The Saint Urbain Horesman: a small voice and sharp lance

Deeply flawed but compelling characters. Redeemable in ways that are hardly obvious, obscure and sometimes better left covered under the tarp. To many Canadians, Mordecai Richler is a perplexing figure; plainly put, he is often resented, and caricatured in  so subtle a manner that he becomes a garbage can, a metaphor for a literary scapegoat for the finer folk to wash their hands in the softest, gentlest creams for the most delicate skin.As a first generation Canadian, Richler clearly understood the chasm between the old country mentality of his parents and established Canadian culture. His representation of his own community as dysfunctional,self-destructive, but endearing and embracing is both a study in identity and an exploration on how to escape the ghetto.

Spergal:Out of contempt for Canadian anti-Semitism, his response was satire. Richler’s Montreal Jewish community was surrounded by anti-Semitism, the endemic result of the Québécois on one side fearing defeat in their fight for sovereignty and the Anglo-Saxons on the other side worrying about Canada losing its WASP majority. Frontiers are about adapting, negotiating and sharing, but they are also places of conflict, and this was never as evident as in Mordecai Richler’s Montreal. photo:

“Much can be said about the interactions between the garrisoned or ghettoised and the larger community that creates their feelings of isolation or division. George Woodcock once wrote: “It might be a metaphorical exaggeration to describe Canada as a land of invisible ghettos, but certainly it is, both historically and geographically, a country of minorities that have never achieved assimilation.” ( Julie Spergel )

Richler was initially not wholesomely received by guardians of culture. They were suspicious of the vulgarity, and his often ambivalent relationship with authority and propriety. Though grounded in an accomplished literary tradition, his play on social inhibitions and evocation of the “ghetto complex” often provoked censure or laughter depending on the point of view. There is no denying his original energy, as a controversial modern artist whose art not only delighted and entertained, but also helped transform the world he was born into; a marginal country fighting its own inferiority complex. Richler’s work offered something new; he laughed the world into a new realm that explored the ambiguities – indeed the comedy – within a  body of modernity in a country as absurd as Canada.

Robert Fulford: Ted Kotcheff, a close friend to Richler and the director of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, provides an especially poignant account of his last days. After they spent some time together, “He walked away from me. And he looked back with such intense love it shook me. I shook at the power of love that came out of his eyes. That to me was the most amazing gift he gave to me, the power of being loved by another human being.” Read more:

The recent documentary on the writer, Mordecai Richler: The Last of the Wild Jews, is an example of the post-mortem effigy lynching , that, couched in a pseudo-academic tone; works valiantly to profit from his renown, while simultaneously paint a caricature as a form of hack knee-jerk reactionary with words, particularly with his opinions on Quebec issues which are portrayed as superficial, exaggerated , untrue, and above all anti-appeasement. Even the title is offensive; imagine a series on Quebec writers called “the wild Frenchmen” —-fire wagon writers. The name “wild jews” refers to the phrase coined by Isaac Babel about Odessa Jews, a context wholly inappropriate to Montreal.

If anything, Richler was prudent and reserved, and he carefully structured and conceived novels reveal a creator committed to art and craft. A comparison to Mark Twain is even not far fetched. He adapted the prevailing artistic aesthetic of social realism and expanded it into something more nuanced, fleshy and less dogmatic than Americans had, while retaining the same intimacy of a John Dos Passos for example. He also tinkered with and succeeded in structural innovation on the literary novel form, for which he is rarely recognized for.

Sure there was anger: critics like to focus on his family “deboires” with mother and brother, but that remains inconclusive, and rugged terrain for any outsider to comprehend; something that is deeply personal and rarely divulged by Richler. More embarrassing for them, was Canada’s atrocious behavior and response to the Jewish refugee issue, making them in fact, complicit in a minor but meaningful way to the holocaust. Richler may have played and explored Jewish culture in ways that the community may have found demeaning, but a self-hating coward he was not:

Fulford: When his abrasive style is discussed, Margaret Atwood pops up and delivers her verdict: “If he had been a woman behaving like that, he wouldn’t have gotten nearly as far with it”— a bizarre statement from Atwood when you consider how far she’s risen with her equally acerbic style. Read more: photo:

….On Frederick Charles Blair: He was later inordinately proud of his success in keeping out Jews. He saw Jews as being “utterly selfish in their attempts to force through a permit for the admission of relatives or friends.” He saw a “conspiracy” behind all Jewish attempts to get their people into the country. He said he was doing them a favor keeping them out. It might create Anti-Semitism he said. In a revealing letter to a strong opponent of Jewish immigration he said the following:

“I suggested recently to three Jewish gentlemen with whom I am well acquainted, but it might be a very good thing if they would call a conference and have a day of humil

on and prayer, which might profitably be extended for a week or more, where they would honestly try to answer the question of why they are so unpopular almost everywhere…I often think that instead of persecution it would be far better if we more often told them frankly why many of them are unpopular. If they would divest themselves of certain of their habits I am sure they could be just as popular in Canada as our Scandinavian friends are.”…

Anish:The works of Mordecai Richler are ‘classics.’ Writing about his experiences growing up in Jewish Montreal during the 1940s, he weaves this hilarious, poignant, and honest portrait of a first generation Jewish-Canadian. His works explore the generational and cultural struggles between those who first came to this country, and those who came from them. The attitudes, struggles, and expectations are spot on. He perfectly captures the ironies, inconsistencies, and the struggle of first generation Canadians defining their identity. Caught in-between two competing cultures, attempting to navigate a middle ground, first generation Canadians are often more alienated in this country than the ones who brought them here. Not quite “Canadian” by the standards of those who think they can label it and different from their parents or others from the old country. They create their own Canada — constructing their own Canadian identity — often to the disappointment of the previous generation or the resentment of their more “established” fellow citizens. photo:

Robert Fulford: Foran argued that an era of North American Jewish writers, including Saul Bellow and Philip Roth in the U.S. and Richler in Canada, was drawing to a close. He called them “wild Jews,” borrowing a phrase applied to Isaac Babel’s writing on the Odessa underworld of the early 20th century.

Babel was a favourite of Richler and in the last novel, Barney’s Version a character tells Barney’s son that “Your father was one of your real wild Jews.” Since Barney resembles Richler (like most Richler heroes) this presumably explains the word “wild.” A stretch, at best. That term makes Richler into an outsider, a stranger, whose views can easily be dismissed. Apparently his wildness explains his un-Canadian affection for blunt commentary and unblinkered observation.Many Jews considered some of his novels libellous (though by the end he had a large Jewish readership). Later he made enemies by refusing to take Canadian cultural nationalists as seriously as they took themselves.

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Almost every French-language newspaper had warned the government against opening Canada’s doors to European Jews. Le Devoir asked “Why let in Jews?” This was a mild reaction compared to other vicious Anti-Semitic utterances that appeared in La Nation L’Action Catholique and L’Action Nationale. Three Quebec M.P.’s spoke out against the Jews. Wilfrid LaCroix, C.H. Leclerc and H.E. Brunelle led the anti-refugee onslaught. In the House of Commons Brunelle said “Jews have caused great difficulties wherever they have lived.” Organizations in Quebec wrote letters to the Immigration Branch and were very anti-Semitic.
St.Jean Baptiste Society, the Provincial Knights of Columbus
128,000 members of the St.Jean Baptiste society signed a petition opposing all immigration and especially Jewish immigration, which Lacroix delivered to the Commons.( Laureen Moe)

Fulford: As a documentary this film doesn’t explain Richler; it tries instead to explain him away. It takes his passionate beliefs about his country, his city and his fellow Jews and reduces them to a footnote that anyone can casually refute. When all the bits of the interviews are assembled, and tied together by a narration, Richler emerges as no more than the representative figure of a dying tradition, limited by his moment in history and by his identity as a Jew. Read more: photo:

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Mackenzie King himself after Evian said that “as far as he was concerned the admission of refugees perhaps posed a greater menace to Canada in 1938 than did Hitler.” At an informal gathering at his summer residence he fondly recalled his meeting with Hitler in Germany a year earlier. He described him as being SWEET.He had a good face.
In Sept. 1938 less than a year before Canada declared war on Germany King was still mixed in his attitude to Hitler–”He might come to be thought of as one of the saviours of the world” he wrote:’ He had the chance at Nuremberg, but was looking to Force, to might, and to violence as means to achieving his ends, which were, I believe at heart, the well-being of his fellow-man, not all fellow men, but those of his own race. ” In 1939 he said to a Jewish delegation that “Kristallnacht might turn out to be a blessing”. That was the night of broken glass when Jews were kicked out of their homes in Germany, windows were broken in businesses, synagogues were set on fire etc. Men, women and children were wrenched from their homes, beaten and shot or dragged off to concentration camps. Scores were killed, hundreds injured, thousands arrested. This actually mellowed King and he went to a funeral of Mrs. Heaps, the Jewish M.P.’s wife. He wrote in his diary that he was going to fight for the admission of some Jewish refugees because it was right and lust and Christian. It didn’t last long when he found opposition to his change of heart. ….The saga of unbelievable remarks by Blair continues to the end of the book. He said in regards to Jews leaving Japan where they had managed to escape “I am reminded of what I have seen on a farm at hog feeding time when they are all trying to get their feet into the trough.”( Laureen Moe)


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