A Review of Mordecai: The Life and Times by Charles Foran
By Darryl Whetter
Mordecai: The Life and Times
Until Charles Foran’s recent Mordecai: The Life and Times, the various biographies of Mordecai Richler suggest that an interesting subject for biography does not necessarily an interesting biography make. Great lives don’t always inspire great books. In the decade since Richler’s death in 2001, four books entered a biography’s race between early market share, thoroughness and accuracy. Globe and Mail journalist Michael Posner pre-excused the scattershot tone of his 2004 The Last Honest Man by subtitling it An Oral Biography. Posner splices together 150 interviews to raise questions (How much did he drink? Why the rift with his brother? Did he really seduce his high-school English teacher?) but refuses to affix any answers. The fatuousness Richler often mocked in the CanLit establishment didn’t leave him completely ignored by the Canadian academy. Reinhold Kramer’s Mordecai Richler: Leaving St Urbain (2008) examines many of the same formative experiences as Foran’s (the fall from Jewish orthodoxy, his parents’ loveless marriage and rare divorce) but also suffers the congenital blind spot of interpretation and begins to read a creative life of decades through a few childhood events. Like Foran, M.G. Vassanji is first and foremost a novelist. Vassanji’s peripatetic life within diasporic and intellectual communities could have made his 2009 Extraordinary Canadians: Mordecai Richler the most attentive to Richler’s dual citizenships as Canadian and a member of the Jewish diaspora, as Canadian novelist and cosmopolitan writer. However, Penguin’s insistence on a short biography denied Vassanji the archival time of the Kramer or the Foran and doesn’t find it as emboldened by extensive quotations from letters and manuscripts.
Although last to arrive, Foran’s biography is clearly the best, combining the tenacity of Posner’s journalism, the archival homework of Kramer’s scholarship and fellow-novelist Vassanji’s nose for narrative dirt. Foran most consciously recognizes that he too is telling a story. For others, Richler’s first agent, Joyce Weiner, is a necessary stop on a train journey; only Foran makes her a fascinating character and a crucial illumination of Richler’s ambition and evolving loyalties. Others have already noted that what Weiner originally perceived as the “farouche” twenty-two-year-old Richler arrived to their first meeting with a manuscript of what would be his first published novel [The Acrobats] tucked into a record sleeve. Foran’s attention to the Richler-Weiner correspondence transforms this still image of young, hip Richler into several dramatic film sequences. She first agreed to meet what she later described as this “strange, wild-eyed, diffident” young man as he was in London on his way back to Canada after what could have been a failed artistic apprenticeship in Europe (mostly Spain and France). Weiner’s wise choice of publisher and tough negotiating allowed Richler to return to Canada with a book deal and years of her tough-love management.
Foran has scoured their correspondence and quotes Weiner coaching his rewrites of The Acrobats (“keep this letter with you for many years if need be and you’ll come to agree with me”). Foran shows Weiner, not Richler, recognizing that his talent shone best in longer novels like The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and not what she thought of his distracting, uni-dimensional novels like The Incomparable Atuk and Son of a Lesser Hero.
As the career Weiner launched rose, Richler began feeling that he, not she, was making his opportunities. Their correspondence maps the contraction of her duties as she lost the rights to represent him in the US, in film, and eventually all together. Foran even-handedly shows a Richler keen to provide for his growing family and joining the movement of other writers like Philip Roth from more experimental to mainstream publishers as their craft and ages matured. Biographies must be fascinating stories, and Foran finds just that in Richler’s rise and fall with his first agent.
Foran the showman highlights the drama in most of Richler’s relationships. When a promised cheque from publisher Jack McLelland was late, Richler (successfully) wrote asking “Why, the kids asked me, aren’t we getting gifts for Christmas like all other Jewish kids? Are we poor like Norman Levine?” Crucially, Foran isn’t afraid to judge as he narrates, observing that the letters Richler would write as his father recuperated from yet another cancer surgery were “almost a fantasy of the relationships he wished he’d had with his parent.”
The contrast between Richler’s strife with his inherited family and the one he created with Florence, the wife he adored, animates much of the biography without overriding it. The Richler Estate granted Foran privileged access to otherwise sealed archives. A frustrated 1976 letter to Richler’s then-estranged mother Lily Rosenberg is quoted in full. After years of supporting his mother, Mordecai eventually broke with her so severely that they didn’t speak for years and he didn’t attend her funeral. Similarly, he saw his only sibling just four times in forty years.
Foran the novelist also delights in the differences between Richler’s sometimes abrasive public persona and his utter devotion to his wife Florence. [Richler’s St. Urbain’s Horseman manages to be both the best Canadian novel and have one of the most connubially flattering dedications anywhere: “For Florence, and my other editors ….”] Although not new to romance before he met the expatriate Canadian model Florence Mann, Richler was instantly mesmerized by the woman who would shape and share most of his life. Here too Foran recasts the drama of Richler’s exciting, if bracing, life. His apprentice years as a writer bumming around Europe (trying not to be “another bullshit artist”) included a relationship that eventually found him geographically separated from a girlfriend before they were romantically separated. The abortion she had without him saw the regular letter-writer describing her to friends as “poor kid, poor kid.” Several years later, nearly like his character Barney Panofsky, Richler met the striking and worldly Florence Mann just as he was marrying French-Canadian Cathy Boudreau. Already enmeshed in a circle of artists (E.M. Forster was as guest at his first wedding), many of them émigrés, Richler would for the rest of his life surround himself with writers, directors, film producers, journalists and other creative professionals. Always central, though, was Florence, who talked him out of a major plot digression in Solomon Gursky Was Here and suggested he replace the working title Barney Like the Player Piano with the more emblematic Barney’s Version.
With the marriage, Foran balances the details of these moving anecdotes (including her nearly crying each time he lit up a cigarillo towards the end of his cancer-shortened life) and the larger pictures. Richler left his first wife to pursue Florence around the time she was offered her first major film role. Foran acknowledges the bravado and the artist’s selfishness of the young Richler who implored her to marry him instead, promising to “show her the world.” Although artistically successful young, Richler was constantly a self-made entrepreneur of his talent and couldn’t then have known he’d eventually publish regularly in magazines like The New Yorker and GQ or command record fees from Canadian magazines and papers or enjoy lucrative screenwriting and speaking fees. The multiple houses and magazine-funded travel that Florence would eventually enjoy with him were, Foran rightly describes, in fact Richler’s chance to rewrite his early romantic promise not as “I’ll show you the world,” but “I want to see the world with you.”
The courtesies the Richler family have granted Foran also snare him in a biographer’s Catch-22 and create the only snag in Mordecai: The Life and Times. Foran’s lengthy notes acknowledge his exclusive access to restricted archival papers. The book’s numerous photographs include intimate family photos and facsimiles of family documents as crucial as the late, handwritten addendum Richler made to his will. He also enjoyed “hundreds of hours” of conversation with Florence (the executor of the Richler Estate). All this cooperation with the family deepens Foran’s access and knowledge but makes it difficult to write critically about the very family that helped him. Each of the Richler biographies justly emphasizes how important his five children were to him. Nonetheless, Foran is a little too star-struck in his praise for the media careers of the adult Richler children. Although Foran quotes pater Richler on how a famous parent can open doors for children, he doesn’t properly recognize that these media careers are easier to come by for children who grew up with celebrities and media power-brokers in and around their various houses. In his memoir Experience, Martin Amis is forthright enough to say that as the son of a famous writer, any publishing house in London would have taken his first novel out of “vulgar curiosity.” Instead of that honesty, Foran rather fawningly describes Knopf editor and publisher Louise Dennys (who is also the publisher of this book) going over a manuscript of Richler’s while a guest at the Richler’s cottage and then, surprise, surprise, also being interested in daughter Emma’s novel on the same visit. Intimacy and objectivity are, just rarely, at cross-purposes in his treatment of the adult Richler children. Otherwise, Foran has a shrewd eye, acknowledging, for example that Joshua Then and Now is the least successful of Richler’s long novels, saying “it marks little advance in vision … and isn’t like his stylistically daring satires of the sixties.”
The qualified Foran and his tireless work have produced the definitive biography of what is arguably Canada’s best novelist. Foran’s thoroughness, acumen and scholarship will keep this biography alive for decades. Fittingly, near the close of the book he discloses other tributes as well, including a Richler font commissioned by Knopf Canada and Jack Rabinovitch, high-school friend of Richler and original patron of Canada’s Giller Prize for fiction. Like its subject, Mordecai: The Life and Times delivers its truths with a bold, elegant face.
Darryl Whetter’s latest book is The Push & the Pull, a novel that makes varied use of St. Urain’s Horseman. In April 2012, he will release a debut book of poems about evolution. He’s also at work on a novel about polyamory.