There can be few such desirable and seductive tasks in Canadian literature as writing the first major biography of Mordecai Richler. Chronicling him involves exploring his time in Europe and North America, reading his fiction, non-fiction, and journalism, and meeting and interviewing his friends and family. Richler has graciously given me access to his papers and to his time, but has not insisted on seeing the manuscript before it is published. I could ask for no more.
One of the aspects of the man's work that has particularly impressed me is his ability to make early sightings of long-term trends. This is demonstrated quite magnificently in the novel Cocksure, one of his earlier books, published in 1968. In it Richler makes a satirical journey through literary London and the media and movie worlds of Britain and North America.
He writes, among other things, of a television show called Insult, hosted by Digby Jones. "Somehow or other tricksy old Dig had cajoled Sister Theresa, a nun renowned for her goodness, to appear on his show. Breaking Sister Theresa down slowly, leading her on by paying tribute to the fact she lived in self-imposed slum conditions in Brixton, taking in old lags, giving succour to meths men, maintaining an orphanage for unwanted children, he suddenly lashed out at her: `But can you tell me, Sister, if you have ever had intercourse with a man?' " She replies in the negative. Jones then asks her if she has had sex with a woman. Again, no.
" `Isn't it possible, then, that your goodness, this meddling into the lives of the poor, is not divinely motivated, but born of sexual frustration?' " The poor woman says it is not. Jones pushes further. To use the language of the street, he says, You're not getting it regular, are you? Sister Theresa agrees.
" `Tell me this: Does helping unwed mothers and alcoholics, taking the unwanted to your bosom, metaphorically speaking, make you feel good?'
" `It makes me feel useful.'
" `Does it make you feel good?'
" `Well, it doesn't make me feel bad, certainly.'
" `In other words, helping the oppressed affords you.pleasure.'" The nun sighs and agrees. " `Would it be altogether unfair, then, to describe you not as suppressed-but as a sexually diverted nymphomaniac? A pornographer of the do-good?' " At this point the nun weeps and the audience screams out in unison that Sister Theresa is " `As shitty as we are.'"
Come forward almost thirty years and we have Christopher Hitchens taking on Mother Teresa, calling her a charlatan who is sycophantic to dictators and unconcerned about the poor. What was so significant about Hitchens's attack on Mother Teresa both on television and in print was its pure nihilism. There was no attempt to provide an alternative to the Albanian nun's work in India, no offer to aid the poor in a different way, merely a gruesomely jejune attack on the woman herself, often personal and invariably unfounded.
We should then add to the Hitchens case the wave of vulgarian television chat shows emanating from the United States but now copied in Canada. In these circuses, victims are placed on a stage; audiences, subjected to group dynamics and exploited by the flimsiest of show business sensibilities, are worked up into a state of frenzy. Hand-me-down Freudianisms and feel-good liberalism curdle together in a most unappetizing stew, as the dysfunctional is glorified and the clean, pure, and good mocked and vilified.
In other words, Richler had and has access to the novelist's looking-glass, one of the signs of the truly great writer.
Elsewhere in the book he takes numerous and extremely funny lunges at left-wing parents, ultra-liberal teachers, trendy private schools, and the gratuitous use by the wealthy of cosmetic surgery and virtual body replacement. The world of Cocksure is inhabited by rich, vacuous men and women who smile proudly as their spoilt little children indulge in pre-pubescent sex, use obscene language, and embrace the latest radical political cause. One cannot help thinking of all those wealthy mothers and fathers who have sent their daughters to a new feminist school in Toronto so that their little girls can become assertive, strong, and thus do well in the world. As if the children of the rich and famous had ever not done well, irrespective of their gender or their lack of intelligence, wit, or attractiveness.
Then there is Richler's politically correct woman, Joyce, who terrifies the local store-keeper with her quixotic attitude towards fruit and vegetables. She buys some potatoes as they are from Italy but refuses the pineapples from British Guiana because "they are holding Dr. Cheddi Jagan in detention." Instead, she asks if she can buy Cuban pineapples. Spanish oranges? No way, Franco is in power. Israeli Jaffas? Absolutely not, think of the Palestinians. The list goes on, and is so wonderfully and horribly familiar. Hypocrisy, arrogance, and ignorance. As witnessed a generation ago by Mordecai Richler, as witnessed so often today in contemporary Canada. I shall enjoy writing the biography. l
The Michael Coren Show is broadcast every weekday evening between 7 and 10 on CFRB 1010 AM. Coren's latest book is Conan Doyle, published by Stoddart.