Mordecai Richler biography wins Charles Taylor Prize

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It may go down as the year that belonged to Mordecai Richler. First there was the release of the film adaptation of Barney's Version, then there was the campaign to honour the writer with a public monument in Montreal, and now Charles Foran's biography Mordecai: The Life & Times has been awarded the Charles Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction.

Foran's compelling biography of Richler, spanning more than 700 pages, probes the experiences that shaped one of Canada's most complex and controversial authors. Along the way, he revives the provocative statements that made Richler the subject of such intense, if polarized, public attention. He also brings to light some aspects of the writer's life that until now had remained secret — most notably the revelation, in a 1976 letter, that he witnessed his mother having sex with a boarder. She was the daughter of a rabbi and recently divorced. He was 12 and awake in the next bed.

It was an event that would haunt the author forever, and eventually destroy his relationship with his mother. For Foran, it was also a story that he could only tell with the help of Richler's family. Florence Richler, Mordecai's widow, eventually allowed Foran to print the entire letter in a chapter entitled "Dear Maw."

Foran thanked Florence Richler as he stood to accept his award at a lunchtime event in Toronto, saying that her involvement made the work three times richer.

This year marks the 10th awarding of the Charles Taylor Prize which was founded in 1998 in memory of journalist and author Charles Taylor. Initially awarded every two years, the prize became annual in 2005. To mark the occasion, the inaugural jury from 2000, made up of literature professor Eva-Marie Kroller and writers David Macfarlane and Neil Bissoondath, reunited to judge this year's award.

According to the jury, the nature of the prize has changed dramatically over those 10 years. Literary non-fiction, described by the awards committee as showcasing "an excellent command of the English language, an elegance of style, quality of thought, and subtlety of perception," has steadily inched its way into the mainstream, and that is reflected in the number and variety of books presented to the jury each year.

Farm-150.jpgThis year, the jury was given the task of selecting from 173 books, almost double the 90 that were submitted for consideration in the prize's first year. In addition to Foran's biography, the shortlist included an insider's account of reporting on the Robert Pickton case and trial (On the Farm: Robert William Pickton and the Tragic Story of Vancouver's Missing Women by Stevie Cameron), a study of Canadian landscape painters the Group of Seven (Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven by Ross King), a lyrical memoir of a child's experience of immigration (The Geography of Arrival: A Memoir by George Sipos) and a cross-cultural account of the life and work of Indian poet Kamala Das (The Love Queen of Malabar: Memoir of a Friendship with Kamala Das by Merrily Weisbord). Choosing a winner was a difficult task, but it was Foran's clear voice, conveying a unique personality and tone, that set his work apart. Add to that an incredible eye for detail and mood, and it's easy to see why this biography stretched to 736 pages.

"But all through that, the sense of narrative was never lost," jurist Neil Bissoondath remarked. "It's like you're reading a novel."

This ability to write creatively about a very real subject is perhaps what sets apart a genre that, the jury conceded, has been difficult to pin down. Literary non-fiction is not simply writing about facts, it's writing about the facts in a way that brings them to life.

Or, as jurist Eva-Marie Kroller said, "Beauty without substance is nothing. Substance without beauty is nothing. We have a much stronger idea of what [literary non-fiction] is now than when we started."

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