This terse biography arrives as part of a Penguin series, Extraordinary Canadians, each one to be followed up by a documentary film. John Ralston Saul, the series editor, sums up the overall aim of the project by saying: “When all these stories are put together, you will see that a whole new debate has been created around Canadian civilization and the shape of our extraordinary experiment.”
A laudable aim. But I find it hard to see how M.G. Vassanji’s competent jog-trot through the life and work of Mordecai Richler will contribute much to this or any other debate. Having immigrated to Toronto from a tight-knit religious community, Vassanji responds most keenly to Richler as an outsider, a heroic rebel from orthodox faith. In other words, he largely accepts Richler’s characterization of himself. Rarely if at all does Vassanji suggest any new interpretations.
To be fair, he works hard to engage with his subject’s Judaic heritage – Richler’s grandfather was an eminent Hassidic rabbi – and he writes well about Richler’s talented and difficult mother, Leah Rosenberg. Their unhappy relationship, it seems fair to say, scarred the novelist for life. Though his research was by no means extensive, Vassanji did come across the long and bitter farewell letter that Richler sent his mother in 1976. “Unfortunately,” he admits, “it cannot be excerpted or paraphrased here.”
Until the publication of Charles Foran’s definitive biography Mordecai in 2010 – but, I trust, not a moment longer – readers might look to Vassanji as a prime source of information about Richler. There is much they won’t find. Vassanji says next to nothing about the man’s books for children, his dependence on alcohol or his later friendships. Even his first marriage, to Cathy Boudreau, is presented in the most meagre of terms: “It’s impossible to evaluate a private relationship based on second-hand testimony presented decades later. The two certainly seem to have had some fun times together.”
Vassanji is also capable of spectacularly missing the point. Late in life, for instance, Richler wrote an article about returning to London. In his typically sardonic way, he paid affectionate tribute to the city where he had lived for so long: “We had been in London for only a month when I realized that we had settled among vulgarians and that I would now have to endure cultural overload that could oblige me, any night of the week, to get into a suit and tie and charge out into the rain to attend one or another of the oppressive cornucopia of plays, concerts, or vernissages …” To me, the most interesting point is Richler’s use of the French word “vernissage.” But Vassanji not only misses this, he calls the article a “diatribe against London” written by a “confirmed Canadian institution” who “liked little about the city.” Say what?
It’s blatantly clear that Vassanji knows little about Montreal and less about Quebec. “Bill 101,” he mistakenly writes, “now explicitly made English and even bilingual commercial signs illegal.” There’s no hint of recognition that English has continued to flourish in Montreal – in the media, in education, in sports, in the arts, among immigrants, even on commercial signs – and Vassanji’s attempted comparison of Québécois activists to socialist vigilantes who measured the length of women’s skirts in Tanzania is merely absurd. I was pleased that he gently chides Richler for over-the-top polemic. But I wish he had done so – indeed, had written this entire book – from a position of greater knowledge.
Mark Abley’s latest book is The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches From the Future of English (2008). His new book for children, Camp Fossil Eyes, will appear this summer.
M.G.Vassanji will take part in a panel discussion with John Ralston Saul, editor of the Extraordinary Canadians series, and the authors of the other volumes, at Blue Met on Sunday, April 26 at 4 p.m. www.bluemetropolis.org.