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Mordecai Richler

RICHLER, MORDECAI (1931–2001), Canadian author. Richler's satiric portrayal of Montreal's Jewish Main gained both prominence and notoriety in 1955 with the publication of his second novel, Son of a Smaller Hero. Published in Britain, this slim, young man's novel of leaving one's community caused a stir in Canada, with its depiction of working-class Jews coming to terms with the breakdown of tradition and the speed with which a prosperous postwar Canada allowed middle-class Jews to assimilate and suburbanize themselves. These themes recur – more fully fleshed out and with greater humor – in Richler's breakthrough 1959 novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.

Richler's career would prove to be a writing away from and back to his childhood experiences in the neighborhood around Montreal's St Lawrence Boulevard, which existed as a Jewish enclave, with English Montreal to the west and French Montreal to the east. Between the middle 1950s and the early 1970s Richler made his home in London, England, raising a family and supporting himself by writing screenplays. Upon returning to Montreal to stay, Richler told friends that he worried that being too long away from his home turf might weaken his relationship with his richest material. The major novels that best reflect his ability to weave Montreal Jewish themes into a larger fictional tableau are St. Urbain's Horseman (1971), Joshua Then and Now (1980), and Solomon Gursky Was Here (1989). In the first of the three, Montreal plays the slightest role, and Richler addresses the Holocaust with deft, dark humor and moral outrage. Joshua Then and Now presents a loving portrait of a St. Urbain Street childhood. And in Solomon Gursky Was Here, Richler's most ambitious book, he takes liberties with the Bronfman liquor dynasty, the role of Jewish wealth and power in Canada, alongside a fanciful consideration of Jews in the Arctic. These major books confirmed Richler's place at the forefront of Canadian letters.

Richler's output also included three children's books featuring a character named Jacob Two-Two, as well as an excellent memoiristic collection, The Street (1969). Among his many literary awards are two Governor General's Awards, the Giller Prize, and the Commonwealth Writers Prize.

Alongside his fiction and memoir, Richler embraced freelance journalism and published regularly in Canada and abroad on subjects as varied as Israel and the sporting life. His willingness to editorialize aggressively and acerbically placed him at the center of the political and cultural debate concerning Quebec's national aspirations. Richler dismissed the indépendantiste movement as destructive, incoherent, and self-serving, insisting that its roots could be found in the xenophobic right-wing ideologies of 1940s Quebec. His influential, as well as provocative contributions to this discussion include a long essay, which appeared in The New Yorker in 1991, and his full-scale study and memoir Oh Canada! Oh Quebec: Requiem for a Divided Country (1992). With the latter's publication Richler found the Montreal Jewish community fully behind him – possibly for the first time in his career – as they applauded his criticism of Quebec nationalism. In the French-speaking community, Richler solidified his position as the Anglophone bête noir of French cultural life in the province.

In his last years, Richler was elevated to the role of cultural icon in Canada, a development that propelled his final novel, Barney's Version (1997), to bestseller status. The novel also became an unlikely success in Italy, where readers embraced Richler's characteristic brand of political incorrectness.


J. Yanofsky, Mordecai … Me: An Appreciation of a Kind (2003).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.