- Mordecai and Me: An Appreciation of a Kind
The cover blurb describes the subject of this book, Mordecai Richler, as 'our curmudgeon.' If curmudgeon was a persona that Richler was comfortable with, Joel Yanofsky - for all his admiration of, obsession with, and frank desire to be like, and liked by, Richler - chooses the complementary role of nebbish. One of Richler's functions for him is therefore as a corrective role model: 'I could have used a bit more Richler in me, a lot more, in fact. More drive, more chutzpah.' About the mismatch between the author he admires and the author he is, Yanofsky eventually reaches an epiphany when he encounters (though, characteristically, never gets around to reading) Harold Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence: '"All literary texts," the blurb on Bloom's book reads, "are strong misreadings of those that precede them. "When it comes to Mordecai and me what more did I need to know?'
As a self-described 'literary stalker,' Yanofsky is aware of his precursors in the genre of personal appreciation: he has read Mark Harris's Saul Bellow, Drumlin Woodchuck, Ian Hamilton's In Search of J.D. Salinger, and Nicholson Baker's U and I, which he aptly describes as 'more about Baker than Updike.' So are they all more about their authors than their subjects - and so too this book. Like the novelists (Harris and Baker) and like the poet (Hamilton), Yanofsky is responding not as biographer giving us a portrait of his subject and not merely as a critic surveying the body of work but as a writer looking for inspiration. He is also, we discover, longing for some sign of Richler's approval - vainly hoping, for example, that Richler will read and like his own novel when it appears. [End Page 394]
Given that I did not find Harris's, Hamilton's, or Baker's books entirely satisfactory, I was pleasantly surpised to find that I enjoyed Yanofsky's ruminations on Richler and his writing - despite his self-deprecating manner and his anti-academic bias. It helps that Yanofsky takes himself less seriously than do either Harris or Hamilton and that he is less taken with his own cleverness than is Baker. Yanofsky's accounts of discussing Richler with his wife, with his psychoanalyst, and with a dream analyst can become tiresome, but his writing is mostly crisp and sometimes diverting - as when, assessing Cocksure, he observes that its author 'has this much in common with [his protagonist] Mortimer Griffin: neither of them understood the kind of licence that passed for freedom in the late 1960s. The difference is that Richler didn't have any interest in understanding it. "Wherever I travel I'm too late. The orgy has moved elsewhere," he writes … But the truth is … on principle, Richler disliked and distrusted the vast majority of people too much and too universally to be able to find a group he would be comfortable with clothed, let alone naked.'
Yanofsky's strength is his ability to offer something of an insider's perspective on Richler's tangles with the city's Jews as well as on his later bitter feud with the city's francophones (which made Montreal Jews feel he was on their side after all). Yanofsky's experiences were rather different from and a generation later than Richler's but they still give an edge to his summaries of the community's uneasy reception of Richler's writing. His conversations with a Montreal rabbi add to this context, as does his account of a speech Richler gave to a synagogue. He contextualizes Richler's attacks on Quebec nationalism, reminding us that Richler had expressed tolerance in earlier remarks about Quebec separatism, viewing, and sympathizing with, the Québécois as underdogs - before the provocative New Yorker essay that later became the basis of his book Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!
Though Michael Posner's oral biography of Richler, published the year after Mordecai and Me, provides a more well-rounded and judicious response to this Canadian writer who made...