Thursday April 09, 2015

Mordecai Richler

Listen to Full Episode 54:59
TRAVEL Log Richler 20101122

Author Mordecai Richler poses in a Montreal park in this Oct., 1983 photo. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

It only took fourteen years after he died, but finally the great Canadian novelist Mordecai Richler is being recognized with a fitting tribute from his home city of Montreal.  When he died in 2001, emotions ran high in his home province over his acerbic views on Quebec sovereignty and language laws.  He was seen by many as a traitor to his province, an anglophone who had never learned to speak French and who mocked authority and lampooned the powerful. Yet he was also one of the most successful authors this country has known. Novels like The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Barney's Version and Jacob Two-Two and the Hooded Fang were best sellers. More controversial were his non fiction offerings about nationalism and anti-Semitism.

Now the city of Montreal has announced that a former Anglican church converted into a library would be named after him. The Bibliothèque Mordecai-Richler, as it will be known, seems a more fitting tribute than the one grudgingly offered by the city in the past, a gazebo that quickly fell into disrepair.

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The gazebo on Mount Royal sits in disrepair, Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015 in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

Rewind started with part of the on air obituary that ran right after he died in 2001.

Richler was born in Montreal to a poor Jewish family, but by age 19 was eager to taste the world. When he left Canada for Paris, he was a brooding young intellectual with lots to say. He later moved to England and by the time he returned to Montreal in the mid 1970s, he was a respected writer with a keen eye for the absurd and the magnetism to charm… or… anger just about everyone who met or read him. From Montreal's Jewish ghetto to Quebec nationalism, from boring Anglophones to hypocritical politicians – the incomparable Richler commented, questioned, laughed and angered.

Our next clip was from 1961, where speaking from his home in London to CBC Radio's Elaine Grand, he offered up some brutally honest and harsh commentary.

Mordecai: The Life & Times by Charles Foran

Charles Foran’s book is the definitive profile of Mordecai Richler, the lion of Canadian literature.

Our next piece was from 1968, after the publication of his novel Cocksure- a book that went on to win the Governor General's Award for fiction. With each book he wrote, more and more labels were pinned to Richler. He had been called a self-righteous Canadian and a Jewish anti-Semite, but now after the release of the new book he was called a writer of filth. Robert Fulford talked to him on his program called "This is Robert Fulford."

When he returned to Canada to live in 1972, he was asked why he came back. He explained, "I'm a Canadian and a Jew and I write about being both. I worry about being away so long from the roots of my discontent." During his 22 years abroad, Mordecai Richler's writing about Canada and Canadians struck a nerve. He was praised as a truth-teller and a master satirist. But, he'd also been deemed an enemy within the gates of many communities – a veritable anti-everything: anti-Semitic, anti-Francophone, anti-Anglophone, anti-nationalist and anti-Canadian.

We aired some of a documentary from 1975 where Richler talked about the political and social changes he saw in everything from the back alley of St. Urbain Street to the broader Canadian landscape.

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Panellists disagreed on whether 'Cocksure' was funny.

in 1992, Richler published a piece of non-fiction that opened a Pandora's Box. It was called Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!, and it was based on an article in the New Yorker magazine the year before. It was about the language and cultural divisions in Quebec. Some called it hate propaganda. But others praised Richler as a hero for at last opening up the debate.

A couple of weeks later a group of 25 Canadian writers and intellectuals went on record distancing themselves from Richler's views on Quebec. Rewind aired a clip from Peter Gzowski's Morningside.

In July 2001, at the age of 70, Richler died from complications related to kidney cancer. He is remembered as a master satirist, a political polemicist, a skilled novelist, an entertaining journalist and a sardonic truth-teller. Rex Murphy had some comments.

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Montreal Gazette cartoonist Terry Mosher with the Richler family. (Pierre Landry/CBC)

After his death, the Giller Prize and Random House of Canada commissioned the Richler typesetting font. It marked the first time a font had been designed as a tribute to a contemporary author. Canadian designer Nick Shinn crafted the distinctive font which was used to set Richler's last book Dispatches from the Sporting Life and would be used for all future reprints of Richler's works. The font's dingbats, or type symbols, include reading glasses, a cigar, a rose, a pen and a glass of scotch. http://www.myfonts.com/fonts/shinn/richler/

In March the city of Montreal declared Mordecai Richler a Citizen of Honour and unveiled a library in his name.

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Terry Mosher, also known as Aislin, with a Mordecai Richler cartoon. (Pierre Landry/CBC)