'Biography' is, of course, a construction, one in which objectivity and transparency are conventions of the genre. The oral biography (which came [End Page 395] to public awareness in 1974, with Merle Miller's Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman) attempts to naturalize the form by reducing the mediation between the reader and the biographer's informants. While it creates a sense of immediacy and intimacy, there are potential limitations: oral biographies are collections of reminiscences that are subject to the whims of memory and the biases of their participants, as well as vulnerable to special pleading and score-settling. If the oral biography is not to become simply a collage of unmediated voices in place of the presiding and analytical voice of traditional biography, then the oral biographer must play a strong role as guide and shaper. In The Last Honest Man, the new oral biography of Mordecai Richler, when Michael Posner quotes Richler's desire to use his writing 'to impose meaning on just being here,' he could be announcing the guiding principle at work in his own book: mining the interviews he has conducted, he judiciously extracts and orders remarks to construct a dialogue and allows the juxtaposed voices to supplement, contradict, and correct one another. Between these, he inserts bridging summaries and provides needed contexts.
The individuals interviewed, Richler and those who knew him best, both give a full and generally sympathetic portrait and are engaging in themselves. It is no doubt a mark of the man that Richler had interesting friends - they include Ted Kotcheff, Brian Moore, Robert Fulford, and William Weintraub - as well as an intelligent wife and articulate children. More than a few of these speakers hold additional interest because they served as models for figures in Richler's fiction - or loaned versions of their names to his characters. Reading the book is therefore like encountering a novel not by Richler in which his characters continue to speak. (Some, like Richler's brother, may, as in any good novel, reveal more than they realize.)
As a reclusive man who nevertheless had a large public presence, one whose fiction and non-fiction were often a provocation both to his readers and to those who knew only them by reputation, and whose own narrative bridged the eras of Hugh MacLennan and Margaret Atwood, Richler is a natural subject for this kind of biography. He was defined by his contradictions-ex-pat and home-boy, scrapper and aesthete, mischief-loving rogue and devoted family man - in a way that fascinated his contemporaries. Posner, who agrees with Rex Murphy that 'the word novelist cannot contain Mordecai Richler,' sees himself as attempting to capture the man more than do justice to the work - 'to add to our collective understanding and appreciation of who he was and what he was about.'
Posner clearly likes his subject but he wants to paint a balanced portrait of someone who had such a reputation for being difficult that Guy Vanderhaeghe speaks of avoiding him because he thought of him 'as someone difficult, irascible, and perhaps somebody you wouldn't want to bump up against.' Posner's title comes from what he identifies as Richler's credo: 'Be as honest as possible about what you know.' If that honesty, combined [End Page 396] with an intolerance for individual and collective folly, meant that Richler could be hard on others, it also served him well as a writer. But as well as being willing to give offence to those he regarded as pompous or self-deceiving, Richler could be, as Posner acknowledges, unsocial and taciturn. (One gains insight into Richler's in-turned and sometimes brooding nature when Posner quotes him as declaring: 'I share Barney's notion that life is fundamentally absurd and nobody understands anybody else, but you make the best of it.') Posner devotes attention to Richler's drinking and smoking - treating them as vices that were a necessary part of his character but that also contributed to his death - and he also records the fact...