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Mordecai Richler: apathy, envy and the great Canadian wasteland

When Mordecai Richler left Canada for Paris, he was a brooding young intellectual with lots to say. He returned a prolific, respected writer with a keen eye for the absurd and the magnetism to charm or anger just about all of his contemporaries. From Montreal's Jewish ghetto to Quebec nationalism to boring Anglophones to hypocritical politicians – the incomparable Richler commented, questioned, laughed and angered.

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Novelist Mordecai Richler has become Canada's authority on Canadians. Speaking from his home in London, he offers up observations, brutal honesty and harsh commentary. In this early CBC Television interview, Richler is taken to task for a recent editorial in which he described Canada as a boring and apathetic country. He offers no apologies and is blunt in his assertions.

Richler, after all, speaks from experience, having fled Montreal at age 19 for adventure overseas in Paris and Spain. At age 23, he published his first novel The Acrobats about a Canadian painter living in post-war Spain. He has since enjoyed success with his novels Son of a Smaller Hero, a chronicle of life in Montreal's Jewish ghetto and Choice of Enemies, a novel about Canadian and American expatriates driven to London because of McCarthyism hysteria.

Richler's latest novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz tells the story of a ruthlessly ambitious Jewish teenager coming of age in Montreal. He has garnered praise for his razor-sharp, comedic view of the world. But he's also drawn much fire, his critics claiming that his characters are anti-Semitic stereotypes. In his brief but notable career thus far, he has already established himself as one of Canada's most outspoken and compelling critics.
• Mordecai Richler was born on Jan. 27, 1931 in Montreal. Richler proclaimed himself an atheist at age 12, which reportedly angered his family, including his grandfather, a rabbinical scholar. At age 14, the young Richler began to carry a pipe and a notebook. He would later recall that he and his friends aspired to be writers or hockey players like their boyhood hero Rocket Richard.

• "There are things in it that embarrass me but I would certainly defend it. I don't think it's a very good novel. It wasn't a book about books but it came out of my experience of books rather than out of my experience of living. It was, I guess you could say, a tribute to the reading I liked." - Mordecai Richler on his first novel, The Acrobats, in conversation with Robert Fulford on CBC Radio, 1968.

• Frank H. Lyell, a writer for the New York Times Book Review, reviewed The Acrobats on Jan. 2, 1955. Lyell noted that The Acrobats' "violent and tasteless episodes give evidence of originality and a good eye and ear." He also praised the complexity of character and wrote: "With this novel out of his system, Mr. Richler's second one may be an entirely mature and rewarding book."

• In 1958, Richler published an article in Maclean's describing the humbling experience of publishing The Acrobats. "In the end, the book sold something more than 900 copies. I had not earned my original advance against royalties, and my family began to apply pressure again.
'Advertising,' my Uncle Jake wrote, 'that's where the money is.'
'I borrowed a copy of your book the other day,' my old friend Herby wrote, 'and I think it's terrible.'
'Maybe you shouldn't write under your own name,' my Uncle Sydney wrote. 'After all, the family...'
My father wrote that he made the night watchman buy a copy. But he didn't care for it himself. 'I wouldn't recommend it for children,' he wrote."

• Richler's novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz enjoyed critical success at the time of publication. Sales, however, were moderate in Canada, the United States and Great Britain. Sales of the book, however, were revived after the book was turned into a film in 1974, starring Richard Dreyfuss. Richler wrote the screenplay for Duddy Kravitz and was nominated for an Academy Award. While he didn't win the Oscar, he did receive a Screenwriters Guild of America Award for Best Comedy.

• On Oct. 25, 1959, Florence Crowther of the New York Times Book Review praised The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. She wrote: "If, as Keats put it, 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,' then there must be beauty in Mordecai Richler's candid novel of juvenile delinquents in the Jewish slum district of Montreal. For the ring of truth is the one clear note to be found in a book that is sometimes hilariously funny, sometimes brutally pathetic and often unnecessarily vulgar."

• Richler would later admit that he had mistakenly blamed "all things boring on Canada." In a 1974 CBC documentary on the writer called Coming Home Again, he explained that he eventually came to realize that he would find the boring and the absurd wherever he settled.
Medium: Television
Program: Close-Up
Broadcast Date: Nov. 5, 1961
Guest(s): Mordecai Richler
Host: J. Frank Willis
Reporter: Elaine Grand
Duration: 13:33
Excerpts from Mordecai Richler's editorial: the Spectator, London.

Last updated: November 14, 2014

Page consulted on November 14, 2014

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