Canada

DEPARTURE TIME?

JULIAN BELTRAME June 24 2002
Canada

DEPARTURE TIME?

JULIAN BELTRAME June 24 2002

‘SUCH A GREAT LAUGH AND A MORAL COMPASS'

DANIEL RICHLER

I was full of admiration for Alison Gzowski when, about 20 years ago, she wrote a magazine article in which she described the experience of being her father’s daughter.

It was a subject to which I could relate: growing up under a famous parent has its challenges, not least that the very act of talking about yourself risks appearing presumptuous or, worse, opportunistic. You get eaten away wondering why should anyone care what you have to say, but for the family name.

Mordecai was aware of this from the beginning. When we were kids, he would hide newspapers from us that featured him. (Of this I was informed much later, during the period in which I tried to blame all my teen identity crises on his personal implication in the generation gap, in joblessness, in global warming, etc.) But his efforts were in vain, since he leaked in anyhow-through the television, looking out from magazine covers, at school.

“My Dad read your dad’s book,” a boy hissed at me during math.

“Really? What did he think?”

“My Dad says I’m not to even name the name.” “Cocksure. But what did he think?

“One word, he said, five letters: f-i-l-t-h-y.’’

In my 20s, I was awed by the way Martin Amis, the British author, publicly unleashed his inhibi-

tion. His patricidal barbs made writing seem like rock ’n’ roll, with its licence to speak the truth as rudely as possible. (On his father Kingsley’s enthusiasm for nuclear arsenals, he wrote: “Well, we’ll just have to wait until you old bastards die off one by one.”) I briefly imagined that such badinage might be cathartic for me-entertaining, productive-but I could never pull it off. For a start, Dad and I hardly ever argued-but in any case, he cherished the family’s privacy too much; he never used us for a joke, and I’m more than grateful. For had he exposed my nascent political awareness, my early stabs at literature, well... let’s not go there.

In 1991, while I was doing publicity for my novel Kicking Tomorrow, interviews routinely went this way: “How much easier was it for you to be published, your father being who he is?”

“Well,” I’d answer, “he gave us kids some rare advice, you know: ‘There are 26 letters in the alphabet. Just jumble them up.’”

“So he did help you get a publisher?”

This would have been more painful had Dad not-in advance-reserved his greatest enthusiasm for my next book, just as he always did for his own. Fundamentally, he liked to distinguish between posturing as a writer, and just getting on with the writing. When I married into a Jewish family busy with Forest Hill high society, he quickly espied a satirist’s gold mine, and, over Scotches one afternoon, expressed concern over how I was going to get away with writing about it.

But on that matter of Dad’s help: for a while when we were kids, he’d assign us weekend essays in which we’d be required to use words like “alacrity” and “parochial”; TV was rationed to an hour a day; leaving home, some of us were dispatched with a top 10 list of writer’s tips that included, “Write about what you know. Don’t use 10 words where one will do. When writing about people you're acquainted with, shuffle the deck.” You don’t forget these things.

After his death, the public Mordecai continues to seep through. Time and again, I’ve been stopped by strangers on the street. They apologize for bringing him up out of the blue, for ruining my afternoon, but they can’t help it because, they say, they feel like they knew him personally too. As for me, it is terrible to be reminded of him virtually every day, but the knowledge that so many people feel we’ve lost a powerful voice from our lives-such a great laugh and a moral compass-is almost comforting.