undifferentiated region of English Canada, at least—was not where his heart or head were inclined.
Richler made something of a blood sport of issuing provocative criticisms of the Canada of the sixties, seventies and eighties—the era of cultural nationalism. His critiques were tough, and people got very angry with him. It is extraordinary that he managed to be deeply critical of Canada and still come to be seen as one of the leading Canadian authors of his generation. Some argue, though, that his engagements with Quebec's sovereignty movement in the last two decades of his life amounted to his own particular assertion of Canadian nationalism. Can you reconcile his apparent anti-nationalism and his relentless mocking of Canadian cultural nationalism with his apparent defense of a united Canada? Richler was mounting more a defense of "his" Montreal in particular, and "his" sense of civility in general. He was critiquing policies he found foolish and offensive, rather than taking exception to any larger project. Still, there is a contradiction here, an interesting one.
Both privately and in public, Mordecai Richler was fiercely consistent on one point. It was his role, right, even his responsibility to be provocative, to dissent. A comment he made repeatedly was that the truth is never in or out of season. In the language laws of Quebec he heard echoes of the intolerance and anti-Semitism of the province of his childhood. Other commentators sought to be more sensitive, seeing the laws as the somewhat crude but necessary act of a people, a language, attempting to survive and thrive. Richler felt no obligation to soften his moral stance in the service of historic process. He thought the laws were ugly, and he said so.
Is his writing quintessentially Canadian? I like to think he more imposed his literary sensibility on the country, and in doing so helped expand what a Canadian author could look, and read, like. He didn't write much about cottages, loons or autumn colors. But from a very early age he never disputed that he was Canadian. At age twenty-seven, he stated: "All my attitudes are Canadian. I'm a Canadian; there's nothing to be done about it." He was also of the view that his identity had been formed by the time he could vote.
CM: You use the same "I'm a Canadian" quote in your recent article "Miscellany With a Mission." Are there really "Canadian attitudes" in terms of authorship?
CF: I quote Richler in the article because that's how I feel about it as well. I don't hold the view that an artist is formed in their first eighteen years, although one's moral nature, and social identity, is likely forged then. And by the time you're an adult, no matter how long you live in Ireland or China, or even how much you'd prefer to be Irish or Chinese, if you're from suburban Toronto, for example, that's who you are. I've never written a book that tries to be Canadian for the simple reason that such self-consciousness is death to good fiction. Writers write out of their preoccupations and obsessions. They are first and foremost in the thrall of their own complex selves, and only then should they be identified as "part" of any nation's literary identity. It's true that you can't separate these strands or deny affiliations. In my case the affiliations range from Catholicism to suburban Toronto in the 1960s and seventies to being half-French, half Irish-Canadian. These make me who I am in the same way that those attributes and circumstances that I describe in Mordecai are part of what made Richler. But they aren't even close to being the real M.O. of the man, or the author. To get that, you have to explore individual by individual, book by book. Sounds like a good reason to write a literary biography.
In terms of whether there is a Canadian literary identity, I have gone back and forth. I once committed to print the notion that Canadian authors tend towards explorations of decency and tolerance and the critique of extremes in their work, and that these characteristics come close to expressing our "nationalist project." I was scolded for that remark, for trying to pigeonhole something so amorphous. But was I wrong? I'm still not sure. On the surface, these concerns wouldn't seem to be a match with Richler. Yet, if there is a single unifying concern to all his work it's his insistence that we discuss and think about what constitutes the civilized, the cultured. He was at heart a moralist and he was always trying to assert real values while critiquing false ones. That was his core as an author and it isn't far off from the core of many other Canadian authors I admire.
CM: In your review of T.F. Rigelhof's Hooked on Canadian Books you suggest that Mordecai Richler, along with Robertson Davies, is a foundational figure. What is it that grants him that title, and what has he laid the foundation for?
CF: Richler is a foundational figure because he has written three novels that deserve to be canonical. What he laid the foundation for as a novelist is less clear because he was such a singular, sui generis figure. By the end of his life he really was an elderly literary statesman minus any evident state. While his influence has been tremendous, it's more difficult to discern his impact in, say, the work of younger novelists. In that regard, his shadow may loom larger in journalism. As a journalist and critic, Richler set the mark for writing that was honest, scabrous, outrageous and courageous. Such a voice had not been part of the Canadian journalism before him, and hasn't really been heard since. While working on Mordecai the most frequent comment I heard from writers and journalists was how much they "missed Mordecai." Missed the voice—that abrasive, authoritative, funny voice—that came so naturally to him.
His novels will be his legacy, and those novels—except for Barney's Version and the early Duddy Kravitz—still haven't been properly considered by either academics or more general literary tastemakers. For me, Solomon Gursky Was Here is one of a handful of essential Canadian novels, and I'd be very pleased if reading Mordecai sends people back to that wonderful book.
The Montreal launch of Mordecai: The Life and Times will take place tonight at Paragraphe Bookstore (2220 McGill College) at 6:00 p.m.
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