Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Review: Mordecai: The Life & Times, by Charles Foran

Of all the telling details in Charles Foran’s epic biography of Mordecai Richler – and there are many – the ones that stand out for me reveal how Richler went about founding his strongest and most enduring friendships. To describe this lion of Canadian letters as a prickly pear would be a gross understatement, and yet he seemed to have no trouble opening himself up to those who showed a temerity, intellectual rigour and cleverness that he could respect.

Take, for example, his first encounter with journalist John Fraser. In the mid 1970s, Fraser had unwittingly become a hero of Canadian nationalism when he criticized the National Ballet of Canada for touring in the United States. The NBC responded by hiring Richler to write a tart rebuttal in the programme for its 1975-76 season. When Richler and Fraser later met in the lobby at the season opener in Toronto, a faux-deflated Fraser said, “I am the unacceptable face of Canadian nationalism.” Richler tried to brush the whole affair off, saying his attack wasn’t personal, to which Fraser replied that it was okay, that he too had done some “hack work” in his day. Instead of being grossly insulted, Richler laughed at the barb, and the two men became friends.

Foran’s book is packed with exactly these kinds of revealing details and impeccable insights into Richler. To describe this tome as a comprehensive biography of the man probably isn’t enough: Mordecai: The Life & Times is as much a biography of an age, a way of living, as it is of Richler himself. Indeed, reading the book can make a certain type of person long for a time that no longer exists: a time when authors had a much better chance at living solely by their pens, when more magazines ran lengthy essays and still paid writers handsomely for them; when authors were still treated as citizens of the world and less as captives in their own regional bunkers. Or even smaller details – like when you could still smoke in public, or show up at a literary event hosed out of your mind. Richler did it all – and refused to be anything other than what he was.

One the great strengths of Foran’s writing is that he never takes his narrative off in directions that aren’t appropriate for the subject itself. Richler would have had a low tolerance for high-falutin’ literary analysis (even of his own work) or didactic extrapolations on biography, and Foran wisely keeps both out of his book. Instead, he approaches his subject with an eye for storytelling, for humour and for presenting details at face value and allowing the reader to come to his or her own conclusions. Richler would have thoroughly approved.

Other reviewers have criticized Foran for a lack of structural balance in the text – weighing too much on certain epochs of Richler’s life, too little on others. This didn’t really bother me. I enjoyed watching Richler climb the economic ladder as much as the literary one: from impoverished artiste in Paris in the 1950s, middle-class scribbler in the 1960s and `70s, to highly paid cultural commentator in the 1980s and `90s. All along the way, Foran provides us with fabulous windows into the composition of Richler’s most enduring novels. If Foran focuses on some periods more than others, it’s only because they warranted it.

Any future biographer of Mordecai Richler will be hard-pressed to top Foran’s thorough and thoroughly engaging performance. Here's hoping people will continue reading this book for as long as they continue reading Richler himself.

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