Canada's Mordecai Richler and Zionism: "A Man without Land Is Nobody"

By Lambert, Josh | Midstream, July-August 2005 | Go to article overview

Canada's Mordecai Richler and Zionism: "A Man without Land Is Nobody"


Lambert, Josh, Midstream


Calling Mordecai Richler (1931-2001) the greatest of all Jewish-Canadian writers does not, at first, seem like much of a compliment to him. Could a pond that small have produced a truly big fish?

Richler's obituaries honored him by asserting that he was that and much more: a prolific and versatile author of novels, essays, screenplays, and children's literature; an outspoken voice against Quebecois nationalism; a curmudgeon, a celebrated expatriate, and an omnivorous satirist. Much touted has been the popularity of his last novel, Barney's Version, in Italy, where the author's name reportedly has become an adjective (Richleriano) meaning "politically incorrect."

Whatever impact he made abroad, Richler was distinctly Canadian and Jewish, and there is nothing meager about his accomplishments when viewed from a local perspective. The Montreal he staked out as his literary turf was, at the time, the largest city in Canada and, alongside New York and Los Angeles, a world center of Yiddish culture and Jewish population. At least two other major Jewish literary imaginations, the poet and editor A.M. Klein and the Nobel laureate Saul Bellow, emerged from that milieu, but neither of them, for all their achievements, returned to it as faithfully or captured it as memorably in fiction as Richler did.

Critics and prize juries loved him. He won the Canadian Governor General's Award for fiction twice, for Cocksure (1969), and St. Urbain's Horseman (1972), as well as the Commonwealth Writer's Prize for Solomon Gursky Was Here (1989), which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. His mastery of dark comedy is evident in a classic children's story, Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang. Because he constantly contributed essays and columns to newspapers and magazines in Canada and abroad, and as his opinions and prose were never dull, he was one of the nation's most beloved and most controversial pundits.

The 1959 publication of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Richler's fourth novel, marked a turning point in his career. Duddy attracted significant attention to its then little-known 28-year-old author. It was reviewed positively, if briefly, in The New York Times Book Review and the Times Literary Supplement, and made enough of a stir to attract charges of anti-Semitism from the Canadian Jewish community not unlike those lobbed by American Jews, that same year, at Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus. Richler's book remains a favorite among writers; novelists including John Irving and Gary Shteyngart have expressed their admiration for it in recent years. Duddy will also likely be remembered because of a 1974 film version, starring a young Richard Dreyfuss, for which Richler garnered an Academy Award screenwriting nomination. More than forty-five years after its initial publication, the novel remains in print and continues to attract popular and critical attention.

Yet Richler was misunderstood throughout his career: a lover of Judaism and of Canada, he was often accused of hating both, especially by those who opposed his politics or were stung by his satire. So perhaps it should not be surprising that Duddy, too, has persistently vexed critics.

The novel traces the adolescent development of Duddy (ne David) Kravitz from his earliest days as a wiseacre tormenting his high school teachers on the snowy streets of Montreal, to his amateur business ventures, and concluding with his first major success as a "big time operator." Among the teenager's get-rich-quick schemes are attempts to run a roulette game at a summer resort, to illegally import and sell pinball machines, to broker scrap metal deals, and to be the first-ever Bar-Mitzvah videographer. These plans result either in tragedy or in farce, but each somehow inches Duddy a smidgen closer to his goal: to raise enough cash to buy a tract of land, including Lac St. Pierre, in the Laurentian mountains of Quebec. Duddy fixes on this aim from a very young age, when his grandfather tells him that "A man without land is nobody. …

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