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Mordecai & Me by Joel Yanofsky (1 Viewer)


Senior Member
In June of 2001, Mordecai Richler, one of Canada's most loved (and, at times, most hated) novelists, essayists, and generally cantankerous critic of all things Canuck, puffed his last Cuban, sipped his last scotch - neat? - and bowed out, no doubt with his trademark scowl smeared across his face. After over fifty years, ten novels, about as many non-fiction tomes, two books for children, and countless snide, off-the-cuff politically incorrect comments on topics ranging from his take on the French-Canadian language laws he considered laughable to his smug contempt for practically all things Jewish, Richler's passing left a smoking crater in the Canadian cultural landscape.

Has any Canadian ever painted such vivid pictures of the country's urban locales? And could anyone compete with Richler's ability to undress politicians at the scratch of a pen? Or his Swiftian knack for offending everyone in the room?

Despite a subject matter that Richler constantly referred to as being 'his place' and 'his time,' namely Montreal's Jewish quarter in general and St. Urbain Street in particular, Richler, an author of the old school, strongly believed that one's writing should speak for itself. Unlike most 'celebrities,' literary or otherwise, Richler was adept at keeping his private life under the covers. But now that the big guy is gone and Canadians have had a chance to catch their breath, the questions remain: Who was Mordecai Richler? And, perhaps the more pressing, 'Why was he so pissed off all the time?'

Joel Yanofsky, in his potent mix of memoir and biography, Mordecai & Me: An Appreciation of a Kind, takes a gamer's shot at providing answers. The title, of course, is telling. An appreciation? Isn't that kind of thing saved for pimple-faced, giggling adolescents and their pop-icon heroes? Perhaps, but Yanofsky expands on the definition, offering an unconventional spin on the biography that resists the genre's thirst for complete authorial objectivity. Yanofsky wisely asserts that his book will never be christened the 'be all, end all' of Richler scholarship. But as Mordecai & Me speeds along, it becomes even more clear that it doesn't have to be.

The book itself traces Richler's life in four sections, staying roughly on track chronologically, while occasional drifting back and forth through time. Such chicanery could wear on the nerves, especially for someone accustomed to cut-and-dry linear biography, but Yanofsky manipulates the strings like a seasoned puppeteer, distracting us with one hand while setting the table with the other. On one page he serves up a conversation he had with an irate rabbi who felt that Mordecai has betrayed his race beyond redemption, while on the next he recounts Richler's disgust at what he sees as Ian Fleming's vulgar anti-semetism in the James Bond series of books and film.

A long-time book review and veteran interviewer (and apparently a sadist, too, having suffered through multiple interviews with the notoriously anti-social Richler), Yanofsky has the literary chops to take on Richler's ouvre. He's not afraid, for example, to say that <I>The Acrobats</I>, Richler's first novel, inspired one of his contemporaries, who couldn't believe something so bad had been published, to write. The next three novels don't come off much better. It is Yanofsky's unflinching honesty that gives Mordecai and Me much of its credibility.

The self-deprecating tone is also pitch-perfect. We all keep our fingers crossed when Yanofsky's novel, Jacob's Ladder, is nominated for a prank-turned-literary prize donated by Richler himself. Our hopes fall, too, when he doesn't win. Worse still: Mordecai was the one to vote his novel down. Amidst the disappointment, however, we smile because Yanofsky resists applying a sugar glaze to his relationship with Richler. Aside from interviews, the two barely shared words. Still, Yanofsky has done his homework and can tell a good yarn.

Yanosky's only failures come in the form sporadic digressions on his personal life, which often come in the form of dreams recollections so drab and unoriginal that I wonder why they are there at all. As Yanofsky says himself, dreams are boring; yet he clings firm to the belief that we, as readers, will find the contents of his psyche as fascinating as he claims to. These stumbling blocks, ostensibly about Yanofsky's growing preoccupation with Richler, were likely added as filler to boost the book's word count, so feel free to skim them over. That being said, however, when Yanofsky focuses on the real matter at hand - and not himself - the results are studded with moments reminiscent of Richler's wit and irreverence.

Is Mordecai & Me the definitive Richler biography? Likely not. Musing about whether or not Richler himself would have approved, Yanofsky is quick to admit that the old buzzard likely would have hated it. In fact, in the first chapter Yanofsky quotes Jake Hersh, a Samuel Johnson fan and Richler's beleaguered hero from the novel St. Urbain's Horseman: "I keep wondering, if I had lived in his time, would he have liked me? Would Dr. Johnson have invited me to sit at his table?"

On the subject of sharing the company of an admired writer, Yanofsky, ever the cynic, has his own response: "I'm lucky, I guess. I know the answer to whether Mordecai Richler would have asked me to sit at his table. I know because he never did."

But at least he came within spitting distance, and that view, quite nice if a little fuzzy, is worth sharing.
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Senior Member
I can relate to that from having read his Joshua Then and Now Other works seemed a bit boring, but you manage to intrigue me and check this out.


Senior Member
i started on duddy in school, which piqued my interest. barney's version was powerful, and solomon gursky was a fun ride. a lot of his other works move too slowly for me.