Perspective on Mordecai Richler
W.J. Keith is a retired professor of English at the University of Toronto and author A Sense of Style: Studies in the Art of Fiction in English-Speaking Canada.
“Good in parts,” said the proverbial curate of his indifferent egg. The remark applies often enough to collections of essays, and this one is no exception.
The good bits first. Thomas E. Tausky’s research into the sources for St. Urbain’s Horseman, based on the Richler papers at the University of Calgary, tracks down not only the origins of the holocaust material, but the factual basis for much of the detail about Jake’s “swinging” London. Then Wilfred Cude, starting from a critical remark of mine, offers a most interesting defence of the same novel, demonstrating the significance of the recurring references to Dr. Johnson and arguing for a subtle correspondence between Richler’s novel and Kafka’s The Trial. It is a brilliant case for the defence, though I personally find it more pertinent to Richler’s intentions than to his achievement. But both articles will become essential scholarship for serious students of Richler’s work.
Zailig Pollock returns to familiar ground in reconsidering moral responses to Duddy Kravitz, and succeeds in bringing fresh perceptions to what seemed a tired subject. Laura Groening offers a straightforward and decidedly useful comparative study of Richler and Bernard Malamud. Margaret Gail Osachoff explores the interesting idea of urban pastoral, but has an unfortunate habit of stating the obvious (“If destruction of farmland and wilderness is considered an improvement, Duddy is a public benefactor; if not, he can be seen as a public menace”). Robert Cluett (along with Suzanne Ives) continues his computer studies in the prose-styles of Canadian novelists, though the results in Richler’s case are fairly forecastable (“Two important properties of Richler as an artist are an eye and an ear for cliche”).
Stephen Bonnycastle tackles the problem of evaluating Joshua Then and Now, but I for one am not convinced that this is achieved when he writes of the time-shifts in this novel: “What is interesting about these shifts is ... the fact that they seem to have no significance whatsoever.” And I lose track of (and sympathy with) Michael Greenstein when he writes of the Boy Wonder’s crutches: “At once a metonymic substitute for an antagonistic Dingleman and an intrusive semiotic landmark, ‘cane’ also carries homonymic overtones.” A firmer editorial hand would have been an asset here.
This is cross-section, then, of critical opinion, scholarship, and standards: not remarkable as a whole, but worthwhile if only for Tausky and Cude.