A new 700-page biography of Canadian literary giant Mordecai Richer revives some of his provocative public statements and uncovers the private experiences that set his moral code.
Novelist and journalist Charles Foran is the fourth biographer to tackle the subject of one of Canada's best-known writers — the author of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Barney's Version.
Richler died in 2001 at age 70, but his work has an enduring place in the Canadian literary canon, and the movie version of Barney's Version is currently headed for commercial release on the big screen.
In Mordecai: The Life and Times, Foran recalls how Richler's satire about Montreal Jews offended some in Canada's Jewish community.
Richler was known for his strong moral positions. He criticized the treatment of Arabs living in Israel in the 1950s.
Decades later, outraged by Quebec nationalism and language laws, he humiliated separatists with the satire Oh Canada, Oh Quebec. That earned him open public harassment.
Foran traces the roots of Richler's strident moralism to his childhood. His paternal grandfather was a strict Orthodox Jew who preached ethics but whom Richler witnessed cheating a man at his scrapyard.
"He came to embody everything about organized religion that Richler detested or he thought was hypocritical or false," Foran told CBC's Margo Kelly in an interview.
Foran also uncovered a shocking 1976 letter that Richler wrote to his mother, Lily Rosenberg, the daughter of a rabbi, that reveals a 30-year-old secret.
"He had witnessed her having sex with the boarder in the bed next to him in the apartment on St. Urbain Street," Foran said.
"And he says to her 'How do you think it felt? What kind of impact do you think that had on me witnessing you having sex with this other man after you'd just thrown my father out? It's Shakespearean.'"
Richler's mother said she was destroyed by the letter. He never saw her again.
"My sense is that what he saw inside that apartment made him a doubly angry, doubly distrustful, doubly determined to have nothing to do with group think — no one was going to tell him what was the creed, the accepted wisdom of anything again."
Mordecai: The Life and Times, is to be released on Saturday. Foran, a Peterborough, Ont.-based writer has contributed to CBC's Ideas show.