One of the greatest Canadian novelists, Mordacai Richler, was born in Montreal on January 27, 1931. He grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in the immigrant community centred on St. Urbain Street. He grew up speaking English, French and Yiddish. His grandfather was a well known rabbi in Poland and later in Canada.
Richler left Canada at the age of 19 and apart from a couple of years in the early 1950s lived in Europe — first in Paris, then Spain and for many years in London. He returned to Montreal for good in 1972.
I first became aware of Richler as a teenager in 1974 when I saw the movie The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (based on Richler’s novel from 1959) about an amoral gangster wannabe, starring Richard Dreyfuss. I immediately read the book and fell in love with Richler’s work.
Richler’s other novels — St. Urbain’s Horseman, Joshua Then and Now, Solomon Gursky Was Here and Barney’s Version — all explored the same Montreal urban Jewish landscape with wit and affection wrapped in an ironic and satirical tone.
Richler had a problematic time returning to Montreal when ideas of Quebec nationalism and cultural preservation were at the forefront. He wrote several intemperate articles and essays, even comparing Quebec nationalists with Nazis (for which he later apologized) and gained a reputation as a right-wing bigot.
Still, to me, his fiction stands by itself despite his troubling political views. He was a profound interrogator of his own social milieu. And he expressed his own particular experience with great honesty.
Richler also wrote a number of successful childrens books, beginning with Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang in 1972.
A heavy drinker and smoker, Richler died of kidney cancer at the age of 70 in 2001.