Cover

‘SUCH A GREAT LAUGH AND A MORAL COMPASS'

DANIEL RICHLER June 24 2002
Cover

‘SUCH A GREAT LAUGH AND A MORAL COMPASS'

DANIEL RICHLER June 24 2002

ST. URBAIN’S PRODIGAL SCOLD

During a long exile and after his return, Richler was unmerciful about home

DANIEL POLIQUIN

Strangely enough, Mordecai Richler hardly cut a unique figure in Quebec’s literary tradition. He was your typical retour d’Europe—an expression that characterized past generations of young intellectuals who, disgusted by Quebec’s undying provincialism, fled to France. There they discovered refinements forbidden in their clergy-dominated society, such as wine, avant-garde poetry, odorous cheeses, existentialism and freedom of thought. They would come back when family money or scholarships ran out, with world-weary eyes and a permanent feeling of isolation in a not-so-Belle-Province where nothing seemed to change. A dreadful experience for many. Imagine F. Scott Fitzgerald returning to Prohibition.

Often, they would end up a sour lot, the remainder of their lives serving as penance for the good times abroad. Like the émigrés of the French Revolution, they had forgotten and learned nothing. With their newly acquired, perfect Parisian accents, they would forever lament the cultural desert they had found upon their return, spewing disdain for their ignorant compatriots between puffs of Gitanes cigarettes imported at high price. They were the ultimate alienated intellectuals, forever blaming their dreary surroundings for their creative impotence. They wrote a little, painted a little, shot a few bad documentaries and mosdy wallowed in self-pity. Too often, the returned exiles managed to bring back only a hardened inferiority complex and a sophomoric admiration for all things French.

Sometimes, however, they would come back to Canada with a sense of militancy and new ideas which transformed them into starry-eyed reformers bent on bettering their slow-moving society. They would become the Pierre Trudeaus and Jacques Parizeaus of yesteryear who, for better or worse, used some European models to fashion a state more attuned to the needs of the modern world. Or they would be

the Anne Héberts and the Alfred Pellans who drew from their self-imposed exile in France to bring a new consciousness and sensitivity to their work.

Mordecai Richler was a returned exile in a class of his own in that he seemed to belong to both schools of thought: unmerciful in his criticism of Canada, yet fortified in his creative powers by his 19-year sojourn in England. Like his successful Frenchspeaking counterparts, he came back a

much-improved writer, and like them, he had never ceased to think of Canada. He had long moved away from the bad Hemingway imitations and Lost Generation themes of his salad days, and in the ’60s, while still in Britain, he began telling tales about the place he knew best: the Montreal Jewish neighbourhood where he had grown up.

Writing with a grudging fondness about his peers and true homeland, Richler began to shine. In St. Urbains Horseman, his talent bloomed into fulsome maturity. He was so good that even French-speaking Québécois started noticing him, and translations followed to great acclaim. Those were perhaps the best years of Canada’s cultural decolonization—when Richler and his peers, English and French, liberated our literature from the aesthetic references of the mother countries and started to write about ourselves and for us. Richler’s novels and others’ did for English Canada what Michel Tremblay’s BellesSoeurs and the works of Réjean Ducharme

had done for French Quebec. That was the golden age of our collective adolescence.

But Mordecai remained a returned exile of the first kind in his attitude, his outlook on Canada and, mostly, in the biting words that had made him a famous novelist. Back home in the Seventies, he found Canada had remained too provincial for his taste, stuck-up and unsophisticated. Unmoved by the adoring crowd who welcomed back the lost son, he seldom missed the opportunity to take pot-shots at the small-mindedness of his countrymen, especially political bosses and intellectual divas. His was a take-no-prisoners approach: he infuriated Edmontonians by excoriating the dullness and tackiness of their town, paying no regard to their newly found oil wealth and then-dominance of NHL hockey.

But Richler saved his best rants for Quebec. To his chagrin, he had lost forever the poor but happy neighbourhood of his childhood, which would live on solely in his memory and his imagination. Gone, too, was the busding, confident Montreal of his youth. He felt the best and brightest had left for Toronto or New York, scared by the prospect of an independent Quebec or irritated by language laws. Richler could have left too, but he loved Quebec, so he stuck around, and turned on his new contemporaries with almost feral glee. Here, the indignation of the Old Testament prophet teamed with the acid wit of a seasoned Catskills performer to produce Oh Canada.! Oh Quebec! Requiem for a Divided Country. Nationalists were not amused, to say the least.

The result was a comical affair worthy of Richler’s best novels: a dialogue between two myopic individuals, both half deaf, both incapable of fully comprehending the other. Mordecai thought he was only exercising the fundamental right he had to question received wisdom in an open and democratic society; nationalists were intolerant of any speech that wasn’t laudatory of Quebec. When Richler lampooned Lionel Groulx’s anti-Semitic leanings, they lamented the besmirching of their prime

father figure. He ridiculed language law excesses, and they replied with the victims phony sense of moral superiority. Even when he rightfully lambasted Robert Bourassas emotional blackmail of Canada, they again circled the wagons and protected their own.

They heaped scorn on his angry nostalgia; he didn’t understand the fact that in any French society, the state does intervene

in language matters, a reality that dumfounded the North American libertarian in him. In Mordecai, they saw an ingrate who longed for the days of English dominance; he responded that Jews owed Quebec nothing, for they had pulled themselves up by the bootstraps to get what they had. They blamed him for never learning French; he replied that he had adapted to Quebec and even sent his kids to French schools. They never even read the book they attacked so bitterly, and he couldn’t go on French-language television without the assistance of an interpreter. They couldn’t fathom his belligerence, nor he, their insecurity. Bad blood flowed profusely on both sides.

What neither nationalists nor Richler understood was how much they had in common. They both loved to ridicule the Westmount upper crust of old; he acknowledged how much he admired Que-

bee writers he read in translation. His attachment to Quebec was sincere and profound, but they never accepted the fact that it was precisely Richlers otherness that contributed so much to their specificity, as they never fully integrated in their mental landscape Leonard Cohen’s magical poetry or Mavis Gallant’s brilliant short stories.

I spotted Mordecai Richler once in

Paris—long before I ever worked with him. He was sitting at a sidewalk café near the Quartier latin, accompanied by his beautiful wife, his coat hanging on his shoulders like an aristocratic cape, while sipping espresso with a cognac on the side, and smoking one of his beloved cheroots without fear of the dirty looks he surely would have elicited in Toronto the Good. I didn’t dare introduce myself because he looked so comfortable, so perfectly at home in the City of Light, surrounded by the hurried and sophisticated crowd. He looked happy. As happy, well, as any Québécois intellectual in Paris. E3

Writer Daniel Poliquin, who translated Richlers book Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Requiem for a Divided Country into French, recently won the Shaughnessy Cohen Award for his book In the Name of the Father, a critical essay on Quebec nationalism.