Mordecai & Me: An Appreciation of a Kind

by Joel Yanofsky
ISBN: 0889952663

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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 the book.
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 was hypocrisy."

"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.

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