I consider Mordecai Richler one of my favourite authors, though I have read shamefully few of his books. The books I have read are also not his most famous or acclaimed. The first I read was an NCL edition of Son of a Smaller Hero, which I borrowed from my uncle last year. I have also read an NCL collection of Richler’s nonfiction, The Great Comic Book Heroes and Other Essays. Son of a Smaller Hero was Richler’s second novel, and the first of many set in Montreal’s Jewish community. His first novel was the little-spoken-of The Acrobats, whose obscurity continues to pique my interest. Regardless, it is fitting that my second foray into Richler’s fiction is his fourth novel and his second centred in Montreal.
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz follows the increasingly unscrupulous ventures of Duddy Kravitz, from boyhood to early adulthood. The novel begins by chronicling the youthful, if often malicious, pranks being played on Duddy’s teacher, before advancing to his late teens. Driven by his grandfather’s maxim that a man is nothing without land, Duddy schemes to buy all the land around a hidden lake in order to one day construct a resort. The novel traces his ambition, and the moral arch of the steps he is willing to take to achieve his dream. The novel itself is excellent a deserving of its standing as one of Richler’s best. Since I recommend anyone who has not already read the book do so for themselves, instead of recapping its events I rather comment on a few choice details.
The novel opens with Mr. MacPherson, a once idealistic teacher whose desire to raise a generation of successful young men slowly gave way to reality. Although he succeeded in raising many students who moved on to become doctors and lawyers, they do not gather as he had hoped at his home and celebrate their success with him. Having forgotten their one time teacher they moved to more prosperous districts of Montreal. Mr. MacPherson’s wife is also deathly ill, despite his tender care. Mr. MacPherson is the victim of Duddy’s continual harassment and pranks, which ultimately result in the death of his wife when a prank phone-call results in her leaving bed and over-exerting herself. A once idealistic teacher thereafter renounces his prohibition on strapping students and begins drinking. In the later parts of the novel a character mentions off-hand that MacPherson eventually found himself locked away in the asylum, having presumably drunken himself there.
Richler was particularly unkind to the educators who appear in his fiction – at least those I’ve encountered so far. I was reminded of the fate of Professor Theo Hall from Son of a Smaller Hero, who takes in protagonist Noah Adler as a boarder and student, and has his wife cheat on him with Noah for his troubles. Both MacPherson and Hall are idealistic in their pedagogical views and goals, although they are each held back from achieving their dreams by being average talents. The comeuppance for their idealism is ultimately both failure and the loss of their partner. Perhaps the parallel is a coincidence, since I cannot detect any special commentary on educators intended by Richler, but I find it interesting.
Another archetype common to Richler’s fiction is the sullen Jewish grandfather, zeyda. In Son of a Smaller Hero, Noah Adler’s grandfather looms over the proceedings as patriarch and the secret of what he is hiding in the office lock-box has hardened his heart. Duddy’s grandfather is both less present and transparent, although he seems mostly disheartened by the (apparent) failure of his preferred son to provide him with grandchildren. It is the grandfather who relates to Duddy the maxim that a man without land is nothing, and by the end of the novel it is his disappointment that signals Duddy’s ethical failure. The old men in Richler’s novels often represent both tradition, naturally, but also the moral core of the story. In Son of a Smaller Hero, the grandfather’s most prized possessions were in the end sentimental rather than monetary, and in Duddy Kravitz the grandfather cannot approve of Duddy’s acquisition of land regardless of what it costs those around him.
Reading Richler’s nonfiction essays (in the NCL collection) was rewarding in that many are reflections on experiences he continually mined for material in his fiction. Quebec’s resorts feature prominently in Duddy Kravitz – Duddy goes to work at his uncle’s resort early on, and is determined to build his own after discovering a hidden lake. Although I could have surmised what was going on, Richler’s essay describing the Jewish and other get-away resorts in Quebec provided a background against which I could appreciate the setting of those portions of Duddy Kravitz. Likewise, another essay in the NCL collection contains Richler’s reflection on writing his first novel, The Acrobats, while a young man in Paris. I recognized this experience as mined for the character of Hersh, a schoolmate of Duddy’s who eventually becomes an author and travels to Paris. Although a bit-player in Duddy Kravitz, I hear Hersh returns as the protagonist of a later Richler work.
Having fallen behind in my blogging, I’ve already finished reading next time’s novel. So for next time, my first time reading Brian Moore.