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Mordecai Richler was a well-known author and cultural critic at an important moment of cultural nationalism in Canada. Writing with an Anglo-Montreal perspective from within the city’s Jewish community, his best-known works explore challenging moral questions through the eyes of unreliable narrators.
One of the earliest fictional works by Mordecai Richler (1931-2001), Son of a Smaller Hero offers insight into his evolving style and themes. Published in 1955, the novel is set in the working-class Jewish neighborhood that he revisited throughout his fiction. With parallels to Richler’s own life, this coming-of-age story follows idealistic Noah Adler, who finds himself at odds with the deep-rooted cultural and social divides in the city. The autobiographical elements of the novel caused controversy within Richler’s family and in Montreal’s Jewish community.
Richler’s fourth and arguably most popular novel, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz was published in 1959. The story explores working-class Jewish life in Montreal through 1930s and 40s, in the neighbourhood surrounding St. Urbain Street and Saint Laurent Boulevard. Now a well-taught text throughout Canadian high schools, Duddy Kravitz follows the title character’s growing obsession with money and power – which are embodied by his grandfather’s defining statement that “a man without land is nobody”. Alienating friends, family, and loved ones in his desire to make something of himself, Duddy has long been one of the most challenging and unresolved anti-heroes of Canadian literature. A movie based on the novel was released in 1974, starring American actor Richard Dreyfuss.
Published in 1971, St. Urbain’s Horseman won Richler his second Governor General’s Award and was also nominated for the newly established Booker Prize in London. Considered a landmark in Richler’s career and in Canadian literary history, the novel is set in 1960s London and Montreal. The main character is a schoolmate of Duddy Kravitz, following his faltering career in the film industry and the unraveling of a sex scandal. A TV series based on the novel aired in Canada from 2007 to 2008.
This semi-autobiographical novel was published in 1980, which Richler adapted for the screen in 1985. The story follows the ups and downs of a writer’s life, with Richler’s characteristic caustic style and dark humour. From a hospital bed, the title character reflects on the indiscretions that have led to his current state of turmoil. The main character grew up in the Jewish neighbourhood of Montreal so often revisited in Richler’s fiction.
Published in 1989, this novel caused a stir in the Canadian literary scene. The story carries nine interconnected plot lines covering several generations of the fictional Gursky clan, outlining their connection to several defining events in Canadian history – including the doomed Franklin expedition to find the Northwest Passage, and illegal rum-running during the American prohibition era – and is clearly modelled on the infamous, real-life Canadian-American Jewish Bronfman family.
Considered the most autobiographical of Richler’s novels, Barney’s Version was an instant international bestseller when it was published in 1997. Using Richler’s well-crafted technique of multiple unreliable narrators, Barney Panofsky recollects events of his life that include the mysterious disappearance of his childhood friend – no body is ever recovered, but the police suspect murder and Barney himself is tried but acquitted of the crime. This was Richler’s seventh and final novel, for which he won the Giller Prize. Duddy Kravitz makes another appearance in Barney’s Version as a wealthy man in his sixties, threading together a trio of Mordecai Richler’s most well-known novels.
For an abrupt departure from Richler’s grittier themes, Jacob Two-Two has become a beloved character in Canadian children’s fiction since the publication of Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang in 1975. The series began as a tale told to his youngest son, soon developing into a trio of stories that since have become classics. It has been adapted to both film (in 1978 and 1999) and the stage. Richler had planned to write a fourth installment in the series before he died in 2001. With the support of the Richler family, a prequel called Jacob Two-Two on the High Seas was put together by Canadian author Cary Fagan in 2009, thus completing the series.