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On Mordecai Richler’s Death

There were slight but distinctly off-key notes amid the eulogies following Mordecai Richler’s death in the first week of July. Some of them were ear- and brain-rending enough that I decided to trace their sources. At first it seemed mostly a matter of too many writers going out of their way to puff up Richler as a brilliant, uncompromising man who had not suffered fools gladly. Since this was probably the best-publicized facet of Richler’s public persona, it was hardly revelatory stuff, and the fact that every single one of the eulogizers went on to make assurances that Richler had thought them models of good and common sense kinda put the fox’s nose right next to its own musk glands.

Then there were the more flagrant self-betrayals: Sondra Gotlieb’s down-the-end-of-her-nose inference that her table manners and her dinner party invitations were better than Richler’s; Globe & Mail book editor Martin Levin’s inability to get the spelling of Richler’s brand of Scotch right; Peter Gzowski’s column—written in the cloying 75-year-old-MorningSide-caller-from-North-Bay dialect that has become the CBC’s apparent target demographic—had little to impart beyond implying that Richler had always been interested in whatever obsessed Gzowski himself, and that the two were great, great pals, no one closer; Rex Murphy, who eulogized Richler in Conrad Black’s prose style, drowned whatever point he wanted to make in rhetoric so foppy it would require weeks of intense decoding to extract and decontaminate. Others, mostly in the electronic media, talked lugubriously and solemnly about Richler’s honesty, his backhanded yet somehow forthright and undeniable patriotism—and about how he couldn’t possibly have included them among the barge-loads of media fools he skewered so effortlessly one got the impression he could have done it in his sleep.

I don’t mean to sound cynical about Richler, because I’m not. However lame and self-serving some of these platitude-laden eulogies got, the outpouring of affection for Richler was profoundly moving, and didn’t falsify his accomplishments. The accumulated effect has me, for one, admiring Richler more than I already did. It also made me take a more careful measure of the man, who I’d come to think of as an aspect of our cultural weather I was free to ignore. Having said that, I think there are several things the eulogizers missed, which is why I’m writing this.

Mordecai Richler and I were not friends. I was in the same room with him perhaps a dozen times, but the only occasion on which we spoke to one another was in Saskatoon in 1990, at a well-intentioned but badly thought-out conference on the subject of humour. One of the very bad ideas this conference had was to put Richler and I on a panel with several completely-crazed female standup comedians to talk about what it is that makes people laugh and why laughing is important. Putting Richler and me together was merely a poor programming choice, but one of the female comedians who landed on the panel was so distraught by being asked to be serious and think some ideas through in public together with a couple of guys that there was an almost tangible threat that she was either going to commit suicide on stage or stab Richler and/or me. Richler responded to the several stresses present by showing contempt for both audience and occasion; I didn’t think the audience, which in Saskatchewan is as likely to include dry cleaning plant operators from North Battleford as the Art thugs and fucks who show up for these things elsewhere in the country, deserved his contempt. I said as much, and Richler and I glowered at each other in front of the audience until the saner of the comedians dithered her way to a subject matter she was convinced was acceptably about her.

Despite the incident, I’ve regarded Richler with the good will one writer accords another who is older and more accomplished. In addition, I know Richler’s eldest son, Daniel, and I very much like and admire him. I’ve met younger sons Noah and Jake on several social occasions. They’re less sanguine beings than Daniel, but both are intellectually capable and articulate. A reprint of Jake’s mid-90s GQ article about his father published by the National Post, was, for instance, arguably the most insightful piece that has appeared since his death.

I have three things to add to the eulogies I’ve read and heard. One has to do with Richler’s place in Canadian cultural and political history, and the second involves a more accurate definition of the “honesty” that several people in the electronic media have ascribed to him. The third is a private insight about parenting and novel-writing that Richler’s passing has precipitated.

Mordecai Richler’s fame amongst members of the Canadian media, and his standing amongst the nation’s political and cultural elites is largely the product of his humiliation of Quebec’s separatist government at the exact moment when its cachet was peaking. Richler’s 1991 New Yorker article “Inside-Outside” made an international laughing stock of Quebec’s language laws, which were a philosophically less serious but politically more sexy issue than the xenophobia and anti-Semitism Richler understood was still lurking within francophone Quebec society. The New Yorker article—which was shortly afterward elaborated as a book—made Quebec and its separatist government look particularly foolish to Americans, which is where, in the minds of Quebecois, looking good matters. And once Richler got the knife between the ribs of the Separatists, he twisted it relentlessly and accurately—so much so that since the Quebec Referendum, there has been a substantial transfer of hostility amongst separatist Quebecers from English Canada to him. It might be the case that enough hostility has shifted that it has diffused the energies that might have led to another quick referendum. Certainly Richler has been a more swift-witted opponent of Quebecois xenophobia than Jean Chretien and his bumbling federalists could have hoped to be.

In that sense, English Canada may owe Mordecai Richler an even greater debt of gratitude than the one it has so pompously acknowledged in recent weeks. But there is a dark side to this. Had the 1995 referendum vote slipped another percentage point or so to the Separatists, the same political commentators who have been snuggling up to Richler’s memory in the last weeks would be reviling him as the man who broke up Canada. And they wouldn’t be far wrong.

Richler was the living proof that the best Canadians are not our patriots, or our humourless nationalists. He didn’t write “Inside/Outside” to save Canada. His deepest concern was the anti-Semitism he detected in Quebec’s language laws and in the larger political ambitions of the separatists. After that, I suspect he was more concerned about being annoyed and harrassed by officious bureaucrats and other Anglophobic fools in Quebec than saving Canada. It’s no accident that Richler parted political company with Mel Hurtig on what was a Canadian Nationalist version of the Hemingway-Gertrude Stein parting—with Richler playing Gertrude Stein.

My second point is about Richler’s “honesty”. Honesty was never among Richler’s primary virtues or faults, as it can’t be for any good writer, whether he/she is producing fiction or not. I’m not suggesting that Richler wasn’t direct and truthful. I’m merely pointing out that honesty can’t, by definition, be exercised in politics, and its presence within cultural and personal matters is generally accompanied by excessive volumes of self-aggrandizing sincerity, which is among the most violent forms of human stupidity. The more grainy truth about Mordecai Richler was that from early in his career he was coldly assiduous in his presentation of himself and the public presentation of his artistic and geo-ethnic concerns. He self-mythologized himself and Montreal’s St. Urbain Street more successfully than any writer in Canadian history has presented her or his cultural merchandise. He did this because he understood that it would get him the audience he needed, and he was right. He was consistent about this and he was focused, which are qualities associated with honesty only where accompanied by excessive grinning. Mordecai Richler wasn’t famous for grinning.

What some of the very simple-minded eulogizers have been mistakenly lauding as Richler’s honesty was in fact a startling and possibly unique (to Canada) cultural and artistic courage. Richler was, as a man and as an artist, completely unafraid to piss people off if he thought it mattered. There was also a side of him that pissed people off simply for the fun of it, but even then, he doesn’t seem to have let such private pleasures interfere with his pursuit of issues he thought were important. When it counted, he showed up with whatever weapon would have the greatest effect, and here, as elsewhere, his instincts were nearly perfect: needle, boning knife, bludgeon. But whatever weapon he employed, he also came with his facts straight and his research done. And he never arrived armed only with sincerity.

My last point has to do with Richler’s parenting skills and with the way he was able to exercise them. I’d have thought Mordecai Richler would, by the testimony of his children alone, be remembered as a loving but unorthdox parent who made his children stronger and more articulate than they might have been—all without alienating them. With 30 and 22 year-old sons of my own, I have a pretty clear sense of how difficult a job it is to raise children to capable adulthood without convincing them along the way that you’re either an incompetent boob or an authoritarian asshole—or both. But my friend Phanjoh, whose own daughter is three years younger than my four-year-old, said something the other morning that made me see something I’d missed.

When he’s working evenings at his job, Phanjoh often shows up at Dooney’s before nine in the morning with his daughter. His wife has recently gone back to work, and they’re sharing childcare between them. Phanjoh does mornings when he’s working nights, and nights when he’s working days. The Monday after Richler’s death Phanjoh blew into Dooney’s with his daughter just after I’d arrived from dropping my daughter off at her summer play-school. When I mentioned the subject that had been everywhere in the weekend papers, he remarked that Richler was the last of the old-time novelists. I asked what he meant, but his daughter was fussing, and he had to walk her around the streets in the stroller until she fell asleep.

Phanjoh returned in 20 minutes, parked the sleeping daughter and stroller a few tables away and sat down.

His datum, it turned out, was Jake Richler’s reprinted GQ piece, which he saw as proof, among other things, that Richler the elder had been a chauvinist parent.

I agreed, but suggested that focusing on his life that way was undeservedly harsh. “He was hardly a remote parent,” I said. “And at least he was there.”

As we talked, it became clear that Phanjoh wasn’t lodging a complaint, but rather, making a observation about the way things were done by that generation: the women raised the kids, the husbands did the work. From there, he merely connected the dots in a rather thoughtful way. We agreed that the divisions of labour Richler enjoyed in his household were necessary to getting novels written, or at least that without them, the work would have been weaker, and the novels almost certainly fewer.

That, it turned out, was what Phanjoh meant by ‘last of the old time novelists.’ “You and I couldn’t accept that kind of situation even if it was offered to us,” he said.

“It wouldn’t be offered in the first place,” I added. The moment I said it, I realized that neither of us resented the change between generations. It was, simply, the way things now are, and the compensatory bonuses are more than adequate. But it also means that anyone writing a novel today has to be one or more of several things Richler wasn’t: wealthy enough to have full time servants to take care of domestic life; socially and interpersonally reclusive; elderly, gay, or childless. As a writer, Richler had the ‘best’ of both worlds: he neither had to attend to child-rearing or other domestic chores, nor, after a certain point, did he have to sacrifice writing time to a day-job. Because writing seldom provides a living income these days, contemporary writers often have both an office job and a commitment to raising their children. That means domestically committed heterosexuals now have to find other ways to write, and other, briefer forms to work with, because the kinds of concentration accorded novelists of Richler’s generation simply aren’t available any more. There will be no more mid-career novels like Solomon Gursky Was Here” written by heterosexual novelists who are also domestic beings.

I’m not sure losing novels created by novelists with full domestic lives is a great loss or not. One could argue that the form is senile, and that removing so huge a demographic from its production zone will merely speed up its disappearance. Still, the quality and depth of Mordecai Richler’s characterizations suggest that the loss will be considerable.

July 27, 2001//2188 w.

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Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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