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 Author, essayist, screenwriter
Spouse(s) Catherine Boudreau (1954–?; divorced)
Florence Isabel Mann (née Wood) (1961-2001; his death)
Children Daniel Richler
Jacob Richler
Noah Richler
Martha Richler
Emma Richler

Mordecai Richler, CC (January 27, 1931 – July 3, 2001) was a Canadian author, screenwriter and essayist. A leading critic called him "the great shining star of his Canadian literary generation" and a pivotal figure in the country's history.[1] 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 in 1990. He was also well known for the Jacob Two-Two children's stories.

In addition to his fiction, Richler wrote numerous essays about the Jewish community in Canada, and about nationalism as practised by Canadian anglophones and the francophone Québécois. Arriving as immigrants in Canada when English was the country's predominant official language (long before English-French bilingualism became an official federal policy), the Jewish communities in Montreal (a city in the largely francophone province of Québec) usually acquired English, not French, as a second language after Yiddish. This later put them at odds with the Québec nationalist movement, which argued for French as the only official language of Québec. His Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Requiem for a Divided Country (1992), a collection of essays about nationalism and anti-semitism, generated considerable controversy.


Early life and education[edit]

The son of Lily (née Rosenberg) and Moses Isaac Richler,[2] a Jewish scrap yard dealer, Richler was born on January 27, 1931[3] and raised on St. Urbain Street in the Mile End area of Montreal. He learned Yiddish and English, and graduated from Baron Byng High School. Richler enrolled in Sir George Williams College (now Concordia University) to study English but dropped out before completing his degree. 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 Jewish community of Montreal and especially about his former neighborhood, portraying it in multiple novels.

Marriage and family[edit]

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 (née Wood), a young woman then married to Richler's close friend, screenwriter Stanley Mann.

Some years later Richler and Mann both divorced 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.[3][4]

He was also a second cousin of novelist Nancy Richler.[5]

Journalism career[edit]

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 both Quebec and Canadian nationalism. 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.

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz[edit]

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.[6]


Joshua Then and Now

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".[7] Michael Posner's oral biography of Richler was entitled The Last Honest Man (2004).

Critics noted his propensity for recycling material, including incorporating elements of his journalism into later novels.[1] 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 Jewish community,[8] English Canadian nationalists, and French Quebec nationalists. He wrote and spoke English, and criticized 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 Parti Québécois (PQ) in 1976, Richler published an article in the Atlantic Monthly that linked the PQ to Nazism. 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 strongly criticized by some French speakers in Quebec and to some degree also among Anglophone Canadians.[15] His detractors maintained that Richler had an outdated and stereotyped view of Quebec society, and 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 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, 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 suggested 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 claimed that he 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 québécois pure laine, typically used to refer to Québécois with extensive French-Canadian 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. (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[edit]

  • 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[edit]

  • 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]
  • That same month in 2011, 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.[32]
  • In 2015, Richler was given his due as a "citizen of honour" in the city of Montreal. The Mile End Library, in the the neighbourhood he portrayed in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, will be given his name.[33]

Published works[edit]


Short story collection[edit]

Fiction for children[edit]

  • Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang (1975)
  • 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[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Mordecai Richler: an obituary tribute by Robert Fulford". July 4, 2001. Retrieved August 20, 2011. 
  2. ^
  3. ^ a b Mordecai Richler's entry in The Canadian Encyclopedia
  4. ^ Michael McNay, "Mordecai Richler", The Guardian, July 5, 2001.
  5. ^ "Nancy Richler novel meticulous study of Jews in postwar Montreal". Winnipeg Free Press, April 24, 2012.
  6. ^ The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Penguin Books, 1964, p. 13
  7. ^ Laurence Ricou, "Mordecai Richler", The Oxford Companion to Literature, 2d ed., 1997
  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. ^ a b 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[dead link]
  28. ^
  29. ^
  30. ^ "Press Release: Canada's Walk of Fame Announces the 2011 Inductees". Canada's Walk of Fame. June 28, 2011. Retrieved June 28, 2011. 
  31. ^ Peritz, Ingrid (June 24, 2011). "Mordecai Richler to be honoured with gazebo on Mount Royal". Globe and Mail. Retrieved December 25, 2011. 
  32. ^
  33. ^
  34. ^ "The Street". National Film Board of Canada. Retrieved August 21, 2012. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]