Mordecai & Me: An Appreciation of a Kind|
by Joel Yanofsky
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|A Review of: Mordecai & Me: An Appreciation of a Kind
by Michael Darling
Like Joel Yanofsky, I grew up idolizing Mordecai Richler. Well,
maybe not idolizing exactly, but admiring his work. His wit. His
bloody-mindedness. Some thirty years after my first encounter with
Duddy Kravitz, my house overflows with Richler. I probably have
more foreign-language editions of Richler's books than I have books
by any other author. (Richler claimed to loathe the Germans: what
would he have thought of Ein Geschenk fr Jakob Zweizwei?)
At one time, I thought of writing a book something like Mordecai &
Me, a book that tells us at least as much about its author as about
its ostensible subject. But here's why I didn't. Years and years
ago, I was writing an M.A. thesis on Richler. Friends said, "Why
don't you go interview him?" He had recently moved back to
Montreal and lived not far away from my parents. I used to walk by
the Richler home-an imposing grey mansion on Edgehill-and think,
"Maybe next week." Then he showed up at McGill one night
to give a reading and related an anecdote about a woman who had
come up to him at a cocktail party and said, "I'm writing a
thesis about you. I suppose you've heard." It brought down the
house. After that, I was never tempted to ask him for an interview.
I did, however, send him a letter once asking if he'd be interested
in writing an Afterword to a book of academic essays on his work
that I was editing. He wrote back and said he'd be willing to take
out a one-page ad wishing all his critics a "Merry Christmas."
I wish I'd called his bluff. It would have been the best thing in
So I never met Mordecai and I can thus safely nourish the illusion
that, if we had met, he might have liked me. Joel Yanofsky, who
interviewed Richler several times, has no such illusions. Confessing
that at one time "I wanted him to like me, really like me,"
Yanofsky acknowledges, by the end of his book, that such a friendship
was not going to happen. Mordecai & Me has a lot to say about
Mordecai, and quite a bit about "me" (Joel, that is), but
the ampersand is a lie: there never was a relationship that even
the most assiduous name-dropper could have described as "Mordecai
& me." That hasn't stopped the author from continually inserting
himself into the narrative of Richler's life-this is a book that
tells us more than we needed to know about Joel Yanofsky.
Mordecai & Me is organized into four sections, dealing chronologically
with Richler's life and works. Yanofsky skilfully delineates important
themes in the novels, and shows how Richler drew on aspects of his
own life and the lives of people he knew in creating his fictional
characters and situations. But he hasn't dug up anything that Richler
might have wanted to remain buried. You won't find out from this
book who the real Duddy Kravitz was, or which Canadian icons were
lampooned in The Incomparable Atuk. What Yanofsky adds to previous
biographical accounts are unqualified judgments:
"There was never any confusion about what he was at odds with-it
"He never let the facts stand in the way of a good story."
"Getting under people's skin and on their nerves wasn't just
a hobby for Richler, it was his life's work, and it would have
pleased him to know that, even posthumously, he remains as much of
a pain in the ass as ever."
I find myself in agreement with almost all of Joel Yanofsky's
conclusions. He is just sympathetic enough to forgive much of
Richler's legendary rudeness, but not sympathetic enough to omit
mentioning numerous examples of it.
But the more incisive the analysis of Mordecai, the less interesting
become the digressions about Joel. A chapter on Richler as
creative-writing instructor ends with a one-page description of
Yanofsky's experience doing the same thing. "Like Richler I
had moral qualms' about teaching writing; unlike Richler I wasn't
in a position to say so at the same time that I was hired. I didn't
have the chutzpah for that." There's a good deal of this
like-him-in-one-respect-but-unlike-him-in-another in the book and
it becomes tedious after a while.
Why didn't Yanofsky write a straightforward biography of Richler?
Unfortunately, he seems to have fallen under the spell of a recent
spate of "personalized" biographies-that is, books about
their authors' attempts to write biographies of famous writers.
Yanofsky cites several of these: Nicholson Baker's U and I (on John
Updike), Ian Hamilton's In Search of J.D. Salinger, Mark Harris's
Saul Bellow: Drumlin Woodchuck, Paul Theroux's Sir Vidia's Shadow.
In all of these books, the author intrudes into the life of the
great man, becoming, if not a friend, then possibly an antagonist-a
hunter targeting an elusive prey, a "literary stalker,"
in Yanofsky's words. But the problem with Joel's "obsession"
with Mordecai is that it isn't obsessive enough for him to become
an interesting character in the story he tells. Despite the parallels
to which he alludes, Yanofsky's intersection with the life of
Mordecai Richler seems tangential and contrived. Joel ends up
resembling one of those special pleaders-a Jewish novelist to
boot-whom Richler mocked relentlessly.
It may be that Yanofsky took to heart Richler's claim about his own
generation of novelists: "Too often, I think (writes Richler
in A Sense of the Ridiculous'), it is we who are the fumblers, the
misfits, but unmistakably lovable, intellectual heroes of our very
own fictions . .. ." The narrator of Mordecai & Me is, in many
ways, that lovable misfit. He's pathetic but insightful, naive but
witty, engagingly self-centred and therefore a good foil for the
standoffish Richler he keeps unsuccessfully trying to draw out in
one interview after another. He broods shamelessly over the successes
of other writers. Bored by Yann Martel's Life of Pi, Yanofsky is
appalled when it wins the prestigious Booker Prize. But he nonetheless
agrees to appear on a CBC-TV programme set up to record Martel's
triumph, and as the Martel family begins to celebrate, the CBC news
anchor turns to Joel and says, "This wasn't your choice, was
it?" It's difficult not to think of Jake Hersh in a situation
like this: Richler never failed to make his protagonists drip envy.
Here's another sample of Yanofsky wit worth quoting:
". . . there's the Canadian cruise company that enticed tourists
to take a trip to the Arctic in the company of Margaret Atwood. In
the brochure I sent away for they don't mention who came up with
the idea. Who thought, Let's put two potentially unpleasant experiences
together and see if they can be sold as a package?"
As a humorist, Joel's got game. But as a stylist, he's not in
Richler's league, and that's where Mordecai & Me founders. As
successful as Yanofsky is in pointing out common themes and characters
in Richler's work, Mordecai & Me fails to explain why Richler's
work appeals, even though Richler the man remains so unendearing.
It's the style that's unique. No-one else was quite that funny in
just that way. Knowing that he was good, Richler never had to worry
about ingratiating himself with Canadians or Quebecois or Montreal
Jews. Few of us, and certainly not Joel Yanofsky, can match that
complete indifference that Richler projected. As his old friend
William Weintraub puts it, "Mordecai believed in himself. His
whole attitude was take it or leave it."
Mordecai & Me isn't the big biography of Richler that so many seem
to be working on. I think it was intended to be the narrative of
an obsession, but turned out to be something considerably less
intense. The persona that Joel adopts is reminiscent not so much
of Richler as of one of his protagonists, Jake Hersh. Just as Jake
created for himself an alter ego, turning his thuggish cousin Joey
into the Jewish avenger, so Joel, not entirely unselfconsciously I
would submit, has done the same thing with Jake. The ending of
Mordecai & Me recalls the ending of St. Urbain's Horseman-the
protagonist curled up in bed next to his faithful wife brooding
about his hero-but the novel moves us in ways that this peculiar
biography never does.