In the recent televised tribute to Mordecai Richler, his New York editor and long-time friend Robert Gottlieb confessed that among his authors, Richler was unusual. While many of his authors emerged with a big hit, say Joseph Heller with Catch-22, they seemed to spend the rest of their lives trying to rediscover what it was within themselves that created that early success. By contrast, Richler had started writing young man's novels and kept on improving by stages until he achieved his final accomplishment Barney's Version. This wasn't even a bell curve. It was an upward linear trend.
If Gottlieb was understandably too diplomatic at the tribute to call Richler's first novels downright weak or poor, Richler himself had no hesitation in admitting that he wrote "badly" when he was young. He particularly disliked his first published novel The Acrobats which appeared in 1954. In interviews he invariably maligned it. He once confessed that when he wrote it, he was drunk with his reading. The novel was a pastiche of what he then admired which included the work of Hemingway, Malraux, Celine, Nelson Algren and Henry Miller. After a 1970 British paperback edition oddly named Wicked we Love, he refused altogether to have it republished. As a result it has become perhaps the best known unread novel in Canadian Literature, nearly impossible to obtain even in the stacks of many university libraries. That's not surprising: it sold not more than two hundred hardback copies in the mid-fifties in Canada. Today these two hundred are very scarce books indeed. Now with its intriguing posthumous reappearance in a new paperback edition from the New Canadian Library, it's really possible to see how and why Richler developed as a writer. Director Ted Kotcheff has added an essay at the back which is really an admiring memoir of his good friend.
The Acrobats, which Richler wrote in 1951-3, was actually his second novel which emerged out of the ruins of a first novel called The Rotten People. Richler completed it when he was just 20 while living in southern France. A copy of the 411-page manuscript is now in the Mordecai Richler Fonds of Special Collections at the University of Calgary. Intensely autobiographical, the novel is about a young man called Kerman Adler who has come to Europe to find himself. This meant sorting out his Jewish identity and his sexuality. It meant trying to work out, given a troubled past, a possible vision of his future. He doesn't seem to do much, though, except moon over his problems and curse his past. He smokes a lot and hashes out life's questions with a cast of Lost Generation Part Two types.
What oppressed Kerman was his Jewish working class roots with its peculiar tensions and expectations which in Europe he could escape only physically. Kerman floats around from London to Paris and the Spanish island of Ibiza where he runs into a former colonel of the German SS called Roger Kraus. Both Kraus and his sister Theresa are spooky unrepentant fascists who came to Spain to avoid difficult questions of what they were doing not so long ago in the war. Beyond Kerman's identity crisis, the novel runs off on narrative tangents. Over-influenced by the surrealism of Henry Miller and Sartre, Richler indulges in overripe passages that attempt to provide the images of Kerman's nightmares.
When he finished the novel in August 1951, Richler invited some writer friends down from Paris to his place in Haut-de-Cagnes near the Mediterranean. All of them considered it unpublishable. Richler was discouraged of course but wasn't about to abandon Europe and return home defeated to the cold winters of Montreal. Almost penniless, he took a few weeks off and hitchiked in Italy with a new girl friend. Soon afterward he started a new novel he first called Only God Never Dies, which he quickly renamed The Jew of Valencia, then ultimately The Acrobats. Although he borrowed some key details from the first novel, notably the chilly Nazis, the Krauses. Richler made a curiously central alteration, transforming Kerman, the poor Jewish kid, into a painter from a wealthy English-Montreal family called Andre Bennett. While a refugee called Chaim takes on some of Kerman's questions regarding Jewish identity, Andre inherits Kerman's outsider status, his nightmares, his obsessive fear of rats and his guilt. In Andre's case this guilt is brought on by an abortion and the subsequent death of a Jewish girlfriend in Montreal. Richler also preserves the surrealistic passages from The Rotten People, much of it embarassing macabre stuff. "Paris is skeletons copulating on tin roofs and the culminating corpse of a dead civilization dying and raising a stench to jeering heaven while toasting on the wicked flames of wanton ennui and sin."
To avoid the confusion of the different settings in The Rotten People, Richler used the simple device of containing all the action within a fiesta in Valencia in April, the Dia de San Jose, in which monstrous papier-mache figures are paraded around and then torched to instigate spiritual cleansing. While the fiesta was a somewhat obvious device he borrowed from Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano and Hemingway's The Sun also Rises, it unquestionably did help to contain the narrative.
A sleazy waterfront whorehouse-bar called the Mocambo owned by the refugee Chaim provides a hothouse environment for the unsettled and sometimes nasty people who wander in. Often in these scenes it seems we are actually reading Look Back in Anger by John Osborne. Characters abuse and sometimes physically attack each other. A central character is Barney, an American businessman with a sexually restless wife Jessie and her homosexual brother Derek. There is a sentimental subcast of Pepe, Guillermo and Juanito, ill-defined locals who are really the Greek chorus. Colorless, they reflect and reinforce the ideas of the major characters. Anticipating Richler's future difficulties with female characterization is a golden-hearted whore called Toni who wants to devote herself to Andre for no obvious reason. Her opposite is Jessie, a restless Lilith figure looking for trouble. Ultimately there is a fatal confrontation between good Andre and the bad SS colonel. In this dark novel the colonel perhaps inevitably wins the first battle. But the novel is a tragedy and in the end no one wins.
Richler worked on the novel for nearly a year but it still didn't look too promising. His friends in Paris who edited the little magazine New Story talked vaguely of publishing an excerpt but there was no action. While Richler now seemed totally without prospects, a British writer in Paris, Michael Sayers, recommended that he drop by the London office of literary agent Joyce Weiner on his way home to Montreal in September 1952. Weiner had a reputation for working patiently with young authors. She even once characterized herself as the Old Lady who Lived in a Shoe, overworked but still ready to take on untried writers if they possessed discernable talent.
Richler stuffed his manuscript in an LP record album sleeve and dropped by Weiner's office. Weiner admitted many years later she was not thrilled with the scruffy young Canadian arriving on her doorstep but promised at least to look at his manuscript. She did that evening and was interested enough to call him back to her office the next day to ask how old he was and what he hoped for with his writing. Back home Richler worked on it in spare moments. In the meantime publisher Andre Deutsch, who was building a list of first-time authors which would soon include V.S. Naipaul, Mavis Gallant and Brian Moore, dropped by Weiner's office. Remembering Richler's manuscript which had by then disappeared into her slush pile, Weiner pulled it out and offered it to him. Because he was trying to capture new authors, Deutsch was interested.
Weiner never much liked the novel and from the start, urged major alterations. In September 1952 she wrote Richler: "...above all I would like to think that are again attacking the book with some austerity of mind. It is too lush in everything¨incident, character, description, style." Even after receiving a major rewrite she told him that it was still only "a novel of promise," complaining especially that he had overemphasized the "racial element." When Richler seemed to want fast recognition, she shot back: "You are potentially one of the most interesting young writers I've come by for a long time but you can't run before you walk, and if I've the patience to wait you must have." Deutsch, however, was now ready to take it and tried to boost Richler's morale for more rewriting by contradicting Weiner: "The Acrobats has more than Špromise.' It is very good." Weiner in turn reminded Richler that it was "very rare" for a first novel to be accepted at a first publisher and that Deutsch was really more interested in Richler than the novel. "He must publish this one or lose you."
A year later, in April 1954, The Acrobats did appear. Richler was just 23. Although it enjoyed British and American editions and Norwegian, Danish and German translations, it sold poorly everywhere. Considering its glaring difficiencies, most critics handled the novel with kid gloves. Most understood that this was the novel of a promising young author and that Richler would undoubtedly be heard from again in better form. He should be encouraged not abused. In the New York Times on Jan. 2, 1955, Frank H. Lyell pronounced, "On the whole, this depressing story is well told; its most violent and tasteless episodes give evidence of originality and a good eye and ear....With this novel out of his system, Mr. Richler's second one may be an entirely mature and rewarding work."
It would be nice to speculate that Deutsch's leap of faith with the novel was absolutely essential to Richler's career but it wasn't. While he was revising The Acrobats he was already at work on a more assured autobiographical novel about the Jewish district in Montreal, Son of a Smaller Hero which put Richler back home in mind as well as place. Although Kotcheff understandably emphasizes The Acrobats' positive aspects in the afterword, it is at best only interesting for the way it anticipates the major work which was to come.
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In 1951 when Mordecai Richler was struggling with what he would call a "sub-Celine" novel in a rat-infested Paris hotel, he treasured letters from his brother Avrum in Montreal. Avrum would oblige him with what mattered, minor league basketball scores. Since Richler had worked part-time not long before covering college sports for the tabloid The Herald, it's easy to understand why he appreciated this information. While he admitted he would like to storm the literary heights of Hemingway and Maulraux with his fiction, he would also remain a member of that dedicated tribe of "literary sports nutters" who invariably checked sports scores before front page news. As far as his writing, though, his interest stayed pretty much hidden until he developed a freelance journalism career with Maclean's in the early 1960s. Dispatches from the Sporting Life collects his better sports pieces from those early Maclean's years right up to a couple of articles he wrote for GQ in the 1990s. Readers should be cautioned however that there is quite a lot of previously collected material here. No fewer than six pieces, in fact, appeared in Richler's Belling the Cat just four years ago.
As always Richler is best with material which is off-colour and close to home. The earliest piece in Dispatches is a 1960 article "Eddie Quinn" on a professional wrestling promoter in Quebec. Long before the glitzy WWF days wrestling involved popular matches between midgets (even female midgets) and lovely brutes like Gorgeous George and Killer Kowalski. A former auto worker in Windsor, Kowalski was a behemoth who was oddly gentle in the ring and clearly served as the model for the giant wrestler in Richler's Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang. Richler understood (as the wrestlers did themselves) that professional wrestling was really a drama which catered to the fantasies of sometimes mentally unstable fans, some of whom attacked and even stabbed wrestlers. Wrestling was a place for instance where the French Canadian working class could go and see a blond WASP soundly whupped.
Richler had a more serious interest in hometown baseball and hockey. In a piece "From Gladu, through Kitman, to the Victoire Historique and After", Richler outlines his loyalty, since childhood, to the Montreal Royals, a formerly splendid farm team, which in 1969 gave way to the embarassments of the Expos. The Royals won many International League pennants and Little World Series. Famously, the Royals gave a start to the career of Jackie Robinson who was preparing to be the first black player in the majors. Loyalty to the team was visceral. Boys like Richler from Baron Byng School used to skip afternoon classes in the late forties to take advantage of free bleacher seats at games at the Delorimier Downs.
Richler was obviously sensitive early on to the ironies of Jewish involvement in sports. Logically Jewish athletes weren't supposed to exist on a professional level because boys were supposed to strive for more promising careers in medicine or law. Richler and his working class district nevertheless adopted Kerman Kitman of Brooklyn who briefly played for the Royals with no great distinction. There were weightier major league players like Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg. The favourite Richler concept of Jews in sport¨which yields so many ironies related to the low end of achievement¨becomes less interesting at the level of Greenberg and Koufax. In his well-known article "Jews in Sport", Koufaz and Greenberg have little significance or character beyond being heroes for Jewish boys.
In his affectionate introduction, Richler's son, Noah, says that his father showed increasing unhappiness over the greed and self-importance of professional sports figures. Yet this criticism came late and was decidedly muted. The exception was when he talked about the decline of his once beloved hockey team, the Canadiens, which really did rile him. In the face of a major baseball star like Pete Rose, though, criticism is absent. In 1985 Richler interviewed Rose for an unaccountably bland piece in a short-lived New York Times sports magazine. Besides outlining Rose's career in solemn terms, Richler draws uncritical attention to Rose's extravagant life with expensive agent, professional cheerleader wife, 12-room mansion with giant tv screens, his Rolls-Royce and collection of Porches which Rose drove at reckless speed knowing the police would always let him zoom past unhindered. A reader looks in vain for Richlerian mockery, for typically, when faced with a tycoon, Hollywood mogul or Canadian political leader, Richler was ever vigilant for tasteless extravagance or unearned advantage. Strangely, with Rose he offers not a whiff of criticism. Rose was no ordinary case either. The article first appeared in early 1985, four years before the scandal broke over Rose's illicit baseball gambling at a time he was still in the sport.
Since he was no athlete himself, Richler couldn't repeat George Plimpton's practice of writing about sports from the inside. The closest he came to participation was salmon fishing in September 1988 in the Shetland and Orkney islands. In his article, "An Imcompleat Angler's Journal", Richler deliberately plays the bumpkin. Serious fly-fishermen apparently know that September is an impossible month for salmon in Scotland. Yet here was an untutored Canadian turning up hoping for grand results. For all the staggering expense of getting there, there was no fish for Mordecai. We are to accept the expedition as a grand occasion. In the tone of Twain's The Innocents Abroad, Richler enjoyably drags us through some pleasant Scottish scenery, not so nice weather and testimonials about the exceptional quality of Macallan single malt.
There's a softened focus as well in his account of going on safari in Kenya in 1982. In 1958, a younger Richler sadly shook his head at the sight of the great Hemingway going on a self-parodying safari for Look Magazine. Yet here is Richler done up in sparkling new safari suit doing the same over two decades later for GQ. He goes, albeit, to Great Rift Valley without guns, and lets himself go with such boyish glee, it nearly cancels out the image of hypocrisy. And he wants to let us know we should do the same. Here we have the unusual image of Richler the romantic: "Go, go, before it's gone. Before the rough tracks of the Masai Mara are paved and hamburger havens and pizza parlours spring up and the Masai herdsman who approaches across the plain has his ears plugged into a Walkman. Or is talking into a cellular phone." Perhaps he is right, but the Great Rift Valley is beyond most household budgets. Better to read Mordecai exercising a fantasy not especially of Africa but of his own success and luxury. ˛
Author of Northrop Frye: A Biography, John Ayre is at work on a biography of Mordecai Richler.