Mordecai Richler: Leaving St. Urbain

By Margolis, Rebecca | Shofar, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Mordecai Richler: Leaving St. Urbain


Margolis, Rebecca, Shofar


Mordecai Richler: Leaving St. Urbain, by Reinhold Kramer. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2008. 498 pp. $39.95.

As one of Canada's most influential novelists and public figures, a scholarly biography of Mordecai Richler has been long in coming. A product of Montreal's Jewish immigrant community, Richler's The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (Duddy) and other award-winning novels and his role as political pundit made him a Canadian icon. Whether loved or reviled, Richler was a force to be reckoned with in Canadian intellectual life. His death in 2001 prompted numerous tributes, including two books: Mordecai & Me (2003) a candid memoir of Richler by journalist Joel Yanofsky, and Michael Posner's oral biography, The Last Honest Man (2004), which draws on interviews conducted with Richler's family, friends, and others who knew him. Most recently, Reinhold Kramer's Mordecai Richler: Leaving St. Urbain is a literary biography that focuses on the intersections between Richler's life and his writing. A professor of English at Brandon University, Kramer has completed meticulous research for this project: in addition to drawing on existing secondary sources as well as doing many of his own interviews, Kramer has scoured the Richler archive at the University of Calgary to draw on drafts of published and unpublished manuscripts as well as Richler's voluminous body of correspondence. The result is an engaging portrait of Richler that situates the writer and his oeuvre in relation to the people in his life and shifting historical realities.

The second half of the book's title, "leaving St. Urbain," refers to the street in Montreal's Jewish immigrant quarter where Richler grew up in the 1930s and 1940s before setting out for Ibiza, Paris and London, and eventually returning home. No matter how far he traveled, both literally and figuratively, Richler's heart remained in his native Montreal. In Kramers analysis, the title also captures Richler's path from his Orthodox Jewish upbringing as grandson of Rabbi Yudel Rosenberg (author of the modern Golem tale) into an avowed secularist. Although Kramer is a literary scholar, his strongest analysis is of Richler's role in Canadian political life, where he employed his barbed wit as a commentatot and critic. Kramer's account is full of lively anecdotes of the notoriously witty and provocative Richler, such as his exchange with the widow of magnate Samuel Bronfman at the movie premiere of Duddy." Well, Mordecai, you've come a long way from being a St. Urbain Street slum boy," to which he replied, "You've come a long from being a bootlegger's wife" (p. 255).

Despite its merits, this study has several significant flaws. …

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