Mordecai Richler

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Mordecai Richler
Pencil sketch of Mordecai Richler
Born (1931-01-27)January 27, 1931
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Died July 3, 2001(2001-07-03) (aged 70)
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Occupation Writer
  • Catherine Boudreau (1954–?; divorced)
  • Florence Isabel Mann (nee Wood) (1961–2001; his death)

Mordecai Richler, CC (January 27, 1931 – July 3, 2001) was a Quebec-Canadian writer. His best known works are The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959) and Barney's Version (1997). His 1989 novel Solomon Gursky Was Here was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He is also well known for the Jacob Two-Two children's fantasy series.

In addition to his fiction, Richler wrote numerous essays about Quebec nationalistic tendencies, related pitfalls, examples of short sightedness, double standards, and secondarily about the Jewish community in Canada and Quebec. Arriving as immigrants in Canada to Montreal, an English enclave in predominantly French Quebec. immigrants usually preferred English, not French, as a second language after their mother tongue. This later put them at odds with the Quebec nationalist movement, which argued for French as the only official language of Québec. His Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! (1992), a collection of essays about Quebec nationalism and xenophobia, generated considerable controversy amongst the nationalistic leaders in Quebec at the time. It was even refused to be translated into French until many years later.


Early life and education

The son of Lily (nee Rosenberg) and Moses Isaac Richler,[1] a scrap yard dealer, Richler was born on January 27, 1931[2] and raised on St. Urbain Street in the Mile End area of Montreal. He learned english, french and yiddish, and graduated from Baron Byng High School. Richler enrolled in Sir George Williams College (now Concordia University) to study, but did not complete his degree there. Years later, Richler's mother published an autobiography, The Errand Runner: Memoirs of a Rabbi's Daughter (1981), which discusses Mordecai's birth and upbringing, and the sometimes difficult relationship between them.

Richler moved to Paris at age nineteen, intent on following in the footsteps of a previous generation of literary exiles, the so-called Lost Generation of the 1920s, many of whom were from the United States.


Richler returned to Montreal in 1952, working briefly at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, then moved to London in 1954. He published seven of his ten novels, as well as considerable journalism, while living in London.

Worrying "about being so long away from the roots of my discontent", Richler returned to Montreal in 1972. He wrote repeatedly about the Anglophone community of Montreal and especially about his former neighbourhood, portraying it in multiple novels.

Marriage and family

In England, in 1954, Richler married Catherine Boudreau, a French-Canadian divorcee nine years his senior. On the eve of their wedding, he met and was smitten by Florence Mann (nee Wood), a young woman then married to Richler's close friend, screenwriter Stanley Mann.

Some years later Richler and Mann both divorced their prior spouses and married each other, and Richler adopted her son Daniel. The couple had four other children together: Jacob, Noah, Martha and Emma. These events inspired his novel Barney's Version.

Richler died of cancer on July 3, 2001 at the age of 70.[2][3]

He was also a second cousin of novelist Nancy Richler.[4]

Journalism career

Throughout his career, Mordecai wrote journalistic commentary, and contributed to The Atlantic Monthly, Look, The New Yorker, The American Spectator, and other magazines. In his later years, Richler was a newspaper columnist for The National Post and Montreal's The Gazette. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he wrote a monthly book review for Gentlemen's Quarterly.

He was often critical of Quebec but Canadian Federalism as well. Another favourite Richler target was the government-subsidized Canadian literary movement of the 1970s and 80s. Journalism constituted an important part of his career, bringing him income between novels and films.t

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz

Richler published his fourth novel, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, in 1959. The book featured a frequent Richler theme: Jewish life in the 1930s and 40s in the neighbourhood of Montreal east of Mount Royal Park on and about St. Urbain Street and Saint Laurent Boulevard (known colloquially as "The Main"). Richler wrote of the neighbourhood and its people, chronicling the hardships and disabilities they faced as a Jewish minority.

To a middle-class stranger, it is true, one street would have seemed as squalid as the next. On each corner a cigar store, a grocery, and a fruit man. Outside staircases everywhere. Winding ones, wooden ones, rusty and risky ones. Here a prized lot of grass splendidly barbered, there a spitefully weedy patch. An endless repetition of precious peeling balconies and waste lots making the occasional gap here and there.[5]


Many critics distinguished Richler the author from Richler the polemicist. Richler frequently said his goal was to be an honest witness to his time and place, and to write at least one book that would be read after his death. His work was championed by journalists Robert Fulford and Peter Gzowski, among others. Admirers praised Richler for daring to tell uncomfortable truths, and he has been described in The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature as "one of the foremost writers of his generation".[6] Michael Posner's oral biography of Richler was entitled The Last Honest Man (2004).

Critics cited his repeated themes, including incorporating elements of his journalism into later novels.[7] Some critics thought Richler more adept at sketching striking scenes than crafting coherent narratives.[citation needed] Richler's ambivalent attitude toward Montreal's Jewish community was captured in Mordecai and Me (2003), a book by Joel Yanofsky.


Richler's most frequent conflicts were with the Separatist Independence-minded PQ political machine, and secondarily with the Jewish community,[8] English Canadian nationalists, and French Quebec nationalists. He wrote and spoke English, and criticized restrictive laws requiring the use of French over English in Quebec[9] Richler's long-running dispute with Quebec nationalists was fueled by magazine articles he published in American publications between the late 1970s and mid 1990s, in which he criticized zealousness in Quebec's language laws, and the rise of separatism.[10] Critics took particular exception to Richler's allegations of a long history of anti-semitism in Quebec.[citation needed]

Soon after the first election of the Quebecker Party (PQ) in 1976, Richler published an article in the Atlantic Monthly that linked the PQ to Nazism for their motives and tactics. One listed point was when he said that their theme song: "À partir d'aujourd'hui, demain nous appartient," was a Nazi song, "Tomorrow belongs to me...," the Hitler Youth song featured in the American musical Cabaret.;[11][12]

Richler acknowledged his 1977 error on the PQ song, blaming himself for having "cribbed" the information from an article by Irwin Cotler and Ruth Wisse published in the American magazine, Commentary.[13] Cotler eventually issued a written apology to Lévesque of the PQ. Richler also apologized for the incident and called it an "embarrassing gaffe".[14]

Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!

Richler's essay, "OH! CANADA! Lament for a divided country," created a stir at the time, and again when released as part of his collection by almost the same name in 1992. In Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!: Requiem for a Divided Country, Richler had commented approvingly on Esther Delisle's history, The Traitor and the Jew: Anti-Semitism and the Delirium of Extremist Right-Wing Nationalism in French Canada from 1929–1939 (1992), about Canada and particularly Quebec attitudes in the decade before the start of World War II.

Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! was criticized by the Quebec separatist movement and to a lesser degree otherAnglophone Canadians.[15] His mainly PQ separatist detractors offered that Richler had an outdated and stereotyped view of Quebec society, and fear-mongered that he risked polarizing relations between francophone and anglophone Quebecers. Pierrette Venne called for the book to be banned (she later was elected as a Separatist leaning Bloc Québécois MP).[16] Daniel Latouche compared the book to Mein Kampf.[17]

Nadia Khouri believes that there was a discriminatory undertone in the reaction to Richler, noting that some of his critics characterized him as "not one of us"[18] or that he was not a "real Quebecer".[19] She found that some critics had misquoted his work; for instance, in reference to the mantra of the entwined church and state coaxing femles to procreate as vastly as possible, a section in which he said that Quebec women were treated like "sows" was misinterpreted to suggest that Richler thought they were sows.[20] Québécois writers who thought critics had overreacted included Jean-Hugues Roy, Étienne Gignac, Serge-Henri Vicière, and Dorval Brunelle. His defenders asserted that Mordecai Richler may have been wrong on certain specific points, but was certainly not racist or anti-Québécois.[21] Nadia Khouri acclaimed Richler for his courage and for attacking the orthodoxies of Quebec society.[20] He has been described as "the most prominent defender of the rights of Quebec's anglophones."[22]

Some commentators were alarmed about the strong controversy over Richler's book, saying that it underlines and acknowledges the persistence of antisemitism among sections of the Quebec population.[23] Richler received death threats and letters with swastikas drawn on them;[24] an anti-semitic Francophone journalist yelled at one of his sons, "[I]f your father was here, I'd make him relive the holocaust right now!" An editorial cartoon in L'actualité compared him to Hitler.[25]

One critic controversially claimed that Richler had been paid by Jewish groups to write his critical essay on Quebec. His defenders believed this was evoking old stereotypes of Jews. When leaders of the Jewish community were asked to dissociate themselves from Richler, the journalist Frances Kraft said that indicated that they did not consider Richler as part of the Quebec "tribe" because he was Anglo-speaking and Jewish.[26]

About the same time, Richler announced he had founded the "Impure Wool Society," to grant the Prix Parizeau to a distinguished non-Francophone writer of Quebec. The group's name plays on the expression quebecois pure laine, typically used to refer to Quebecker with extensive French-Canadian multi-generational ancestry (or "pure wool"). The prize (with an award of $3000) was granted twice: to Benet Davetian in 1996 for The Seventh Circle, and David Manicom in 1997 for Ice in Dark Water.[27]

In 2010, Montreal city councillor Marvin Rotrand presented a 4,000-signature petition which called on the city to honour Richler on the 10th anniversary of his death. Rotrand expected a street, park or building in Richler’s old Mile End neighbourhood to be renamed. Instead, there was to be a gazebo erected in his honour, but for various reasons has been stalled and never completed after several years, lending to suspicions of a possible theme in the Quebec-Montreal infrastructure of not being parallelled with honouring this person (In comparison, four years after the death of American-born singer Lhasa de Sela, a Juno winner, the Mile End’s neighbourhood council memorialized her with a park.) But the council denied an honour to Richler, saying they were afraid it would sacrifice the heritage of their neighbourhood.[28] Luc Ferrandez, the mayor of the borough of the library renamed after Richler, said "the decision to name an overwhelmingly French library in honour of a man whose relationship with the French majority in Quebec may have seemed tempestuous and controversial is a less obvious decision”.[29]

Representation in other media

  • The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959), Joshua Then and Now (1980) and Barney's Version (1997) were adapted as films by the same names. St. Urbain's Horseman (1971) was made into a CBC television drama.
  • The animator Caroline Leaf created The Street (1976), based on Richler's 1969 short story of the same name. It was nominated for an Academy Award in animation.
  • In 2009, "Barney's Version" was adapted for radio by the CBC.

Awards and recognition

  • 1969 Governor General's Award for Cocksure and Hunting Tigers Under Glass.
  • 1972 Governor General's Award for St. Urbain's Horseman.
  • 1974 Screenwriters Guild of America Award for Best Comedy for screenplay of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.
  • 1976 Canadian Library Association Book of the Year for Children Award: Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang.
  • 1976 Ruth Schwartz Children's Book Award for Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang.
  • 1990 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Solomon Gursky was Here
  • 1995 Mr. Christie's Book Award (for the best English book age 8 to 11) for Jacob Two-Two's First Spy Case.
  • 1997 The Giller Prize for Barney's Version.
  • 1998 Canadian Booksellers Associations "Author of the Year" award.
  • 1998 Stephen Leacock Award for Humour for Barney's Version
  • 1998 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book (Canada & Caribbean region) for Barney's Version
  • 1998 The QSpell Award for Barney's Version.
  • 2000 Honorary Doctorate of Letters, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec.
  • 2000 Honorary Doctorate, Bishop's University, Lennoxville, Quebec.
  • 2001 Companion of the Order of Canada
  • 2004 Number 98 on the CBC's television show about great Canadians, The Greatest Canadian
  • 2004 Barney's Version was chosen for inclusion in Canada Reads 2004, championed by author Zsuzsi Gartner.
  • 2006 Cocksure was chosen for inclusion in Canada Reads 2006, championed by actor and author Scott Thompson
  • 2011 Richler posthumously received a star on Canada's Walk of Fame and was inducted at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto.[30]
  • 2011 In the same month when he was inducted into Canada's Walk of Fame, the City of Montreal announced that a gazebo in Mount Royal Park would be refurbished and named in his honour. The structure overlooks Jeanne-Mance Park, where Richler played in his youth.[31] As of 2015, the project is incomplete.[28]
  • 2015 Richler was given his due as a "citizen of honour" in the city of Montreal. The Mile End Library, in the neighbourhood he portrayed in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, will be given his name.[32]

Published works


Short story collection

Fiction for children

Jacob Two-Two series[33]
  • Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang (Alfred A. Knopf, 1975), illustrated by Fritz Wegner
  • Jacob Two-Two and the Dinosaur (1987)
  • Jacob Two-Two's First Spy Case (1995)


  • Images of Spain (1977)
  • This Year in Jerusalem (1994)


  • Hunting Tigers Under Glass: Essays and Reports (1968)
  • Shovelling Trouble (1972)
  • Notes on an Endangered Species and Others (1974)
  • The Great Comic Book Heroes and Other Essays (1978)
  • Home Sweet Home: My Canadian Album (1984)
  • Broadsides (1991)
  • Belling the Cat (1998)
  • Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Requiem for a Divided Country (1992)
  • Dispatches from the Sporting Life (2002)


  • On Snooker: The Game and the Characters Who Play It (2001)


  • Canadian Writing Today (1970)
  • The Best of Modern Humour (1986) (U.S. title: The Best of Modern Humor)
  • Writers on World War II (1991)

Film scripts

See also


  1. "Mordecai Richler Biography". Retrieved 2015-05-15.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 Mordecai Richler's entry in The Canadian Encyclopedia
  3. Michael McNay, "Mordecai Richler", The Guardian, July 5, 2001.
  4. "Nancy Richler novel meticulous study of Jews in postwar Montreal". Winnipeg Free Press, April 24, 2012.
  5. The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Penguin Books, 1964, p. 13
  6. Laurence Ricou, "Mordecai Richler", The Oxford Companion to Literature, 2d ed., 1997
  7. "Mordecai Richler: an obituary tribute by Robert Fulford". July 4, 2001. Retrieved August 20, 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Rabinovitch, Jack. "Mordecai my pal", Maclean's, June 24, 2002, Vol. 115, Issue 25
  9. "Mordecai Richler, 1931–2001." By: Mark Steyn. New Criterion, September 2001, Vol. 20 Issue 1, p123-128.
  10. See, "Fighting words." By: Richler, Mordecai. New York Times Book Review, June 1, 1997, Vol. 146 Issue 50810, p8; "Tired of separatism." By: Richler, Mordecai. New York Times, October 31, 1994, Vol. 144 Issue 49866, pA19; "O Quebec." By: Richler, Mordecai. New Yorker, May 30, 1994, Vol. 70 Issue 15, p50; "Gros Mac attack." By: Richler, Mordecai. New York Times Magazine, 18 July 1993, Vol. 142 Issue 49396, p10; "Language Problems." By: Richler, Mordecai. Atlantic, Jun83, Vol. 251 Issue 6, p10, 8p; "OH! CANADA! Lament for a divided country." By: Richler, Mordecai. Atlantic Monthly (0004-6795), Dec1977, Vol. 240 Issue 6, p34;
  11. Richler, Mordecai. "OH! CANADA! Lament for a divided country," Atlantic Monthly, December 1977, Vol. 240 Issue 6, p34
  12. Video: Controverse autour du livre Oh Canada Oh Québec!, Archives, Société Radio-Canada, March 31, 1992. Retrieved September 22, 2006.
  13. "Faut arrêter de freaker" by Pierre Foglia, La Presse, December 16, 2000
  14. Smith, Donald. D'une nation à l'autre: des deux solitudes à la cohabitation. Montreal: Éditions Alain Stanké, 1997. p. 56.
  15. Smart, Pat. "Daring to Disagree with Mordecai," Canadian Forum May 1992, p.8.
  16. Johnson, William. "Oh, Mordecai. Oh, Quebec," The Globe and Mail July 7, 2001.
  17. "Le Grand Silence", Le Devoir, March 28, 1992.
  18. Richler, Trudeau, "Lasagne et les autres", October 22, 1991. Le Devoir
  19. Sarah Scott, Geoff Baker, "Richler Doesn't Know Quebec, Belanger Says; Writer 'Doesn't Belong', Chairman of Panel on Quebec's Future Insists", The Gazette, September 20, 1991.
  20. 20.0 20.1 Khouri, Nadia. Qui a peur de Mordecai Richler. Montréal: Éditions Balzac, 1995. ISBN 9782921425537
  21. "Hitting below the belt.", By: Barbara Amiel, Maclean's, August 13, 2001, Vol. 114, Issue 33
  22. Ricou, above
  23. Khouri, above, Scott et al., above, Delisle cited in Kraft, below
  24. Noah Richler, "A Just Campaign", The New York Times, October 7, 2001, p. AR4
  25. Michel Vastel, "Le cas Richler". L'actualité, November 1, 1996, p.66
  26. Frances Kraft, "Esther Delisle", The Canadian Jewish News, April 1, 1993, p. 6
  27. Siemens: "Canadian Literary Awards and Prizes", The Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada Archived August 13, 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  28. 28.0 28.1 "Mordecai Richler would have enjoyed Montreal memorial controversy | Toronto Star". 2015-03-13. Retrieved 2015-05-15.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  29. "Montreal library to be renamed after author Mordecai Richler". 2015-03-13. Retrieved 2015-05-15.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  30. "Press Release: Canada's Walk of Fame Announces the 2011 Inductees". Canada's Walk of Fame. June 28, 2011. Retrieved June 28, 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  31. Peritz, Ingrid (June 24, 2011). "Mordecai Richler to be honoured with gazebo on Mount Royal". Globe and Mail. Retrieved December 25, 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  32. "Editorial: At last, a Richler library". 2015-03-12. Retrieved 2015-05-15.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  33. The Jacob Two-Two books are about 100 pages each. Two of them are Richler's only works in Internet Speculative Fiction Database (ISFDB), which catalogues them as juvenile fantasy novels and reports multiple cover artists and interior illustrators.
      "Mordecai Richler – Summary Bibliography". ISFDB. Retrieved July 25, 2015. Select a title to see its linked publication history and general information. Select a particular edition (title) for more data at that level, such as a front cover image or linked contents.
  34. "The Street". National Film Board of Canada. Retrieved August 21, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

External links