Hitting below the belt

Barbara Amiel August 13 2001

Hitting below the belt

Barbara Amiel August 13 2001

Hitting below the belt

Barbara Amiel

It had to happen. After the tributes to Mordecai were read, the snakes reared up. In The Globe and Mail we had the hiss from the vipers den of Canadas mainstream leftwing media. Time to get back to overlooking Quebecs repressive language laws and policies so remorselessly attacked by Richler. Globe commentator Ray Conlogue trawled the view that Richler, in his journalism and books, was a “bigot” towards French-Canadians, depicting them as “either go-go dancers grinding their crotches on a dirty stage or imbecilic junkyard workers.”

In the National Post, media columnist John Fraser managed to take his art of kissing the posteriors he bites to new and stunning heights in a piece that attempted all in one column to praise Richler while pointing out he was also “an outstanding journalist hack... in the nicest possible way.” Flowever, the definition of “hack” is someone who does dull and unoriginal work simply for money, not someone who does assigned articles he believes in for a jolly good fee. In the same column, for good measure, Fraser threw in an apology to the editor of this magazine for “having had it in for Wilson-Smith” prematurely. Even for as skilled a cover-your-behind person as Fraser, this was vintage stuff.

One of the great and distinguishing qualities of Mordecai was that he was incorruptible. It was not just that his approval could not be purchased by money or favours, but he could not be corrupted by fashion or, even harder, by friendship. A lot of the Canadian intelligentsia can say No to a direct bribe, but would find it almost impossible to give their true opinion publicly if it would hurt a friend—or make an important enemy.

Canadian culture lives inside a paradox. In one sense this is a country with a small population and a relatively small literary and arts community. Our writers tend to live in a hothouse environment, socializing, meeting and backscratching together. I remember when Margaret Atwood published her much-acclaimed Survival in 1973. Her analysis of Canadian culture featured her friends to such an extent that author Graeme Gibson (who became her husband) was mentioned 16 times while Robertson Davis was not mentioned once.

Still, one sympathizes with Canadians because in another sense they are part of an immense cultural group—the Englishspeaking people. That makes Canadian writers and cultural figures rather like featherweight boxers being forced into bouts at the heavyweight level. Using this metaphor, Canada has done pretty well: we have turned out more than our share of international writers per pound such as Atwood herself, even if some of them are one-book writers or, like Michael Ondaatje, are made by a movie.

Mordecai Richlers postmortem critics are among those whose real enemy is accuracy. But Richler was incorruptible.

Mordecai left Canada for England physically but—and this was important—he never left it as a writer. His themes were firmly rooted in St. Urbain Street and he did the very opposite of what hackwriters do, namely, stay in their comfortable hothouse where they know everybody, but their “topics” are often “international.” What set him apart, other than talent, was that he suffered, like all great writers, from a tenacious case of accuracy. He looked at people, groups, social phenomena and ideas and he couldn’t help describing them as they are. He couldn’t use some slippery phrase like “culture-enhancing” to make Quebec’s language laws sound non-repressive.

One of my favourite books by Richler is his 1963 The Incomparable Atuk (worth reading, too, for the excellent afterword by Peter Gzowski). This hilarious satire takes the micky out of CanLit’s pretensions as well as the dawning of the New Age of Multiculturalism. Could it be published today? Could Atuk be described as “a chunky little primitive... with a certain un-Presbyterian shiftiness” instead of a noble Inuit? Could “a tall muscular Negro” be the window cleaner and stud for bored Toronto housewives? How many Human Rights Commissions would be convened to red-pencil the manuscript? Just being able to pose those questions with a straight face shows us how much our freedom—and sense of humor— have been diminished.

Richler was not, pace Ray Conlogue, anti-French any more than he was antiSemitic, though even some Jews have called him that. To call Mordecai anti-Semitic is to posit the impossible. Eliminate the impossible, as Sherlock Holmes would say, and whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. WFiat remains in this case are that there are groups of people in Canada for whom any accurate description against the views they champion is anathema and the person who writes such a description must be anti-this or anti-that or a racist. For these people the real enemy is accuracy.

Richler was not anti-anything except, as Gzowski says in his essay, “anti-folly.” To top it off, Mordecai took the advice George Bernard Shaw put in Professor Higgins’s mouth: that a gendeman is not someone who has good manners but someone who has the same manners with everyone. Mordecai talked to royalty, Nobel Prize winners, waiters or tradesmen in exacdy the same manner. His attitude had nothing to do with class or power or some other agenda. Show me the writer in Canada that shares all those qualities plus Mordecai s shattering talent and we’ll survive the puny litde weaklings now left behind, spitting in the face of the notions and ideas of the man who, to borrow his own phrase from The Incomparable Atuk, was The Noblest Canadian of them All.