Witness to his time

Mordecai Richler creates a virtuoso novel

MORTON RITTS November 13 1989

Witness to his time

Mordecai Richler creates a virtuoso novel

MORTON RITTS November 13 1989

Witness to his time


Mordecai Richler creates a virtuoso novel

As he shuffled up to the speaker’s podium, the rumpled-looking figure in a grey tweed sports jacket and reading glasses looked vaguely uncomfortable—as if he would rather be chatting with his cronies in a downtown Montreal tavern, or hunched over a battered typewriter in his smoky, paper-strewn office. On that Oct. 19 evening, Mordecai Richler, 58, was at the Wang International Festival of Authors in Toronto to read from his latest novel, Solomon Gursky Was Here (Penguin, 557 pages, $26.95). With the exception of two short children’s works, the book is Richler’s first novel since 1980 and has generated great interest in Canada, the United States and Britain. Judging from the roars of appreciative laughter from the sellout crowd of more than 450 that jammed Harbourfront’s Premiere Dance Theatre, the wait has been worth it. Solomon Gursky Was Here is, in fact, a big, risky marriage of extravagant comic myth and compelling realism—a novel whose execution is equal

to its audacious conception. The result is a stunning triumph of the imagination.

In a career that has spanned 35 years, Richler has provoked outrage as often as sardonic pleasure. His articles, books of essays (Shovelling Trouble, Home Sweet Home) and satiric fiction (including The Apprenticeship of Buddy Kravitz and Cocksure) have attacked everything from narrow-minded religious insularity to xenophobic cultural nationalism. Not surprisingly, he has been attacked by such enemies in the latter camp as Edmonton publisher Mel Hurtig, who once said Richler was someone “who makes a living knocking Canada.” Those in the former have dismissed him as a self-hating Jew: “You’re a stinker who writes garbage about your people,” someone once shouted at him during a lecture.

But harsh—and frequently unfair—accusations have never deterred Richler from speaking his mind. Writing about free trade for an American audience in Newsweek magazine immediately after the 1988 Canadian federal

election, Richler offered his qualified support for the deal. At the same time, he exposed his country’s divided psyche like a barber exposing a bald spot. “Put a hard question to Canadians, demanding a straightforward yes or no,” Richler wrote, “and they are bound to fudge the issue, replying maybe.”

There are no maybes about the difficulty Richler had in writing Solomon Gursky Was Here. During an interview in an Italian restaurant in downtown Toronto, Richler explained that completing the novel was something of an ordeal. “There were a number of false starts,” he said. “But about three years ago, I moved out with my wife to our country house in the Eastern Townships, resolved to finish the thing.” Richler had been obsessed by the character of Solomon Gursky—adventurer, tycoon, troublemaker—for almost a decade and a half. “What intrigued me,” he said, “was the notion of a man who thought that one life wasn’t enough and who made a work of art out of that life.”

That unremitting desire to experience many lives—if only through the imagination—is one of the things that motivates people to become writers. Born in 1931 and raised in Montreal’s largely Jewish St. Urbain Street district, Richler went to Baron Byng High School, whose other famous alumni included poets A.M. Klein and Irving Layton. The striving immigrant population of those Montreal streets inspired such notable Richler characters as Duddy Kravitz, and Jake Hersh of St.

Urbains Horseman. At the same time, the great historical events that took place in the author’s youth—the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War in particular—recur obsessively in his work as missed opportunities for moral commitment: Jake Hersh feels as if history has passed him by. And in Richler’s longer novels, a Hersh-like figure recurs— often the author’s alter ego—observing, envying, judging and compulsively chronicling the actions of someone larger than life.

In his art, as in his life, Richler has ranged far beyond the geographical and cultural boundaries of St. Urbain Street. Among Canadian writers, he is probably the most international in outlook and reputation — the one to whom editors of The New York Times and The Atlantic turn when they want a Canadian perspective on this country. A best-selling author at home (“Compared to my counterparts writing serious fiction in the U.S., I do very well,” he says), Richler does very well outside Canada, too. His publisher, Penguin Books Canada Ltd., anticipates that Solomon Gursky Was Here will sell more than 40,000 copies in Canada after its

release this month. The American edition will be in bookstores in April, 1990, and the book will appear in Britain two months later.

Richler has also enjoyed success as a screenwriter (Life at the Top, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz) and children’s book author (Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang, Jacob Two-Two and the Dinosaur). But while his stage adaptations of both children’s books have played to rave audiences, his adult-oriented musical, Duddy, lasted only three weeks in Philadelphia in 1987. Above all, Richler sees himself as a novelist whose primary duty, as he has said on more than one occasion, is to be “an honest witness to my time.”

To fulfil his dream of becoming a writer, Richler left Canada in the early 1950s for a two-year stint in Paris, then again in 1954, when he settled in London for 18 years. In 1960, he married Montrealer Florence Wood, and the couple set up house in Hampstead. “It was easier to be a first novelist then,” said Richler. “The economics of publishing today make it more difficult for writers.” Richler dismisses his first novel, The Acrobats, published in 1954 and influenced by Ernest Hemingway and such French existentialist writers as Jean-Paul Sartre, as “awful.” But with its themes of individual moral responsibility and Jewish life in the modern world, The Acrobats and two subsequent novels paved the way for The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959). As an acerbic satire and irreverent novel of character, the book was the first in which he used his own voice. In Duddy, a young St. Urbain Street hustler, Richler created a hero whose manic energy and single-minded desire for success make him both a likable villain and a morally disreputable charmer. Richler’s debunking of certain aspects of Jewish culture in

Duddy Kravitz and of North American society in other books earned him a reputation as the angry young man of Canadian literature.

Whether that description was accurate or not, the author’s ability to mirror some of the era’s more unflattering follies was undeniable. Richler says that there are few better examples in Canada now than the continuing crisis in English-French relations. Intensified by the seemingly unresolvable language debate, the issue, he says, “is a boring tribal quarrel...that degrades both sides.”

In 1972, Richler, wife Florence and their children Daniel, Noah, Emma, Martha and Jacob returned to Canada. That year, Richler

won his second Governor General’s Award, for St. Urbain ’s Horseman, three years after Cocksure took the prize. It was his most ambitious and satisfying novel to date—and his most autobiographical. The hero, a Canadian screenwriter living in London, is both haunted by history and repelled by the inverted values of the world around him. Looking for meaning, he becomes obsessed with his cousin Joey, St. Urbain’s apocalyptic “horseman”— a Nazihunter and legendary character from his past.

That compulsive need to both demolish and reconstruct myths is an underlying imperative for many of Richler’s protagonists. But while the hero of Joshua Then and Now (1980) shares such a compulsion, the book is in many ways a repetition of familiar Richler themes and stereotypes.

Solomon Gursky Was Here is a virtuoso response to anyone who questioned whether Richler had anything new to say after Joshua. The bulky 557-page novel is the distillation of a lifetime’s work. “A very old-fashioned novel,” according to its author, it features dozens of characters, multiple plots and settings, and a time span of 150 years. It is an adventure story, a mystery novel, social satire, a crazy historical and biblical epic, and a tale of unfulfilled love.

Holding all those apparently disparate elements together is the book’s 52-year-old protagonist, Moses Berger, and his quest for the legendary Solomon Gursky, who said that they “got it wrong—living twice, maybe three times, is the best revenge.” Berger is an outsider, a man of admirable moral sensitivity and vulnerable self-doubt. But he is also a self-destructive alcoholic, having thrown away his early promise as a literary prodigy to spite a father he considers a sellout.

Among the book’s many father-son relationships, that of Moses and L.B. Berger is central. To some extent, L.B. is a witty caricature of poet A.M. Klein, in his vanity, erudition, early political beliefs and subsequent decision to become a speechwriter and cultural adviser to one of the pillars of the Canadian Jewish establishment. In the novel, that happens to be the fabulously wealthy Bernard Gursky, the powerful (“I don’t get ulcers, I give them”), crude, selfaggrandizing Gursky family patriarch. Richler acknowledges that Mr. Bernard, as he is called, is loosely based on the early career of Samuel Bronfman, founder of Seagram Company Ltd. of Montreal, whose fortune originated during Prohibition.

Mr. Bernard provides the novel with a good deal of its outrageous humor (on his deathbed he tells his wife, “If God exists, I’m f—ed ”). But his

brother, Solomon Gursky, is the primary source of the book’s mystery.

Moses’ father may have sold his soul to Mr. Bernard, yet is it through the mythic Solomon—heroic, ambiguous and presumably dead—that the son seeks his own redemption.

Moses’ quest combines the inspired research of a religious historian with the dogged persistence of an investigative journalist. It becomes, simultaneously, his excuse for living and not living, since Moses—a self-confessed “Gurskyologist”—does little except immerse himself in two things: liquor and the Gursky dynasty. Moses’ pursuit of the Gurskys takes him as far back as the wily, charismatic Ephraim, Solomon’s English-born grandfather. Ephraim’s adventures in the Arctic with English explorer Sir John Franklin in 1845 culminate in the propagation of Yiddish-speaking Eskimos.

Other narrative threads take readers on a bawdy underworld tour of Victorian London, through a harrowing description of Franklin’s expedition and into the violent world of bootlegging in the 1920s and 1930s.

With its large cast of interrelated characters, Solomon Gursky also offers a razor-sharp portrayal of contemporary North American society—from Montreal to New York City, Yellowknife, and Quebec’s Eastern Townships.

It is a bigoted, class-conscious society beset by jealousy, greed, religious fanaticism and mindless posturing: a socialite tells Moses, “I could write a book too. I just wouldn’t know how to put it into words. ”

For Moses, a writer and lecturer incapable of love, only the larger-than-life exploits of Solomon Gursky offer some kind of order in a chaotic

world. Solomon, it seems, has played a part in some of the most important— and notorious—events of the 20th century: Mao Tse-tung’s Long March, the Israeli War of Independence, the Watergate hearings. Moses follows Solomon’s career with help from Sir Hyman Kaplansky, his wealthy, enigmatic English benefactor.

On one level, Solomon Gursky has an Old Testament resonance. Like his biblical namesake, Moses also seeks a code—his version of Holy Law—to guide his actions in a world rampant with the golden calf of materialism and other forms of idolatry. Richler’s Moses, however, is no leader, and his God, Solomon Gursky, although capable of such Old Testament pronouncements as “I am that I am,” more closely resembles the trickster-figure of native Canadian culture than Jehovah at Sinai. As such, Solomon is a force of nature—like the raven of native mythology that plays a large symbolic role in the novel. The raven, according to Sir Hyman, has “an unquenchable itch to meddle and provoke things, to play tricks on the world and its creatures.” Solomon may indeed be deceitful, but there is a rough justice in his actions and a certain glory in them too. Yet his heirs fail to inherit that glory. Henry Gursky—his eccentric son and Moses’ best friend—is a Hasidic Jew living in the Arctic with his Inuit wife, Nialie, and son

Isaac, awaiting the coming of the Messiah. Their story illustrates a particular vision of Canada, which is, according to one character, “not so much a country, but a holding tank filled with disgruntled progeny of defeated peoples.”

Moses’ desire to escape such a fate gives his life a kind of integrity, just as his quest for Solomon Gursky, however frustrating, gives it meaning. In the end, however, that meaning is ambiguous: Moses is still a drunk and Solomon is always one step ahead, tantalizing him with messages, clues and symbols. But both men, Richler makes clear, need each other. “I once told you,” Solomon writes to Moses, “that you were no more than a figment of my imagination. Therefore, if you continued to exist, so must I.”

Those lines neatly summarize the dependent relationship between writers and their books: each, in a way, invents the other. But Richler says that his gruelling experience with Solomon Gursky has made him grateful for other writing opportunities. Over the next few months, he will be writing political journalism instead. “It should be good fun to have the material come from

elsewhere for a change,” he said, “and not from my own head.” No longer having to rely on screen adaptations of other writers’ work for financial security, he can also afford to be choosy about movie work. “I’m not really interested unless it’s something of my own,” he said. But he says that he knows that is no guarantee of success: after the overwhelmingly positive re-

sponse to the film version of The Apprenticeship ofDuddy Kravitz (1974), Richler adapted his novel Joshua Then and Now as both a film and a TV mini-series in 1985—resulting in “a mixed bag.” Richler expresses few regrets about his life as a writer. But if there is one, he says, oddly enough it is that he has been only a writer. “Most novelists I know had jobs they hated,” he said. “And so they know things about office life I don’t know, or about selling shoes.” But that alleged failing has not prevented Richler from becoming Canada’s most % gifted comic novelist—and

0 one of the most perceptive 1 analysts of its soul, g After lunch, Richler paused g to shake hands before dashing ^ off in a cab—like Moses

Berger chasing Solomon Gursky. Or, with his dark raincoat flapping in the wind, Richler could be Gursky himself, that “raven with an unquenchable itch to meddle and provoke.” Few writers in Canada have done that as well as Richler—or have proven how necessary it is to a country’s selfawareness and sanity.