MACLEAN’S HONOR ROLL

A magical craftsman

From roots in Quebec, a skilful author addresses the world and warns against Canadian tribalism

MORDECAI RICHLER December 31 1990
MACLEAN’S HONOR ROLL

A magical craftsman

From roots in Quebec, a skilful author addresses the world and warns against Canadian tribalism

MORDECAI RICHLER December 31 1990

A magical craftsman

From roots in Quebec, a skilful author addresses the world and warns against Canadian tribalism

MORDECAI RICHLER

In much of his best writing, even when the settings are international and his themes universal, Mordecai Richler has never strayed far from Canada. Most of his nine novels, even those composed during two decades of self-imposed exile in Europe, are firmly rooted in the fecund soil of his native land. His scores of essays, opinions and reviews, including a collection just published under the title Broadsides, usually reflect frames of reference that were first forged on the Montreal streets where he grew up. His current project is a long article commissioned by The New Yorker magazine about Quebec and its place, if it has one, in Canada. “It is turning out to be very difficult to write,” he recounted in a Drummond Street haunt not far from his downtown Montreal apartment, “for the simple reason that I cannot really understand why people here seem to feel op-

pressed.” Pausing to sip on a dark cup of double espresso, he added bleakly, “To me, it’s a wasting tribal quarrel that diminishes everybody.”

In Richler's view, cultural nationalism distracts Canada from fulfilling its potential as part of the world community of cultures that enrich everybody. At 59, he is no stranger to the tribes or the quarrels of English Canada or Quebec, particularly those involving Montreal’s boisterous Jewish community. He has chronicled both in a string of sometimes trenchant, often hilarious and always magically crafted novels that stretch from The Apprenticeship of Buddy Kravitz, first published in 1959, to the work that many critics and readers believe is his best—Solomon Gursky Was Here. But his writing speaks not only to Canadians. It addresses the world in a style that is, by any measure, a major literary achievement.

Like much of his work, Gursky has been applauded at home and abroad. A rollicking tale about a family of bootleggers who become legitimate businessmen, that novel won the 1990 QSPELL Prize from the Quebec Society for the Promotion of English Language Literature and a $20,000 Commonwealth Writers Prize as best fiction of the year. The Commonwealth award cited “the flair and skill with which an almost epic national saga irreverently plays with history,” calling it “a challenging book which not only exposes the myths of multicultural harmony beloved of many nations, but uses acerbic satire to do so.” Richler relishes the recognition—in part as vindication after Gursky was overlooked in nominations for Canada’s premier annual literary prize, the Governor General’s Award for fiction. “Sure it makes me feel good,” he said of the Commonwealth award. “I’ve taken a lot of shots at the cultural nationalists in this country,” he added with a shrug. “I guess I’ve got to be prepared to take some shots myself.”

He is also prepared to deal with the current tensions in Quebec. He and his wife, Florence, divide their time between a Montreal apartment and a rambling old house overlooking Lake Memphremagog in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, purchased not long after the Richlers returned to Canada in 1972 after spending 20 years—and raising five children—in London. There are no plans to move. “I have no idea what’s going to happen in Quebec,” he remarked sombrely. “There are too many imponderables. I hope it all does not end foolishly, acrimoniously.” He paused for a reflective draw on a cigarillo, then brightened. “But whatever happens,” he said, “I guess it is going to be pretty interesting.”

Interesting enough, no doubt, to provide more raw material for a literary craftsman's art.