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Mordecai Richler, CC (January 27, 1931 – July 3, 2001) was a Canadian author, Academy Award-nominated 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, Barney's Version, and the Jacob Two-Two children's stories. Richler's uncompromising opinions on contemporary Canada easily matched, and sometimes exceeded, the satirical sting of his fiction.


Early years and travel

The son of a scrapyard dealer, Richler was born and raised on St. Urbain Street in the Mile End area of Montreal, Quebec, a neighbourhood he would later immortalize in his novels. He graduated from Baron Byng High School. Richler then enrolled in Sir George Williams College (now Concordia University) to study English but dropped out before completing his degree. He moved to Paris, France at age nineteen, intent on following in the footsteps of a previous generation of literary exiles, the so-called Lost Generation of the 1920s. Richler returned to Montreal in 1952, working briefly at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, then moved to London, England in 1954. Worrying "about being so long away from the roots of my discontent", he returned to Montreal in 1972, but continued to spend part of each year in London.

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz

Richler's career took off with the publication of 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 the Main (Boul. St-Laurent). Richler wrote poignantly 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.[2]

The 1974 movie version was directed by Richler's friend Ted Kotcheff and starred Richard Dreyfuss in his first leading role. Richler and Lionel Chetwynd co-wrote the screenplay.

Richler as commentator

Throughout his career, Richler wrote acerbic journalistic commentary and delighted in the role of contrarian provocateur. He was an iconoclast with little tolerance for pretense or pomposity. In a characteristic putdown, Richler called Canadian film entrepreneurs "snivelling little greasers on the make."[citation needed] Richler contributed to The Atlantic Monthly, Look, and The New Yorker. In his later years, Richler was a newspaper columnist for The National Post and Montreal's The Gazette. He was often critical of Quebec and Canadian nationalism. Another favorite Richler target was the government-subsidized Canadian literary movement of the 1970s and 80s. Richler was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 2001, just a few months before his death.

Proponents and critics

Many critics distinguished between Richler the author and Richler the polemicist. Richler frequently said in interviews that 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".[3] A 2004 oral biography by Michael Posner was entitled The Last Honest Man.

Detractors called Richler's satire heavy-handed[citation needed] and noted his propensity for recycling material, 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 relationship with Montreal's Jewish community was captured in Mordecai and Me, a book by Joel Yanofsky published in 2003.

Richler's most frequent conflicts were with the Jewish community,[4] English Canadian nationalists, and Quebec nationalists.[5]

Richler's long-running dispute with Quebec nationalists was fuelled by magazine articles he wrote in American publications between the late 1970s and mid 1990s. The articles criticized Quebec's language laws, and separatism. Critics took particular exception to Richler's allegations of anti-semitism.[6]

In The Atlantic Monthly, around the time of the first election of the Parti Québécois (PQ) in 1976, Richler linked the PQ to Nazism, by asserting that the theme song of the 1976 PQ campaign "À partir d'aujourd'hui, demain nous appartient" was a Nazi song, "Tomorrow belongs to me..." the chilling Hitler Youth song from Cabaret.[7] Neither the remainder of the text, nor the music, are related. Furthermore, the Cabaret song, never sung in Nazi Germany, was written in the 1960s by John Kander, a Jewish American lyricist and composer, not German fascists. "À partir d'aujourd'hui" was written by well-known songwriter Stéphane Venne when he was asked to compose a song for an advertisement of the Caisses populaires Desjardins credit union. In Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!, Richler acknowledges the error, blaming himself for having "cribbed" the information from an article by Irwin Cotler and Ruth Wisse for the Jewish American magazine Commentary.[8] Co-writer of the Commentary article Cotler eventually issued a written apology to Lévesque. Richler also apologized for the incident and called it an "embarrassing gaffe".[9]

His views were strongly criticized by some in Quebec and to some degree among Anglophone Canadians.[10] His detractors maintained that Richler had an outdated and stereotyped view of Quebec society, and that he risked polarizing relations between French and English. After the publication of Oh Canada! Oh Quebec, Pierrette Venne, a future Bloc Québécois MP called for the book to be banned.[11] Daniel Latouche compared the book to Mein Kampf.[12] Nadia Khouri believes that there was a racist undertone in some of the reaction to Richler, emphasizing that he was not "one of us"[13] or that he was not a "real Quebecer"[14] Additionally some passages were deliberately misquoted; a section in which he said that Quebec women were treated like "sows" was misinterpreted to suggest that Richler thought they were sows.[15] Other French writers also thought there had been an overreaction, including 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.[16] Richler had always attacked nationalists, including English Canadians, Israelis and Zionists.[citation needed] Some Quebecers acclaimed Richler for his courage and for attacking the orthodoxies of Quebec society,[17] and he has been described as "the most prominent defender of the rights of Quebec's anglophones."[18]

The reaction to Richler's book itself raised concerns for some commentators[19] about the persistence of antisemitism among sections of the Quebec population. He received death threats, including a threat to blow up the hospital in which he was staying, and letters with swastikas drawn on them;[20] a Francophone journalist yelled at one of his sons that "if your father was here, I'd make him relive the holocaust right now!", while an editorial cartoon in the French press compared him to Hitler.[21] The criticism that he wrote his essay on Quebec for money was seen as evoking old stereotypes of Jews, and the demands made for leaders of the Jewish community to dissociate themselves from Richler were seen as indicating that Richler, although born in Quebec and for a time married to a French-Canadian, was "not part of the tribe" because he was anglo and Jewish.[22]

Following Jacques Parizeau's comment on the day of the 1995 referendum, where the latter attributed the loss to "money and the ethnic vote", Richler created the "Impure Wool Society" which granted 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. The prize (with an award of $3000) was granted twice: Benet Davetian in 1996 for The Seventh Circle, and David Manicom in 1997 for Ice In Dark Water.[23]

Animator Caroline Leaf created an Academy Award-nominated animation in 1976 titled The Street, based on Richler's 1969 short story of the same name.

Family life

Richler divorced Catherine Boudreault to marry his second wife, Florence. He adopted her son Daniel. The couple had five children:

  • Daniel Richler - A longstanding figure in Canadian media and broadcasting, Daniel Richler has written a semi-autobiographical novel, Kicking Tomorrow (1991). The protagonist's father bears many similarities to Mordecai Richler.
  • Emma Richler - author of a collection of linked short stories Sister Crazy (2001), which features a father modeled on her own. A novel, Feed My Dear Dogs was published in 2005.
  • Jacob Richler - an author and columnist.
  • Noah Richler - a journalist, radio producer and host, and author of This Is My Country, What's Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada (2006).
  • Martha Richler - a cartoonist who published a daily cartoon, most recently, in London's Evening Standard, using the pen-name "Marf". Her cartoons are in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, and the Charles Saatchi Collection. She also wrote the companion guide to Washington's National Gallery of Art, A World of Art.

Leah Rosenberg, Richler's mother, published an autobiography, The Errand Runner: Memoirs of a Rabbi's Daughter (1981), which discusses Mordecai's birth and upbringing.

Awards and recognition

  • 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.
  • 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
  • 2009 "Extraordinary Canadians: Mordecai Richler" is a book-length biography about Richler published by Penguin Canada and written by the acclaimed writer M.G. Vassanji.
  • "Barney's Version" was also adapted to radio by the CBC




Fiction for children

  • 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

See also

Further reading

  • Reinhold Kramer, Mordecai Richler: Leaving St Urbain (2008)


  1. ^ a b Mordecai Richler: an obituary tribute by Robert Fulford
  2. ^ The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Penguin Books, 1964, p. 13
  3. ^ Laurence Ricou, "Mordecai Richler", The Oxford Companion to Literature, 2d ed., 1997
  4. ^ Mordecai my pal., By: Rabinovitch, Jack. Maclean's, 24/6/2002, Vol. 115, Issue 25
  5. ^ "Mordecai Richler, 1931-2001." By: Mark Steyn. New Criterion, September 2001, Vol. 20 Issue 1, p123-128.
  6. ^ 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, July 18, 93, 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;
  7. ^ "Controverse autour du livre Oh Canada Oh Québec!" video, Archives, Société Radio-Canada, March 31, 1992, retrieved September 22, 2006
  8. ^ "Faut arrêter de freaker" by Pierre Foglia, La Presse, December 16, 2000
  9. ^ Smith, Donald. D'une nation à l'autre: des deux solitudes à la cohabitation. Montreal: Éditions Alain Stanké, 1997. p. 56.
  10. ^ Smart, Pat. "Daring to Disagree with Mordecai" in Canadian Forum May 1992, p.8.
  11. ^ Johnson, William. "Oh, Mordecai. Oh, Quebec." The Globe and Mail July 7, 2001.
  12. ^ "Le Grand Silence", Le Devoir, March 28, 1992.
  13. ^ "Richler, Trudeau, Lasagne et les autres", October 22, 1991. Le Devoir
  14. ^ 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, 20 September 1991.
  15. ^ Khouri, Nadia. Qui a peur de Mordecai Richler. Montréal: Éditions Balzac, 1995.
  16. ^ "Hitting below the belt.", By: Barbara Amiel, Maclean's, 13/8/2001, Vol. 114, Issue 33
  17. ^ Khouri, Nadia. Qui a peur de Mordecai Richler. Montréal: Éditions Balzac, 1995
  18. ^ Ricou, above
  19. ^ Khouri, above, Scott et al., above, Delisle cited in Kraft, below
  20. ^ Noah Richler, "A Just Campaign", The New York Times, October 7, 2001, p. AR4
  21. ^ Michel Vastel, "Le cas Richler". L'actualité, November 1, 1996, p.66
  22. ^ Frances Kraft, "Esther Delisle", The Canadian Jewish News, April 1, 1993, p. 6
  23. ^ Siemens: Canadian Literary Awards and Prizes, from The Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Mordecai Richler CC (January 27, 1931 – July 3, 2001) was a Canadian author, scriptwriter, and essayist.



The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959)

  • This is an age of scientific wonders. You miss somebody so you pick up the phone to say hello. Three minutes for sixty-five cents. Nobody goes broke.
  • The chief rabbi of the underworld, that's me.

Barney's Version (1997)

  • I was a voracious reader, but you would be mistaken if you took that as evidence of my quality.


  • Canada is not so much a country as a holding tank filled with the disgruntled progeny of defeated peoples. French-Canadians consumed by self-pity; the descendants of Scots who fled the Duke of Cumberland; Irish, the famine; and Jews, the Black Hundreds. Then there are the peasants from Ukraine, Poland, Italy and Greece, convenient to grow wheat and dig out the ore and swing the hammers and run the restaurants, but otherwise to be kept in their place. Most of us are huddled tight to the border, looking into the candy store window, scared of the Americans on one side and of the bush on the other.
    • Reported in Mark Steyn, "Mordecai Richler, 1931-2001", New Criterion (September 2001), Vol. 20 Issue 1, p123-128.
  • My enduring feeling about René Lévesque is that if he had chosen to hang me, even as he tightened the rope round my neck, he would have complained about how humiliating it was for him to spring the trapdoor. And then, once I was swinging in the wind, he would blame my ghost for having obliged him to murder, thereby imposing a guilt trip on a sweet, self-effacing, downtrodden Francophone.
    • Reported in Donald Smith, D'une nation à l'autre: des deux solitudes à la cohabitation (Montreal: Éditions Alain Stanké, 1997), p. 61.
  • So far as one can generalize, the most graciouis, cultivated, and innovative people in this country are French Canadians. Certainly they have given us the most exciting politicians of our time: Trudeau, Lévesque. Without them, Canada would be an exceedingly boring and greatly diminished place.
    • Reported in Donald Smith, D'une nation à l'autre: des deux solitudes à la cohabitation (Montreal: Éditions Alain Stanké, 1997), p. 61.


  • What do I do? There are 26 letters in the alphabet. I jumble them around.

About Richler

  • ...the contempt that he has for Quebecers, and for the facts, that trickles from every page, hurt me, as a Quebecer, [...] as a journalist also, as an author, the intellectual dishonesty with which he plays with the facts, he makes comparisons that are absolutely unacceptable, it gave me an enormous headache to read this book, it stopped me from sleeping. [...] Evidently, here in Quebec, we know that he exaggerates, but someone has to say it to English Canadians.

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