Foran explores writer’s controversial world
Chronicling the experiences of one of this country’s greatest “scribblers” – novelist, essayist, journalist, and screenwriter Mordecai Richler – would seem an enviable task for a contemporary Canadian author. But Richler’s ability to attract controversy followed him even in death, leaving his surname conspicuously absent from many an academic syllabus, and – until the recently released official Mordecai: The Life & Times by acclaimed author Charles Foran – only unofficially subject to biography. However, some measure of justice was achieved when Foran’s bio won the $25,000 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction.
“He was and still is the Canadian writer that fascinated me growing up,” reveals Foran (author of eight previous books of fiction and non-fiction , including The Last House of Ulster and Butterfly Lovers), a contributing editor to The Walrus magazine, reviewer for The Globe And Mail newspaper, and freelance journalist.
“When I had the chance to write the book, I knew right away that I wanted to write a certain kind of biography of him, one that did justice, in a sense, to his outsized life and books – that had the same energy and verve as he did. He was a seminal figure, so big and outsized. He was so un-Canadian in many respects: his character, his appetites, his fiction.
“I recall living in Montreal with my wife and our small kids during the era of Richler’s engagement with Quebec nationalism,” reveals Foran. “He was a huge figure around town and very public with these engagements: raw, rancorous, and rather heated. Whether or not you agreed with him, one could easily admire his courage and outspokenness.”
Richler’s sparring with Quebec nationalism fell in line with years of aggressively dissecting, through cutting comic absurdity and satire, aspects of his family life, his religion (Judaism), his city (Montreal) and, though he periodically appeared to shirk its claim to his person, his country. Richler’s books and journalism generated heated enmity from their various targets – Brian Mulroney, Quebec separatists, Canadian academia etc. – perhaps the reason for a nearly complete omission of his work from literature programs at Canadian universities since his death ten years ago.
“I’ve been looking for a fight in public about his disappearance from university curriculum,” says Foran. “I’ve been trying to rile people up, but it turns out that academics don’t even read newspapers. They’re so not part of that conversation – they’re only part of their own little one – that I can’t even get something going, which is disappointing.
“I want to talk about this, I want to talk about what it means when you disappear one of the half-dozen essential figures of a literary culture, when you just decide to take a path off. You don’t pretend he’s not there – you can’t get around his stature – you just look away and carry on with exploring the blah-blah-blah of, incidentally, lesser figures because it suits you.
“ I don’t know how this happened, but all of a sudden about 15-20 years ago the measure of a book’s or writer’s worth ceased to be aesthetic and instead about how they stacked up according to our idea of “progressive-ness”; woe to anyone not born into our intensely smug, almost childlike, little club – Mordecai Richler is definitely not the trend.”
Richler railed against the superficiality of trendiness during his lifetime, publishing scathing attacks on public figures and aspects of Canadian culture in his regular journalism for publications the National Post, Maclean’s, Saturday Night Magazine, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic Monthly, among numerous others. Of his ten novels, two won the Governor General’s Award (Cocksure, St.Urbain’s Horsemen); another earned the Giller Prize (Barney’s Version); and two others took the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize (Salomon Gursky Was Here, Barney’s Version). He was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 2001. Posthumously, he was chosen as the 98th greatest Canadian of all time on the 2004 CBC television show The Greatest Canadian.
However, despite his occasional attraction of the spotlight, Richler was always far more comfortable bucking expectations, not least when he worked at Carleton University as a professor of English in the early 70s. Foran’s biography relates an anecdote of Richler striding into a lecture hall full of eager students, indifferently kicking up his legs in an easy chair, lighting a cigarette, and reading the newspaper for the remainder of class.
“The fella that hired him for two years at Carleton said that he felt the students were getting a lot from Mordecai Richler even if he wasn’t, in a sense, giving,” reveals Foran. “Just to be in the presence of such a serious artist, who walked the walk and talked the talk, he felt that in a wild, eye-opening, way – it was good. But I suspect that is an old, outdated view. Nowadays it would be “services not rendered,” emphatically.
“The refrain of his main character from Barney’s Version, Barney Panofsky – “life is fundamentally absurd and no one really understands anyone else” – is probably fairly close to Richler’s own sense of things. Likewise, Barney’s defense of appetite and passion, and being comfortable with conflict and contradictions in his own character – that wonderful unresolved openness to his character – is similar to Richler’s own sense of himself.
“He didn’t like nice very much, he didn’t know what to do with it. Nor did he know what to do with ‘tidy,’” he adds. “ He didn’t trust ‘tidy’ – like tidy people, tidy character. He didn’t trust it, either thinking it was insufficiently examined or bullshit – some sort of a mask. Instead, he valued and respected complexity in people and himself.”
Richler’s suspicion of “tidy, nice, polite” – classic Canadian traits that could well be synonyms for the famous introductory phrase of the Canadian Constitution: “Peace, order, and good government” – tore at the concept of status quo, of a certain translation of the term Canadian. Through his satiric and comedic writing, Richler shredded myths and exposed broader, sometimes uncomfortable, cultural truths hidden beneath. An agitator to the core, Richler stood for the often poorly represented segment of the Canadian population fed up with “nice guy” stereotypes.
“I think a fair few Canadians would wrinkle their noses, and presume themselves to have no connection to this outrageous man with his bad habits and his decidedly un-Canadian sensibility in most respects,” says Foran. “But as a writer, I yearn, long, and aspire to his bearing and unapologetic appetite for outrage, and kicking at the pricks, upsetting people, and living with that. He could just live with so much swirling around him, people yelling at him and calling him names, and just carry on.
“With serious people you can’t separate things out,” Foran concludes. “You can’t take the acuity, honesty, candour, willingness to say the unspeakable – the things that might get you in trouble – from the difficult personality. People used to be a package. Now we strip them down and check off whether they meet our measures. We overlook 90 percent of their character and favour or disfavour the other 10 percent. It’s an embarrassing reduction of human complexity, but it suits, sadly, agendas and trends.”
Story by Cormac Rea