1931 - 2001

The Man from St. Urbain Street


Everybody's Mordecai Richler was different. In Canada, of course, he was both cherished as a literary treasure and resented as a national gadfly. In Britain, he had been one of a number of bright young writers--including Doris Lessing, Edna O'Brien, V.S. Naipaul--who gathered there after World War II and who interpreted their home countries to England, and vice versa; Mordecai was The Canadian. In America he was a master comic novelist, his reputation made by The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and confirmed by the books that followed, as they grew richer and fuller. In all three countries, he was a vivid presence, with a host of buddies--in New York City, it was lunch with the editor of GQ, drinks with the editor of the New York Times Book Review, dinner with Bill (Wilfred) Sheed. Not that all his friends were in the writing game; his loyalty--unshakable--went to anyone he had ever liked. They just had to have a sense of humor and a low tolerance for bullshit.

As is true of so many humorists, his view of life was essentially dark--he saw things too clearly for his own comfort, and the thing he saw most clearly, and that places him in the tradition of Moliere, Swift and Twain, was how ludicrous people can be. Stupidity, vanity, self-delusion exasperated him: How could people be so foolish? As he grew older, and wiser, he also came to understand (see Barney's Version) how he himself could be so foolish. But he never was so foolish as not to recognize what really mattered to him: his work, his marriage to Florence, his five children and--yes--his country. Canada might be provincial, it might be small-minded, it might even be meanspirited, but it was where he needed to be and where he loved to be--as long as he could get away once in a while. And Canada needed him too, as it will realize more and more now that he's gone.

He was a wonderfully easy writer to work with, partly because his best editor, Florence, was always the first to read his manuscripts. Once she had given the go-ahead, there wasn't much for the rest of us to do beyond minor cosmetic surgery, which he almost always accepted with amused tolerance. In 35 years, we never had a bad moment; I think that once we became friends, we were both a little embarrassed at having to deal with mere professional matters. Nor did he indulge in any of the usual (and often valid) complaints of writers about printings, ads or promotion. Of course he enjoyed good reviews and sales, but they were never his first consideration. (He could be wickedly funny, though, about the inevitable screw-ups.)

He was even more wonderful as a friend, endless pleasure to be with, given his complicated and apparently contradictory nature. He was both grumpy and high-spirited, generous yet somehow distanced, enthusiastic yet sardonic, full of appetite yet fastidious, at ease in the Ritz Hotel bar but awkward in big social situations, a big-city boy but perhaps happiest in his house on Lake Memphramagog. He disliked and resisted the public side of being Mordecai Richler, which is ironic, considering what a public personage he became. He may have had fun lacerating the nonsense that he encountered at home and abroad, but beneath the fun was, I think, a profound regret at the fallibility of men and institutions. Yet give him a good Scotch, a good cigar and a constant supply of tomatoes, and he could be content.

If he didn't worry very much about his career, he could be really tickled by happy developments that came out of nowhere, like the explosive success he recently had in Italy, where overnight he became not just a best seller but practically an oracle. Why? Who knows! But he relished it, with all the gusto of his large nature. And if he had to die, at least he did it in his version, not Barney's; his mind and body didn't slowly give way to old age. He went out with a roar, the way he had always lived.

Robert Gottlieb is the former editor in chief of Alfred A. Knopf, publishers, and of the New Yorker. He was Mordecai Richler's American editor for 35 years

(This article first appeared in Time Magazine, July 16th, 2001. It is reprinted here with the
author's permission.)

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