Charles Foran has written a huge 'biography' of Mordecai Richler - his 'life and times'. To a knowing reader, it may be propaganda, and it may be anything but a 'life and times'.
A Biography of Mordecai Richler – Name-Dropping in Search of a Character.
Charles Foran, author of Mordecai, The Life and Times, [Knopf Canada, 2010] didn’t know the subject of his “biography”. Nor does he show any sign of knowing Richler’s “times’. No one who experienced Mordecai Richler could have written a book like the one Mr. Foran has produced.
As propaganda for the political Right it is compelling. As truth to its subject, it is – to this reader – awkward farce.
The fantasy Charles Foran has produced is exactly fitting for a reactionary time when the prime minister is more comfortable telling lies than the truth, when the private corporate press and media abase themselves to perpetuate the falsehoods of the Right, and when the loyal friend (Richler) of some of the most reactionary people in his generation could insist (not intending satire) that he is a socialist.
If Mordecai Richler was a socialist, so is Margaret Thatcher.
That is a small thing, perhaps. But a biographer needs to get beyond the protestations of his subject. Charles Foran never does. And so the ‘life’ he gives us, and the ‘times’ he presents are fantasies sewn together to present a Romance at best … and, at worst, a serious misreading of history and personality.
Having been born in the same year as Mordecai Richler, and having lived the first twenty years of life (as he did) in Canada (he in Montreal, me on the B.C. coast), we shared experience ‘in time’.
Every male goes through childhood, puberty and adolescence … and on. But only genuine contemporaries go through those developments in exactly the same larger world.
We were both about nine when the Second World War began … and about fifteen when it ended. We both lived the Depression in our own discomforts and through the lives of those around us. We both (later) had to know that Gabrielle Roy’s Depression novel The Tin Flute (Bonheur d’occasion) was not only about francophones in Montreal, but about Jews there, too, about poor families on Canada’s West Coast … and about the poor all over Canada.
My experience of the young in the Depression and after has a shape to it. Some of the young learned that - to get a measure of justice for all - they would have to fight steadily, undramatically, and without losing faith.. Others learned that life is dirty and bitter always, and their first task was to look after themselves … as the French have it ‘sauve qui peut’ [Everyone for himself.]. Mordecai Richler, I believe, belongs in the second category.
And so – during the years Mordecai Richler was damning Canada and praising the U.S. (from England), I was, of course, his age. And in the late 1950s I was, for two years, at a wealthy U.S. State university (Ohio State). My apartment mate was a Jew. Several Jews occupied other parts of the large house. They recounted to me the active, on-going anti-semitism around us. Their car tires were slashed. The paint was scratched with sharp instruments. Their car windows had anti-semitic hate slogans written on them in soap or wax.
Over coffee in the all-night restaurant, Jewish friends studying the law told me they had to go to New York to get work; they would starve anywhere else.
My white friends were wonderful, warm, generous, open – as friends at that age can be. But I do not remember one of them who would sit with me in a café or restaurant if they found me there with a Black friend. Mordecai – as Charles Foran writes – spent time in the U.S. among white publishing folk and at a white artists’ colony: fantasy worlds out of which he built a fantasy U.S.A. Charles Foran tells us, more or less, that Mordecai thought the border between the two countries silly, and Canada would have no trouble if annexed to the U.S.
Foran tells us more than once that Mordecai Richler thought of himself as an American writer. And he even (p. 191) “believed himself a proxy American”. But Foran takes those most interesting facts … nowhere … in his analysis of the writer’s make-up and social responses to Canada.
More unsettling, Charles Foran does nothing of significance with the ‘times’ of Mordecai Richler. At about 20 Richler began his twenty years of expatriation. Having left at 20, when he had never been West of the Ontario border, Richler became a resident specialist in England on (and hater of) Canada.
To examine the ‘times’ of Mordecai Richler fairly, a biographer would have to point out that the year after Richler left Canada the Massey Report on the Arts, Letters, and Sciences was published and underwent national discussion and debate, and eventuated in 1957 in the foundation of the Canada Council.
A biographer would have to point out that, during his absence, an awakening occurred – with the Quiet Revolution (1960) in Quebec and with growing concerns in English Canada about independence and colonialism. They were reflected in the famous (repudiated) 1963 federal budget of Walter Gordon, the foreign ownership Watkins Report of 1968, and the huge and (to government) surprisingly affirmative response by Canadians to Canada’s Centennial Year in 1967. Richler was away for all that (whatever ‘visits’ he made to Canada).
Not only were changes happening but a large body of younger Canadians were providing the energies of change. From the Centennial year to the year (1972) Richler returned to Canada new Canadian-centred organizations proliferated.
The Writers’ Union of Canada, The League of Canadian Poets, the Canadian Artists Registry, The Confederation of Canadian Unions, the Action Committee of the Status of Women, The National Farmers Union, The Waffle Movement in the NDP, The Canadianization Movement in education, the Playwrights Circle/Playwrights Co-op, Telefilm Canada, and a huge explosion of new, small publishers happened … as well as much more.
Charles Foran mentions none of them, nor any of the dynamic people who made them happen. Ever. What I have described shaped much of the Canada Mordecai Richler responded to and had to face on his return – his ‘times’.
Almost as if working a planned Blackout, Foran doesn’t add to his compulsive name-dropping of Richler’s “important” (often fiercely Reactionary) friends, the names of organizations and/or people who were making a new social surround – and who were not pleased – and some said so – about his return. People who shaped the ‘times’. Charles Foran ignores the ‘times’, perhaps because they would not throw glory on his subject.
Having been away while all the work was being done to make Canada more hospitable to creation and the arts – all the while insulting and belittling the country – Richler returned when many, many things were better.
Just for instance, I was shocked (as were others), a little earlier, to learn a major Quebec writer was paid $50.00 to appear at Carleton University shortly after a minor U.S. writer had been paid $400.00. That was the situation across Canada. By the time Mordecai got back to Canada, the “movement” had changed all that and Canadians were being paid properly for their appearances at Canadian colleges and universities. He slipped easily into the new pay structure not having lifted a finger to bring it about.
Later in the 1970s Richler was reported to have continued the lie – begun by Irwin Cotler, McGill Law professor, that the parti quebecois election song was “borrowed from a modern version of a Nazi youth anthem composed for the Broadway play, and later hit film, Cabaret”. Richler had to eat crow. But that was only one of his worse gaffs. In his fight to keep Canada colonial and to elevate the U.S. Right in Canada he assumed. I believe, a pose that made him repugnant.
My first experience of him was in 1959 or 1960 at a Toronto conference of the arts. On a panel with Hugh MacLennan, Richler was surly, uninteresting, rude, and – apparently – willing to lie.
He didn’t know, he slurred, why he had even come to this event. We all knew the simple answer – money. He dumped on Canadians for not buying and reading his books, and he praised the English in comparison.
In question period I asked him where he sold the greater number of his books – in England or in Canada. He snarled at me that he sold more books in England (England: 60 million population; Canada: about 18 million). At the end of the panel a man came up to me, introducing himself as connected to Richler’s publication. He assured me that Richler sold more books in Canada, and that he had not told me the truth.
That was about eight years before – with James A. Steele of Carleton University … and a host of others across Canada, I helped to set afoot the Canadianization Movement. It was a movement to end visible discrimination against Canadians of all colours, creeds and political positions in universities, colleges, and other like institutions. So colonial were the administrators of the universities, hiring committees, etc. that they often took for granted ANY applicant from outside Canada was usually superior to ANY applicant from Canada. We did the research and proved that point.
The research was so well founded that the federal government – it took time of course – changed hiring regulations and processes to assure that Canadians of excellence got fair access to positions in their own country.
In addition, the movement fought (and won) a significantly expanded Canadian curriculum throughout the educational system. As a result Canadian Literature was taken much more seriously and was taught more widely – with the result that writers like Mordecai Richler had more chance to be heard (and well paid for being heard).
Apparently to defend his view of Canada as inferior and really a part of the U.S.A., (out of – apparently – nowhere, publishing, then, in England, before he came back), Richler attacked what I believe he called ‘the English professor from Carleton University’, the narrow, parochial fellow who wanted to push forward local mediocrity and inferiority instead of the naturally superior foreign applicants. I was that professor. Attackers were less vicious with my wonderful colleague James Steele, without which no Canadianization Movement would have been possible. But, somehow, the wicked centre of the movement (for its attackers) always seemed to be me. Richler didn’t name me, of course, not deigning to dignify me with a real existence.
He came back to Canada. He went on the circuit as creative writing teacher and lecturer, usually insulting his audiences and classes as completely as he could. When he was a guest teacher at Carleton, the Dean of Arts James Downey asked me to have lunch with Mordecai. I declined. Downey tried again, and was insistent. I was at the centre of the fight for Canadianization, and Richler was on the attack against it at all times. Downey insisted the meeting would be interesting and useful.
We had lunch at the Faculty Club. I expected to meet a bright, informed person who would lay out some solid arguments for his long-held position. Mordecai sulked. All he would say was that he knew an excellent man who worked for a foreign publisher in Canada. I suggested that any self-respecting country makes sure it has an independent publishing industry for very obvious reasons. Mordecai sulked, as if I had wanted to meet him … and he was going to show ME. He was a lifeless, uninteresting, self-absorbed bore.
And then a year or two later, Selwyn House (private school) in Montreal (at which I was a guest speaker from time to time) was having a large Canada celebration. The Headmaster asked me what might give the occasion sparkle and vivacity. I said that Mordecai had attacked me and the Canadianization movement without let-up, and so if he put us on a panel together the sparks would fly.
The Headmaster wondered if that would be wise … I might get eaten up. I replied that if Mordecai could win the day before a large audience, then he ought to do so. I would chance it. The Headmaster thought it a doubly good idea since Mordecai’s son, Jacob, was a student there. He could see his father in action at his best. (‘Socialist’ Mordecai Richler put all his children – as far as possible – into private institutions.)
When the day arrived, the panel was made up of Mordecai, Jack McClelland, Hugh MacLennan, and me – chaired by Naim Kattan, a good friend of Mordecai’s (and not of mine). It was at that event Jack McClelland made clear to me that Richler was in his ‘stable’ of writers, but that McClelland was not in love with him. I found that particularly interesting since McClelland and I were friendly acquaintances but not, usually, confiding friends.
Richler had just had an article published in Esquire or Hustler or GQ or some such U.S. publication. Tucked between the bare bosoms and under the spacious rumps of generously endowed women, the text of Mordecai’s article was to the effect that Canada was the attic of the U.S.A., “America” – as I remember it - and Canada was as interesting as a dusty, dark attic.
I described the surroundings of the article, and I said that anyone who would call his country the attic of another country was, surely, a very colonial minded person. Naim Kattan wanted Mordecai to best me, visibly egging him on. Mordecai sulked. Here was his chance before a large audience to lay waste, to argue – as he did in print (and in private, apparently) – that I was a nothing, a wet, a narrow-minded pusher of the inferior, and that the whole "Canadianization" idea was nonsense.
The only cogent thing Mordecai said, as I remember, was that he could have gone to California to live, and he could have done well there. We were, doubtless, supposed to understand and thrill at how lucky we were that he chose Montreal! The tireless, bold attacker (in print, and, apparently, elsewhere) melted like a snowman in hot sun.
Again and again, Charles Foran tells us of Mordecai’s hatred of hypocrisy, his belief in fairness and civility. That is a major thread of the argument in the book …and it is totally unconvincing.
But then Foran is ‘a chip off the old block’ of Mordecai Richler, himself. Foran returns in his own voice to the “professor of English at Carleton” (p. 504). There he offers a fairly long quotation by “the professor of English” about Mordecai from … somewhere… put between quotation marks.
Is it true? Is it a real quotation? The quotation suggests Richler is an “Americanized Canadian”. Richler, himself, says as much several times in Foran’s book. Is the quotation made up by Charles Foran as grist to the “book to support Richler” mill? Since he doesn’t name the person quoted and doesn’t say where the quotation originated – gives no source - though it is there between quotation marks - one has to assume that, like Richler himself, Charles Foran is making up argument to put in the mouth of the shadowy professor at Carleton who only says and does bad, parochial, and unkind things to sensitive Mordecai Richler who is in love with fairness and civility.
Much more could be said about the very bad book. But I believe showing the failures to “set” Richler in a real background of his ‘times’, and telling the truth of a few real, personal experiences point up the strategies in the book to make Mordecai Richler look something he definitely was not.
To close, a word about the fights Richler engaged in about Quebec. They came, I believe, from the very same pit of ignorance and superficiality that bred his fight against fairness for young, excellent Canadians in their own culture.
The francophone population in Quebec – five or six million – lies in an ocean of English speakers of some three hundred and twenty (plus) million. To preserve the linguistic basis of a distinct culture, language laws and other moves to preserve the real, thriving French language had to be undertaken. The Quebec struggle was not, is not, essentially a desire to reject the rest of Canada, but to keep the resilience of a deeply rooted and long lasting French entity alive and well.
That it is – in a sense – married to and involved with “separatism” is a difficulty that cannot be untangled. “The Conquest” of 1760 and the active moves by the English Canadians in history to prevent the French part of the nation from spreading cannot be denied. And those moves made the French in Canada strongly self-defensive. Many believe (and the truth of their belief seems to be being upheld) that to give Quebec equality, to honour its language needs, erodes a desire to separate and make another country.
None of that complexity in the debate that Mordecai engaged in is offered the reader by Charles Foran. As if there is no long historical background, as if Richler would be diminished by a fair presentation of the debate, Foran never sets out the terms of the Quebec question; he simply champions Richler in a muddied and unclear set of contests, giving the reader – I would argue - neither Mordecai Richler nor his ‘times’.
As with the Canadianization question, so with the Quebec question. And so with the whole book. A Romance. A Fantasy. Anything but a real and reasonable look at the life and times of Mordecai Richler. A pity.