Introduction and interview by Nigel Beale
Fiction relies on place to render itself life-like. Place, as American writer Eudora Welty once put it, serves as “the proving ground of what happened, who’s here, and who’s coming.”
Fiction helps us to understand history and country by evoking what it was like to live and breathe in past places and times. It creates in us a sense of oneness with those who may in the past have lived in the space we now occupy, or experienced the kind of challenges we now encounter.
And that’s why we’re focussing on it here. We want to pay homage to a writer who was able, perhaps more than any other, to make us feel what it felt like to live at the centre of a complex, vital Canadian city.
Mordecai Richler was one of Canada’s greatest storytellers. He was this because of the indelible stamp that a neighbourhood in the city of Montreal left upon him. His need to inventory it produced some of our greatest literature. Montreal is the place where, as Adam Gopnik puts it, “[Richler’s] experience spoke most eagerly to his imagination.”
Given that telling “on-the-ground” stories about place is a key reason for Guerilla’s existence, I thought it fit that we question Charles Foran on the topic. In writing Modecai, The Life and Times (a book that has had more awards bestowed on it than any other in the history of Canadian publishing), Foran spends a good deal of his time and talent telling the story of Mordecai Richler, and how he embodies what we consider so essential.
Charles Foran (photo © James Lahey, 2010 ) and the cover of multiple-award-winning Richler biography.
Nigel Beale: Richler was a person of notable contradictions: a Jew accused of being anti-Semitic; an ‘un-Canadian’ Canadian; a dutiful son who hated his mother.How do you think this kind of ‘definition by opposition’ played out in relation to Montreal, the city in which he grew up?
Charles Foran: Richler’s ardor for Montreal was, by comparison with the complexity of his relationships with other great forces in his life—Judaism, Canada, his family—fairly straightforward. It was the only city in Canada he took seriously.Montreal was ‘grown up,’ mature in its appetites and secure, at the best of times, in its self-regard. It had a big personality, and its inner dynamics, including, if not especially, the emergence of a more forceful and demanding French dimension, pleased him.
And displeased him, no?
Except, that is, yes, when the city—and by extension Quebec itself; I'm not sure he thought all that much about the rest of the province—succumbed to what Richler believed were provincial, second-rate instincts. He thought Quebec nationalism to be essential as a cultural movement but absurd as a political one, especially when manifested in the sign laws. He refused to grant it validity, and decided those inclinations inside Quebec/Montreal were undermining what was, otherwise, a fine place to live. By the end of his life—and it is a pity he died only 5 years after the second referendum, when Montreal was just starting to ‘recover’—he was certain the blows had been fatal. About this, I'm happy to declare, he was wrong.
How is he perceived in Quebec?
There may never be agreement. To some he remains a champion, a hero, for his outspokenness and courage. For many Quebecers, however, Mordecai Richler is a stand-in for a vanished ‘ruling class,’ someone who secretly longed for the city where the French knew their place, and didn’t make noise about their rights, linguistic and otherwise. And still others, even admirers, wonder if he really understood how the city was evolving. Regardless, Montreal was his beloved hometown, and he fought hard for it.
It’s clear from your book that ‘place’ figured large in the shaping of Richler’s life and writing. Why do you think this was the case?
Interestingly, for a man desperate to get out of Montreal at age 19, and who lived for 20 years in London, and thereafter travelled extensively, he was at heart a ‘home boy,’ in both his work and his life. He trusted himself most as a novelist when the terrain was ‘his’ Montreal, that mythiopic village of five or six streets in the heart of the old Jewish neighbourhood, and even once he expanded the canvas to include Westmount and the Townships, he was still tracking Jews who had risen up out of his urban village.
Wilenksky's on Fairmount Avenue West was key to Richler's urban village. (Nigel Beale photo)
Why the allegiance?
In part, it had to do with his instincts as a writer: write what you know, what you’ve heard, seen, tasted. As well, his childhood in that remarkable Montreal was vivid and full of shaping incident, and in contrast with other writers who ‘flee’ such bonds, he soon realized it was his material, his canvas, and would provide a lifetime of stories. He even forced his family to return from England to ensure, more or less, that he wouldn’t lose his feeling for the ground beneath his feet. He never wanted to live in the ‘his’ fictional village, but he wanted, needed, it to be nearby.
One of the truly impressive achievements of your book, I think, is the powerful sense of place you’re able to conjure, and communicate to the reader. Teeming multi-ethnic life on the streets of Montreal; those cool, hip, sophisticated Hampstead dinner parties; the camaraderie and late night carousing in Ibiza. Could you explain the process by which you were able so successfully in your writing to convey this sense of what it must have been like to live in these places?
Part I of the biography is a sensory portrait of Richler’s Montreal. As per my previous answer, this urban village, a kind of transplanted shtetl, was fundamental to his work, and remained at the core of his character. I wanted the reader to experience it almost as he would have as a boy; to be immersed in tactile details, the ones that stick to your identity and self-image as much as does your family name.
As such, in the early chapters Richler is simply a kid, one small figure among many, moving those streets, and as his perspective widens out into his adolescent and then teenage years, so does the ‘city’ around him. The approach, I recognize, is quite novelistic, and could be taken as a bit presumptuous from a biography.
How do you defend this?
90% of the details in the first section are taken from Richler’s writing, mostly his non-fiction. It is a clever crib, an homage to the brilliance of his memories and imaginings that also serves, I hope, to provide a singular immersion in a time and place, one that will help make the rest of the “life and times” more intelligible, and perhaps worthy of empathy.
I find it interesting that for most of their lives Mordecai and his brother were estranged. Avrum in fact doesn’t live in Montreal ... he lives in Newfoundland ... is the city not big enough for the two of them; is there a relationship between mother and place?
The Richler brothers suffered for the sins not only of their mother, Lily Rosenberg, but the culture that produced her. She was an unhappy woman in part because so many of her natural inclinations had been thwarted by her religion’s strictures, and she took out her unhappiness, and perhaps some deeper mental disturbance, on her hapless husband and innocent boys.
Unhappy households inflict damage on everyone under their roof. No one is spared. Avrum and Mordecai didn’t know exactly why they were never close as adults, and a real shock in researching the biography was that I ended up having news for Avrum, who is indeed alive and well in St. John’s, that helped explain, a little, the course of his own adult life. Though I’ve talked about it in public, and written about it, I’ll admit that even now, 15 months after the book was published, I hesitate to relay the details of “what happened” on St. Urbain Street, and its fallout.It invariably sounds lurid and sordid, when it is mostly tragic and sad.
When I was five my British parents moved, with my brother and me, back to England, where we lived for the next seven years. As a result I can’t really relate to a deep-rooted love of one place, or connection with a single part of the world. I suspect this is how some or all of Mordecai’s children may feel, in contrast to their father. How important a role do you think a sense of rootedness—a knowledge of and connection with one place —plays in determining a writer's ability to capture what is essentially universal? In short, in his capacity to write a great novel?
Great novels take every form, and though it is a truism that a powerful sense of place often informs novels we consider enduring, it isn’t necessary. The need to feel the ground beneath one’s feet, to paraphrase myself (and, in turn, to lift from an Osip Mandelstam poem), is certainly essential to writing good fiction. But does that ground have to be the earth of one’s childhood? Richler thought so, and often quoted his friend Brian Moore’s belief that a writer’s sensibility, or world view, is formed by the age of 18. (Another reason I devoted so much space in the biography to the place where he spent his first 18 years.) I’m not so sure the ground must be hometown, so to speak. I just think the novelist must believe that town, that place, that “country,” to be a major character in the fiction, and write it accordingly.
“ ... as eloquent as any book on the subject of Mordecai Richler and Montreal could ever be is the tombstone monument eventually placed by Florence on the grave on the east slope of Rose Hill, Mount Royal. RICHLER, the pink granite tomb reads. Below that, on the right: MORDECAI 1931-2001; on the left, FLORENCE 1929 -, the space for the date still empty. Above the names is a carving of a stack of books. Along the bottom is part of the addendum that Richler had scribbled in his final weeks when he requested a single burial plot for himself and his wife:
So that eventually we may lie beside each other in deathas we did so happily in life.
Across from the stone, Florence Richler has had a bench installed, and a mulberry tree planted.”
Hard to find a more powerful incentive to visit the grave of an author!Am I right in thinking that the ‘place’ most important to Richler, was beside Florence in Montreal?
A private ‘eureka’ moment in writing the biography came when Florence Richler told me about her own childhood. Despite having the appearance and manners, and even a trace of the accent, of a British aristocrat, Florence is from Pointe St-Charles, a working-class Irish/Scottish/English neighborhood in inner city Montreal. An orphan, she was raised by an English couple and later developed a close relationship with a rare Jewish family in the Pointe, as it is still called. She was, in other words, from the same town, the same era, the same economic background, as her husband. Once this sunk in, I was able to better appreciate the ‘dare’ they took together as a young couple, the degree to which both of them wished and even needed to create a sense of family that wasn’t about blood, but was instead about friendship, loyalty, and shared values. Knowing about Florence’s childhood also helped me understand their deep connection, one that transcended both his often-difficult character, and their temperamental differences.
Indeed, they wish to lie together in death as they did so happily in life. This wish, expressed by Richler in an addendum to his will, is carved onto their tomb, with the ‘closing date’ for Florence, I am happy to report, still pending. The first time she took me to see the burial site, overlooking ‘his’ urban village from the perch of Mount Royal, I had an inkling that I had a great love story to tell. Unfolding that story, doing justice to its passion and singularity, became a big part of what I wished to achieve with Mordecai. And yes, this too is another tale about that remarkable, complex city-state of Montreal.
(Nigel Beale photos)
Nigel Beale is a literary writer and broadcaster and founder of the Literary Tourist web site.