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Mordecai Richler (no credit given) from cover of Mordecai: the Life and Times (Vintage)

Mordecai Richler
(no credit given) from cover of Mordecai: the Life and Times (Vintage)

Mordecai Richler (1931-2001) left Canada on the Franconia in September 1950 for reasons both cultural and personal. In Charles Foran’s biography of Richler, Mordecai: the Life and Times, Foran suggests first that Richler’s education propelled him away from Canada: “Everything from Canadian self-abnegation and Anglo-Montreal colonialism to the English literature texts at Baron Byng and the Zionism of Habonim directed his gaze and imagination outwards.” (86-87) He had family in New York and could have gone on to publishing success there, as did Saul Bellows. But New York had one limitation: it wasn’t in Europe. Richler was aware of Hemingway and Callaghan having grown as writers in Paris. Besides, John Sutherland arranged for him to meet Mavis Gallant before she left her job at the Standard because she too was going to Europe to make it as a writer, and she was not only glamorous but also “the real literary deal.” (Foran 107) He would escape the provincialism and mediocrity of Canada: “He had to go where writers weren’t freaks and culture wasn’t alien.” (Foran 110) In addition, his parents were divorced, and his older brother got married that spring. More importantly, his father supported his plan (with approval and an allowance) and his mother gave him money for the ticket. How many parents today would support a decision to drop out of university for travel abroad?

From Quebec City to Liverpool, from there to Paris. In his Richler biography, M.G. Vassanji describes Richler’s “grubby, penurious existence” in Paris: “cold and hungry nights inside dingy, dark apartments, skimping on food and clothing … he was meeting new young people, ideas came pouring into the mind, and he was writing all the time.” (Mordecai Richler, Extraordinary Canadians series, 48-49)

Mordecai Richler (photo by Martha Kaplan) from Canadian Encyclopedia

Mordecai Richler (photo by Martha Kaplan) from Canadian Encyclopedia

Two months later Richler went to Ibiza, renting a house with a cook and sharing it with friends. In July he went to Barcelona, then Nice, settling in August in Tourrettes-sur-Loup and then Haut-de-Cagnes. In Spain and France and later Italy, Richler indulged in booze and girlfriends. Despite tourism and bars, in mid-August 1951, less than a year from his departure, he had finished his first novel, The Rotten People, reworked parts of which became The Acrobats, his first publication. After a fall in Paris and summer in the south of France, he finally went to London, broke but with a manuscript to hand to an agent. That done, he returned to Montreal in September 1952.

In August 1953, Richler sailed to England, confident that he could make a career as a writer. Richler stayed in Englad for nearly 20 years, apart from interludes in Canada. In London he became the writer he’d dreamed of, making his way from basement apartments in Hampstead, a marriage and continued European travel, to settling with his second wife and their family in Surrey at the end of 1963. He supported his growing family by writing journalism and working on TV and film scripts. And staying at his desk until his back ached, writing novels. While in England, Richler wrote and published The Acrobats, Son of a Smaller Hero, A Choice of Enemies, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, The Incomparable Atuk, Cocksure, and St Urbain’s Horseman.

…to be continued

Meanwhile, check out the review of Mordecai Richler biographies in Canadian Literature.

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