One of Canada’s most important novelists and a sharply opinionated essayist
Born in Montreal on January 27, 1931, Mordecai Richler grew up on St. Urbain Street in what was then the city’s Jewish ghetto and went on to become one of Canada’s most accomplished novelists and essayists. Some of Richler’s best known works, including The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, were at least partially set in the neighbourhood milieu in which he grew up.
Richler attended Baron Byng High School on St. Urbain Street (thinly disguised as “Fletcher’s Field High School” in some of his novels, and Sir George Williams College (now part of Concordia University), but did not complete his degree.
Richler moved to Paris at age 19 to follow the pathway of the “Lost Generation” of literary exiles of the 1920s. He returned to Montreal in 1952 and worked at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation before moving to London, England in 1954 where he began his career as a novelist with the publication of The Acrobats. Richler’s first seven novels were published during his years in London before he returned to Montreal in 1972.
In addition to The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Richler’s major novels included St. Urbain’s Horseman, Joshua Then and Now, Solomon Gursky Was Here and Barney’s Version. A collection of Richler’s short stories set on St. Urbain Street was published as The Street and he also wrote a series of Jacob Two-Two books for children. Several of his novels were adapted for feature films.
Richer also wrote myriad articles, reviews and essays for such magazines as The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The American Spectator and Gentlemen’s Quarterly and was a columnist for the National Post and Montreal Gazette newspapers.
As an essayist, Richler was known for his sometimes brutally honest political and social commentary. He zeroed in on Quebec nationalism, Quebec’s language laws, the separatist movement and Quebec’s history of anti-Semitism in an essay for the New Yorker which he later expanded into a book, Oh Canada, Oh Quebec! Requiem for a Divided Country, published in 1992. Some of the reaction to the New Yorker essay and book was highly anti-Semitic. According to son Noah Richler, his brother was harangued by a francophone journalist who yelled, “If your father was here, I’d make him relive the Holocaust right now!”
Richler received many honours for his work including two Governor General’s Awards, two Commonwealth Writer’s Prizes, the Giller Prize, the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour, and honorary doctorates from McGill University and Bishop’s University. In 2001, he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada.
Richler was married twice. His brief first marriage ended in divorce. His second marriage, to Florence Richler, endured until his death. Richler adopted Daniel, Florence’s son from a previous marriage, and they had four other children – Jacob, Noah, Martha and Emma. All of the Richlers’ children have pursued literary and/or media careers.
Richler died, at age 70, of cancer on July 3, 2001.
Throughout 2017, in celebration of Canada’s sesquicentennial, the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin is publishing a series of profiles spotlighting the contributions of historically important Jewish Canadians to our country. Previously in the series: