Editor Robert Gottlieb recalls a close friend who ‘improved on a large talent’
Many people consider New York-based Robert Gottlieb the most influential literary editor in the English-speaking world. Over a career of almost half a century, he has edited the magazine The New Yorker and books by authors rangingfrom Joseph Heller to John le Carré to Chaim Potok to Katherine Graham to, at present, Bill Clinton and his memoirs. He was Mordecai Richler’s long-time editor —although, he says, he thought of him “most of all as afriend. ” Gottlieb spoke to Macleans Editor Anthony Wilson-Smith recently about Richler. Excerpts:
There never was a lot of editing on Mordecai's work. His first editor was always Florence, a brilliant reader with a very perceptive editorial mind. She was the reader he most counted on: by the time a book of his had got past Florence, it was in good shape. There was always a certain amount of cosmetic work to do, as there is for almost any book—word repetitions, sentences that don’t quite work, locutions that need improving, punctuation. Standard editorial matters. Mordecai listened solemnly and did whatever he wanted to do.
There are different kinds of writers. Some writers are essentially rewriters— there’s nothing they love more than sitting down and not just fixing but reworking. Mordecai was not like that. He was perfectly willing and happy to make adjustments, but he didn’t invest himself in rethinking a book; nor was it necessary. For him, once it was there on the page, it was real, and to make it into something else would have been hard.
Our relationship was very much based on mutual teasing and mutual jokes. I can’t remember our having an editorial disagreement. And actually, if a writer and an editor are on the same wavelength, there are very few serious struggles.
Mordecai was not the kind of writer who was on the phone saying, “How many did we sell last week?” and “My uncle was in the bookstore in the Kansas City airport, and there weren’t any copies.” Basically he
wrote it, we published it. He was interested in the dust jacket, we tried to write good copy, and then we got on with it. He wasn’t a whiner or a demander.
The fact that his books were often about Canada didn’t matter much here. Why would it? We publish English writers, French writers, Italian writers, German writers. This is not a parochial society. Fifty years ago, when Mordecai was getting going, it was more of an issue. At that time, The New York Times Book Review would assign a novel about Indonesia to someone who was an Indonesian expert, as if that were the point. So to that extent, Mordecai was a voice of Canada here, particularly in his non-fiction, and in his journalism. When I was editing The New Yorker, and Mordecai wrote that piece in 1991 ridiculing Quebec’s language laws, we both knew it would cause an explosion for him at
home. He didn’t need anyone to tell him that. I think that was part of the joke, and the point. I mean, if there ever was a sitting target for satire, it was that frame of mind in Quebec. But in America, it wasn’t explosive, it was just funny. Overall, he was seen here more as a comic novelist than a Canadian novelist, or perhaps more as a Jewish novelist, because of Duddy Kravitz, which came out in the heyday of Jewish black humour.
His books clearly reflect his humour, his energy, and as we see in the later books, a growing compassion. The early books are much more provocative. Some of them are very specifically satirical; I think there was a progression. The very earliest books were young-man autobiographical. Duddy Kravitz, crammed with characters and observation, is what you might call a “real novel” as opposed to The Incomparable Atuk, which followed it, and which is
lighter on character and heavier on satire.
Duddy Kravitz was one of those books that revealed a new world to a public that didn’t know it. Think of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, or Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, or le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Those books have special meaning for readers. Suddenly you say, “Oh my Lord, there’s this world. Who knew? This is fascinating!” People were attracted by Duddy, they were repelled—whatever their reaction, it was a discovery.
He shifted. The later books were more resonant. He was becoming more of a moralist, and, more important, he was getting better and better. Appropriately, Barneys Version is his grandest work. It’s wonderful that this final book is an acclaimed major novel, and one that’s had so much success, but its very quality reminds us sadly of what he might have gone on to do had he not died.
We first met in 1963 or ’64. It was never just a writer and his editor; the Richlers and the Gottliebs immediately all knew each other, and fell into a very happy and trusting family relationship. We didn’t really talk about his books very much. We talked about our lives, and jokes.
He would always send me hilarious clippings, ludicrous books.
I grew very close to Florence, as did my wife, Maria, and eventually to Emma, to Jake (our godson), to all the kids. Maria’s and my children thought of the Richlers as extended family.
Mordecai, of course, worshipped Florence. One of my close friends, Doris Lessing, likes to remember Mordecai in his early London days as being so anti-romantic, so tough—until he met Florence and suddenly turned into a dumbstruck adorer and stood around mooning after her.
I used to tease him mercilessly. When he would say, “I’m taking Florence out to dinner tonight,” I’d say, “You’re takinghex out to dinner tonight? You know, most of us would say, ‘Florence and I are going out to dinner tonight’—she’s actually a grownup, she doesn’t need to be taken.” But that’s the way he felt about it. When you were with Mordecai, you noticed that two hours could not go by without his calling her. He had to touch base.
I know some people say he was shy,
but that’s the wrong word to describe him. He was wary, probably as the result of his tough childhood. His books don’t complain, but they certainly make it clear. His relationship with his family was not exactly easy.
He had such energy and strength. You felt, my God, anyone who can eat as hard, and drink as hard, and smoke as hard with apparently no reaction except some excess weight ... He seemed indestructible. Florence knew he was not indestructible, but she could only do what she could do. He was not going to change the way he lived.
People who only saw him as a jokester and wit didn’t understand how full of feeling he was, and how generous. He was ruthless in the face of stupidity and mediocrity, but when it came to those people in whom he believed and to whom he committed himself, he forgave their failings if he had even bothered to register them at all. Loyalty was one of his
strongest characteristics—you really had to behave pretty badly for him to cross you off his list. His concern for others was hidden but real; hidden because the texture of his relationships was not one of easy intimacy. It was talking about subjects and having shared jokes. He was not someone who opened his heart—but he was a rocksteady friend.
Mordecai was a very lucky man, and I think he knew that. He had a great love. He had remarkable children whom he admired as well as loved. He discovered and improved on a large talent. He was recognized and rewarded. And, although the targets of his provocative humour might not always have agreed, he was a great guy: everyone who knew him personally felt it.
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