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“Lose the pipe” and other lessons I learned from Mordecai Richler

September 2011

“Take that pipe out of your mouth—you look ridiculous!” Mordecai Richler barked at me during Happy Hour at Ziggy’s. “You look like I did when I was 14 and trying to act like a big shot.”

I almost felt like saying “Yes, sir!” because when Richler said something it stuck. What I thought was a novel attempt at quitting cigarettes stopped there and then.

Although another iconoclastic Jewish writer, Norman Mailer, was my first inspiration to write, Richler was closer to home. Reading The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz was something of a Montreal rite of passage. Through his non-fiction—as observant as he was contentious—I was impressed that a Canadian could be an “international man of letters” —such was this nation’s lamentable inferiority complex at the time.

He could inspire outrage with his opinions. While he loved Montreal, that didn’t stop him from criticizing his own Jewish community or, for that matter, the city at large: He derided our own fabulous Expo 67—our entry into the Big Time—as “a good-taste Disneyland.”

A flood of memories of Mordecai recently enveloped me when I read, back to back, two books on him: Mordecai: The Life and Times, by Charles Foran, and The Last Honest Man, Mordecai Richler, An Oral Biography, by Michael Posner. The first follows Richler’s life virtually month by month, while the second hones in on his personal proclivities (he was a man of habit and loyalty), as related by friends. The books made me glad that I chose the writer’s life, despite the anxieties (where’s the next idea coming from?) and insecurities (money), because, it turned out, he shared them, too.

I met him in 1968 when I crashed an exclusive “creative writing” class he gave for about a dozen students at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia), his old alma mater. His first question to us was whether we had read Fowler’s English Usage or Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. No one had, it turned out.

“Well, how about Dostoyevsky?” Again, nada. Five minutes into the course and Richler already looked exasperated.

Somehow I became a favourite student. It certainly wasn’t the short story I penned, some elliptical romance that he politely said “didn’t really hang together.”

Maybe it was because of my chutzpah at crashing his course even though I had already dropped out of the university during my first year—publishing my own little “alternative” magazine and getting rejection slips from numerous publications before I started placing articles on pop music and the nascent Youthquake in the Gazette.

Pop wasn’t his bag, but he seemed at least somewhat impressed by my penchant for searing the counterculture’s sacred cows.

I only saw him erupt once during the course. One student had delivered a 320-page manuscript—a novel—to his home. He slammed the tome on the table and warned, “Never, ever, do this again!”

At the end of the course, he invited his students to a cocktail party at the baronial house he was renting in Westmount. He told us he expected us all to imbibe, because that’s what writers did. (At that time, the strongest liquid I drank was tea.)

When I told him I planned to spend six months in London in 1969, he said, “Call me up and we’ll have a drink.” I remember leaving with quite a buzz on—from the gin and tonics surely, but probably more from being in the company of the great man himself.

Although he later confessed that it was ridiculous to “teach” writing—you had to nurture it yourself, through reading and studying and just plain living—that didn’t stop him from later accepting a lucrative position at Carlton University in Ottawa. After all, it was tough for a writer to help raise five children in the style to which he was accustomed.

In London, summer of ’69, I eagerly devoured Cocksure, Richler’s most ribald (i.e. dirtiest) book of all. For sentimental reasons it remains my favourite, probably because I read it in the large metropolis within which it was set, meeting its author there and, the capper, London being the scene of my first little journalistic triumphs.

That summer I sent back several large essays to the Montreal Star and got paid handsomely for them ($300 went a long way in those days).

I would read the printed product in Canada House while waiting for my own clipping to arrive by mail. Part of my deal (more like a dare) with the Star was that if I scored an interview with the Rolling Stones, I would get the job as the paper’s first full-time pop music critic.

Through sheer luck—Brian Jones quit the Stones, thus necessitating a press conference announcing his replacement—I got the interview, which the Star parlayed into a three-page spread, complete with illustration by Aislin.

Richler kept his promise of a drink (or two) at his favourite Sloane Square watering hole, and was impressed by my scamming the job at the Star. I felt a glow within me sitting in the wicker chair opposite my hero—I was already telling war stories! I was now a full-time member of the newspaper trade, an enterprise Richler loved.

Over the coming years we’d share the same friends and colleagues—editors Ian Mayer and Doris Giller, sportswriter Tim Burke, political reporter Hubie Bauch, and of course that notorious man-about-town Nick Auf der Maur.

I’d bump into him at Expos games, I’d see him at Ziggy’s or Winnie’s. He had the same crooked welcoming smile he greeted me with in London, but wasn’t a huge talker. I tried to steer clear of Quebec politics (the infamous sign law, requiring English lettering half the size of the French, really didn’t bother me).

One of the last times I saw him, there was a discussion among the gang about some picayune thing, and when I cracked, “It must be the French-Canadians’ fault,” he simply lifted his eyebrow. Better to talk about hockey.

Sometimes I just stared and gazed at this man with the leonine mane —in older age he really did look like a lion—and felt the world was a much better place with him there (and his reality checks).

Although he had a deep affinity toward Montreal and Jewish culture, he said he didn’t want to be known as a “Jewish writer” or part of a “special nation” (Quebec within Canada). He wanted to be known simply as a man among all other men. His iconoclasm was morally based and, as such, he was above all a humanist, warts and all.

In other words, a real mensch.



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