I wrote this comment to our friend, Tom Morrissey, to recommend Mordecai Richler‘s books. This link takes you to another called “Mourning Mordecai Richler” which is a fine video essay about him by the CBC around the week he passed away.

Tom, happy 4th of July to you as well.

Richler is very different from Bellow who was far more “intellectual” in his writing. Imagine an urbane, iconoclastic, city-slickin’, Malamud, and from Montreal to boot. Despite Bellow’s Montreal origins, I’ve always seen him as a natural American. I’ve always thought one can understand that old Montreal world far better, by the way, by reading some early Irving Layton poetry and perhaps biographical information about Leonard Cohen’s early days in Montreal and Greece days. These are not necessary, of course, but can serve, um, as lubricant to reading and understanding Richler’s Montreal.

Richler’s best, in my humble opinion, is Barney’s Version. I admit that you have to slog unrewarded through the first 70 or 80 pages, but then, this book soars and becomes, simply, a masterpiece. It represents in many ways the culmination of all of Richler’s powers as a writer, and offers a nice wrap-up of most of the themes that had compelled him throughout his career. It is moving, funny and true.

St. Urbain’s Horseman is probably my favorite of his early books. St. Urbain was considered the center of the Jewish community in Montreal back in the new, immigrant, less affluent days. Richler won the Governor General’s award for this one (this being the highest Canadian literary prize awarded to one book annually in each writing category – fiction, poetry, etc.). In it he captures a different era beautifully and with great humor.

Solomon Gursky Was Here has a somewhat anti-climactic conclusion, but is a fun ride taking you through the creation of a Canadian liquor baron’s fortune and the lives of his children who inherited his wealth. Yes, he probably based it on the Bronfmans, having stated publicly that it was ridiculous that they had always tried to cover up the illegal booze empire and Sam’s maneuverings that were the source of their great wealth. On an emotional level, this isn’t as satisfying as Barney’s Version, but it shows a superb writer having fun for the hell of it.

Lots of people are fans of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Joshua Then and Now, both of which have been made into films. As we are able to look back at his career now, I think they’re both good when you’ve finished the other three and still need more of Richler (which you will). Of the two, I much prefer Joshua Then and Now. There is something mischievous about Joshua that is more urbane and to my taste than the scrappy, hungry Duddy Kravitz.

If you have nephews, the Jacob Two Two series is great fun for the 6-9 year old crowd.

Richler used to write in the mornings, then in the afternoon he’d go to his regular watering hole and shoot the shit with the other regulars. I always picture him sitting in a bar, the afternoon sun filtered by the tinted windows hitting the dank wood of the tables, and smoke rising from the half smoked cigar in the ashtray. He would talk and listen, take a sip of his drink, and think about his next pages. Then the next morning he’d wake up and write funny stories about his childhood in early Jewish Montreal and that deep immigrant’s desire to get out of that harsh, impoverished milieu and into the better part of town where you may try really hard to cover up those ethnic foreign origins, but your own demons, and they, just won’t let you forget.

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  • Middle– thanks for such a generous post! Informative– and written with characteristic Middling panache. 😉

    Barney’s Version it is– to start. You’re right about Bellow. He’s as American as they come.

    And speaking of my native land: it’s days like 7/4 that bring us especially close to Israel. Best to all our Israeli friends on this site.

  • i read Barney’s Version and really liked it. then i read St. Urbain’s Horsement. that’s when i realized that ALL OF HIS BOOKS HAVE THE SAME CONTENT. drunk lecherous 50-something jewish man from montreal IN THE FILM BUSINESS is in love with someone who’s too good for him, he treats her awfully, she leaves him, he hates himself for it. i don’t mean to be a downer, richler’s writes good prose, but don’t you think that’s suspicious? and boring?

  • Well, Duddy Kravitz, Jacob Two Two and Solomon Gursky are different as are some of his books which I didn’t mention. However, it could just be that he’s at his best with the drunk, lecherous, 50-something Jewish man in the film business because in some ways it may have been an alter ego of the author’s. But no, for me his books have not been boring. It could be because I’ve read them over a period of years, but more so because I thought the humor was fresh and some of the characters, while over the top, contained enough truth to be funny. Again, I found Barney’s Version to ring true.

    Now if you wanna talk boring, how about Margaret Atwood?

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