Since his mom was a notorious harridan, his dad a pitiable failure and his grandfather a crook, there was nothing for Mordecai Richler to do but become a novelist. That may slightly oversimplify his career choices, but it's a thought that arises automatically from the early pages of The Last Honest Man (McClelland and Stewart), Michael Posner's absorbing and revealing oral biography. The book appears this week, just in time to provide background reading for participants in The Richler Challenge, a symposium in Montreal on Thursday and Friday at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (see story on Page AL4).
The Last Honest Man (an overly pessimistic title, surely, but challenging in its odd way) begins with Richler quoting a favourite author: "Orwell said that writing was revenge on your own childhood and whatever indignities you suffered." Richler also remarked, on many occasions, that a novelist should be "the loser's advocate," which explained why he turned his satire against smug winners, grand or petty, from intimidating whisky barons to dictatorial schoolteachers.
The early sections of Posner's book explore in painful detail the childhood that left him with emotional scores to settle. They also clearly identify the man who defined "loser" for Richler. That would be Moses Richler, his father, often described as sweet and tolerant, the victim of a clumsily arranged marriage. The father of Moses, a Montreal junk dealer said to be crooked (though not everyone in Posner's book accepts that judgment), set up the marriage to Lily Rosenberg, the daughter of a learned Hasidic rabbi. Lily, too, was a victim. For the rest of her life she remained angry at her father for marrying her off to someone so inferior, socially and intellectually.
It was an Old World idea, the joining of two realms, learning and commerce. Probably it seemed sensible in 1922, but Moses was no businessman. He went broke in the Depression and later was often out of work. His many failings, and his wife's contempt for him, produced a family pathology. Relatives quoted by Posner make Richler's childhood sound far uglier than the echoes of it to be found in his fiction. The parents' divorce left profound bitterness. Lily's anger eventually turned against everyone near her, helping create a permanent break with her son Mordecai.
Posner conducted dozens of interviews with Richler's friends, family and colleagues, used tapes Richler made before his death in 2001, and organized the material into the various phases of his life. The book takes an honourable place in a tradition that includes Merle Miller's Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman, Jeffrey Potter's To a Violent Grave: An Oral Biography of Jackson Pollock and George Plimpton's book on Truman Capote.
Posner brings to this format the skills of an expert feature writer and the passions of a long-time Richler reader. As one of the dozens of Richler friends and colleagues he interviewed, I can report that he follows the main rule governing this kind of research: Let people keep talking till they forget their self-importance and actually say something. As a reader of his book I can also testify that he knows oral biography, like oral history of any kind, requires ruthless editing.
The Last Honest Man takes us closer to Richler, both the professional and the private man, than anything else in print. Along the way we watch the young would-be author picking up fresh reasons to nourish thoughts of revenge. Typically, a woman who knew him in college remembers that when Richler dropped out, "someone said he left for England to write a novel. We had a good chuckle at that."
His daughter Martha remarks at one point on her father's drive and discipline, exceptional qualities rarely noticed by those who wrote about him during his lifetime. From an early age he seldom stopped working. Whether obscure or famous, clear-headed or hungover, Richler always went back to his typewriter, a ceaseless producer of words, an unrelentingly self-critical rewriter. He never made a fuss about being busy, disdained the computer and didn't employ a secretary. I don't think he knew how to turn on a cellphone. Yet he was among the most efficient of writers, quietly and steadily throwing off books, film scripts, newspaper columns and magazine pieces without number.
Posner, by carefully organizing the details of Richler's personal history, shows us how the work came out of the life. One time Richler mentioned to friends that he had written a book for children. That sounded unlikely, but the Jacob Two-Two idea turned out to be a long-running hit; it became three books, a couple of films, a TV show and even a terrific sound recording by Christopher Plummer. Like all his best work it emerged from his immediate surroundings, in this case his childhood comic-book memories and his children's personalities.
The Last Honest Man tells a remarkable story, at once melancholy, inspiring and triumphant. By the time Posner is finished we realize that much of Richler's life was a grimly determined act of reconstruction. He escaped from the wreckage of his childhood and adolescence by putting the Atlantic Ocean between himself and his memories. He then made a happy marriage (on his second try) and began building, first in England, then back home in Montreal, a family as different as possible from the one in which he grew up. He wanted to exist in a place where spouses love each other, children feel protected and fathers manage to pay the landlord, the grocer and the orthodontist, all the while maintaining the dignity that was so lacking in his childhood.
It must have felt like the recreation of the world, bit by bit. Some will call it a standard bourgeois aspiration, but Posner's research suggests that for the young Mordecai it seemed a remote and barely attainable dream. Richler's Progress recalls the saying that living well is the best revenge.
As for the readers of Richler's novels, we already know the most remarkable aspect of this whole saga: While he and his wife, Florence, painstakingly called into being the private milieu they both desired, Richler never for a minute forgot that his chosen duty was to write good books, a duty he performed in ways that left us all permanently in his debt.