The Last Honest Man: Mordecai Richler: An Oral Biography

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9780771070235: The Last Honest Man: Mordecai Richler: An Oral Biography

Novelist, essayist, satirist, and iconoclast, Mordecai Richler made an international reputation with such contemporary fiction triumphs as Barney’s Version and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. His death in July 2001 prompted heartfelt tributes from around the world that acknowledged his humour, intellect, soft heart, and irrepressible curmudgeonliness.

The Last Honest Man documents the writer’s public and private lives through the words of his family and friends, colleagues and rivals, editors, writers, filmmakers, drinking pals, snooker buddies, and many others. To borrow a phrase from his long-time editor, Robert Gottlieb, this unusual biography captures the grumpy and the high-spirited man, the generous and the distanced, the enthusiastic and the sardonic, the hungry and the fastidious, the man who was awkward in crowded social situations but consummately at ease in Winston’s bar in Montreal.

Michael Posner draws on dozens of interviews conducted in London, New York, Montreal, and Toronto to present an unusual and compelling portrait of this complex man and artist.

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About the Author:

Michael Posner is an arts reporter and feature writer for the Globe and Mail. He is the author of three previous nonfiction books.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Although he had told Jack McClelland in January 1963 that he was coming home to Canada, the Richlers (now with three children) moved again that fall — from north London to the country. Florence found a large, rambling house in Kingston Hill, Surrey, about a half-­hour drive south of London, with a large backyard garden and a third-­floor office/study for Mordecai. Initially, the children were enrolled in the state school, but Richler was “horrified” by the results. “So like all good Socialists we ended up sending our kids to private schools.” McClelland was not pleased. “I’m skinned, but skinned, man,” Richler wrote, announcing the house purchase. To which McClelland replied: “What the hell do you mean you’ve bought a house? I thought your change in plans was temporary only. You mean you aren’t coming back here at all? How the hell are we supposed to sell your books with you living in England? Bill Bailey won’t you please come home.” Richler wasn’t joking about financial pressure. In the summer of 1963, he asked Brian Moore for a loan. Moore wrote him in agreement, saying he could lend him “$1,300 Cdn. in September, another $1,500 in October and perhaps another $1,500 in January.”

Richler’s books weren’t exactly flying off Canadian bookstore shelves. “What’s going on,” the writer inquired in one 1963 letter. “Is anything going on? I understand my book
[his fifth novel, The Incomparable Atuk] is still unavailable in any mtl bookshop except eatons. Man, this is disgraceful.” McClelland explained: “It just hasn’t caught on the way one might have hoped. Will sell 2500 — maybe less. Sometimes these things can’t be explained.”

Ron Bryden
I got to know Mordecai in 1961. I was literary editor of the Spectator in London. This meant I was wooed by publishers and got to know Diana Athill at Andre Deutsch. Andre, as an East European émigré, specialized in bringing in names from the east, while Diana recognized early on, very cleverly I thought, that the most interesting new writing in England were the boys and girls from the Commonwealth who were coming back to London — Mordecai, V.S. Naipaul, Dan Jacobsen from South Africa. Mordecai reviewed some books for us and then in 1962, the Spectator cleaned out all its lefties, including me, and moved far right... and I went to a rather nasty picture magazine called Town. One of my jobs became finding short stories, and I bought a short story that later became the first chapter of Cocksure. This, in a way, was his launch as a popular writer. I probably paid him fifty pounds. I think it was written as a short story and changed for the novel — very dirty and funny.

Stanley Price — a screen and television writer — gave a dinner party to which he invited me and my wife and Mordecai and Florence and Philip Roth. My best memory of Mordecai is this evening in Hampstead at Stanley’s dinner table, Mordecai having just published either this chunk of Cocksure or maybe the novel and Roth who was then cooking up Portnoy’s Complaint. He and Roth decided to have a contest to see how far you could go in obscenity. I can’t remember any of the obscenity, but it went pretty far, extreme for that time, and now it sounds silly. But I remember chiefly the faces of the three wives at the table — Roth was alone. Stanley’s wife, the hostess, was pale with horror that it was happening in her house and there was nothing she could do to stop it. Stanley wasn’t going to step in. There was my wife, who was just furious and hated it all — these offensive young men. And then there was Florence, who sat there smiling gently at it, like a mother who’d seen many small boys having pissing contests, not censoring anything. “This is small boys’ activity, let them be.” They went on for an hour so, vying in filth, saying the most unspeakable things. And wound up in it was this­is-a-necessary-activity­of-our-time, look at Lenny Bruce, who had shown us that this was one of the freedoms that had to be claimed, a frontier that writers had to explore, and here they were exploring it in competition. Nobody won. It was a clear draw in the end. At the end of the evening, Roth said to Mordecai as an equal, “Why don’t you come back with me to New York and go into the Jewish business?”

Stanley Price
Most people’s memories get worse with age. Ron Bryden’s seems to have got better. Whether it is still accurate or not is another matter. Although Judy and I knew all the dramatis personae supposedly at that dinner party, neither of us have any memory of it. But Ron isn’t quite right about a couple of things. Town, the magazine he calls “nasty” and of which he was features editor, was pretty good, an attempt at a glossy, semi­literary, photographic magazine, modelled on Esquire in its best days. He is also not right about me being a television and screenwriter. I was neither. I was a journalist and novelist, two books out at the time he is talking about. Whether this gathering happened or not, it certainly does have a great punch line.

Florence Richler

It didn’t go on for an hour, but for a while. It was quite funny. [The critic] Bamber Gascoigne was there too. It was done with a great sense of fun. There was great rapport between the two of them [Roth and Richler]. They got on very well. I remember Judy served Scotch eggs.

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