American Literature, Writ Large

Thursday, March 30, 2006

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

The two great presences in 20th-century American literature are the Southern, which dominated the first half of the century and beyond, and the Jewish, which dominated the second. Without these our national literature would be more than satisfactory, but it would fall a long way short of what it is now.

What we forget, though, is that "American" literature means -- or certainly should mean -- something far more expansive. The entire Western Hemisphere is American, and a more generous view than those who inhabit this country are inclined to take would include far more under the rubric of "American" than we now permit. Among other things, such a view would enable us to acknowledge that one of the most important, interesting and accomplished "Jewish American" writers of the late 20th century was a Canadian.

Mordecai Richler -- born in Montreal in 1931, died there in 2001 -- began publishing fiction and journalism in the 1950s and made a name for himself with "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz" (1959), a hilarious and mordant portrait of a Canadian Sammy Glick. In the remaining three decades of his life, he published a succession of ambitious, intelligent and arresting if somewhat uneven novels, almost all of them dealing with his exceedingly complex and contradictory relationship with his own Jewish identity.

Among all of these, my favorite is "St. Urbain's Horseman." I had never heard of Richler when, in 1971, I had a call from an editor at the New York Times Book Review asking if I would be interested in reviewing his forthcoming novel. In those days the NYTBR's editors had the unfortunate habit of telegraphing their opinions of books before sending them to reviewers, and I was left with little doubt that they expected a favorable review of "St. Urbain's Horseman." An ambitious young journalist simply did not say no to the NYTBR -- which doubtless is still true today -- so I accepted the assignment.

It was a piece of cake. I loved "St. Urbain's Horseman." It seemed to slow down in a few places and to sag in others, but these struck me as shortcomings born of a desire to put as much onto the page as possible, an attractively bold aspiration at a time when American literary fiction was beginning its gradual slide into the jejune and lifeless. I reviewed the novel with honest enthusiasm, and ever thereafter approached each new book of Richler's with high hopes. Sometimes these were not met, as he was sloppy at plotting and organization, but even in his less successful books, the dominant qualities are humor, energy, self-deprecation and honesty.

Apparently the qualities one finds in Richler's writing were qualities of the man himself. No formal biography of him has been written, but a better alternative exists: "The Last Honest Man: Mordecai Richler: An Oral Biography" (2004), by Michael Posner, a Canadian journalist who interviewed 150 of Richler's family, friends and associates, and painted a vivid and surprisingly touching portrait of a difficult, self-destructive man -- his drinking and smoking finally killed him -- who was also loyal, loving, generous and kind.

Ambitious, too. In 1959, as "Duddy Kravitz" was about to come out, he wrote to a friend: "I'm staking out a claim to Montreal jew-ville in the tradition of H. de Balzac and Big Bill Faulkner." Later, while living in London, he said: "No matter how long I continue to live abroad, I do feel forever rooted in Montreal's St. Urbain Street. That was my time, my place, and I have elected myself to get it right," which is exactly what he did. He got a whole lot else right as well, because he had a keen understanding of the writer's true and proper role:

"Why expect writers to change society? If you want to change society, you go into politics, don't you? Most writers are not men of action at all. I pity the writer who thinks he's going to effect political change. . . . It's a moral act to write."

Richler did express powerful opinions about contemporary society and culture in his fiction, rarely more so than in "St. Urbain's Horseman," but these are commentaries, not calls to action. He was a strongly autobiographical writer, and over the years he said that this novel was the one he felt closest to, so it will be no surprise that it is filled with opinions that, though expressed by his protagonist, Jake Hersh, clearly are Richler's own. Since they are almost entirely my opinions as well, suffice it to say that with me, Richler is preaching to the choir.

As the novel opens, Jake Hersh, a child of the Montreal Jewish quarter, has gotten himself to London and made a success as a television and film director. He is happily married to Nancy, a beautiful and loving gentile, and they have three children to whom he is an attentive, devoted father. He leads what is in many ways a goyish life, but he cannot shake his Jewish roots or his Jewish identity. He is pestered endlessly by Harry Stein, an acquaintance whose misbehavior and failures both fascinate and repel Jake, and he is obsessed by memories of his charismatic, mysterious Cousin Joey, whom he thinks of as St. Urbain's Horseman, "a sort of Jewish Batman," wandering the world, "turning up wherever a defender is most needed" -- reminding Jake that he will always be a Jew and that there are scores to be settled.

Thanks to Harry Stein, Jake has gotten into a real pickle: a trial on charges of "rape, aiding and abetting sodomy, and possession of cannabis." Precisely how this has come about is revealed only in bits and pieces as Richler teases the reader along, being far more interested in the many things on his mind rather than merely chasing down a courtroom mystery. He was incredibly observant and loved to indulge himself in the sheer pleasure of words, as in this account of a meal with a proper British couple:

"Dinner commenced with hard-boiled eggs, sliced in half. Paprika had been sprinkled over the eggs and then they had been heated under the grill to suck out whatever moisture they still retained. Pamela flitted from place to place, proffering damp, curling white bread toast to go with the eggs. Jake washed down his egg with a glass of warm, sickeningly sweet, white Yugoslav wine, watching gloomily as Pamela brought in three platters. One contained a gluey substance in which toenail-size chunks of meat and walnuts and bloated onions floated; the next, a heap of dry lukewarm potatoes; and the third, frozen peas, the color running. Pamela doled out the meat with two ice cream scoops of potatoes and an enormous spoonful of peas and then passed around the toast again.

" 'You are a clever thing,' Desmond said, tucking in."

The novel is full of delights such as that, some of them escalating from funny to hilarious, and it is both easy and excusable to read "St. Urbain's Horseman" for the sheer pleasure of it all. There is more to the novel than that, though. For one thing, it is "the plaintive story of his American generation," born too late for World War II, too soon for Flower Power, a generation "squeezed between two raging and carnivorous ones. The old establishment and the young hipsters." Caught right in the middle: "What Jake stood for would not fire the countryside: decency, tolerance, honor. With E.M. Forster, he wearily offered two cheers for democracy. After George Orwell, he was for a closer look at anybody's panacea. . . . Increasingly, wherever he turned, Jake felt his generation was being crushed by two hysterical forces, the outraged work-oriented old and the spitefully playful young, each heaving half truths at one another."

Those words were written in the late 1960s and obviously were inspired by the quite specific outrages of that day, but they retain their pertinence because they stand for notions of civility that were endangered then and are even more so now. By the same token, there is a timelessness to Jake's "Jewish nightmare, the terror that took him by surprise in his living room, striking only on those rare evenings when he brimmed over with well-being, a sense of everything having knit mysteriously together for once, his wife, the children they had made, so that he could even contemplate his shortcomings, his failures, his own rot and dying."

"St. Urbain's Horseman" is about these matters and many others: mixed marriages that produce kids who "have a stake in Jehovah and a claim on Christ," the complexities and ambiguities of being Canadian, the indignity of aging, the thirst for experience. It's a flawed novel -- a bit too long, a bit repetitious, a bit self-absorbed -- but it's also a real grown-up's novel, by a genuinely grown-up writer. Such novels are all too rare these days, so when you find one, hold tight to it. Hold tight to "St. Urbain's Horseman."

"St. Urbain's Horseman" is available in a McClelland & Stewart paperback ($6.95).

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