Part of what makes Charles Foran’s new biography of Mordecai Richler interesting is the fact that Foran is himself an accomplished novelist, the author of such well-received books as House on Fire and Carolan's Farewell. As such, he brings an artist’s eye and ear to the proceedings, not to mention an intimate understanding of craft.

During his fieldwork  – which included unprecedented access to Richler’s family letters and archives – he combed through boxes of the research that Richler had compiled over the years but instead of the detailed notebooks one might expect, Foran says it was much more streamlined and even an aphoristic collection of data.

“There were little fragments of odd, surreal, violent reports out of newspapers. These advertisements for infertility banks and all these jokey things, sort of in the found humour variety. There are lists of characters. There’s lists of things that he looked like he might want to write about. He kept his books in his head – all the plots, characters, stories. He kept them for years. The actual notes were very spare. They were just a name, a place, maybe a date. From that, he could conjure the scenes and eventually the whole book.”

Mordecaiinset.jpgForan not only admired Richler as an artist, but looked up to him as public figure as well – envisioning him as the emblematic man of letters. Foran lived in Montreal for six years, residing only a few streets from Richler’s childhood haunt of St. Urbain. During this time, Richler was engaged in what seemed like a constant battle with the forces of Quebec nationalism, making regular media appearances. Foran also attended a lavish roast for Richler at the Ritz Carlton and was taken aback by the scope of the event. “He was a bit stratospheric for me,” Foran admits.

It’s a mindset that made Richler’s difficulties in writing his major novels all that much more dramatic, a process that Foran was able to see firsthand as he delved through the many rough drafts of the manuscripts.
“I was quite taken aback by how much struggle went into his four big books: St Urbain’s Horseman, Joshua Then and Now, Solomon Gursky, and Barney’s Version," says Foran. "The years he spent, the misfirings, the false starts – these books didn’t come easily to him at all.”

The most fascinating revelation in the biography comes from a lengthy letter that Richler wrote to his estranged mother, a searing indictment of what was clearly a traumatic experience for him: the affront of sleeping in the same room while she had sex with her boyfriend after Richler’s father had passed away. Foran showed the letter to Richler’s widow, Florence, and made the case that it had to be included in its entirety.

"I said to Florence, ‘Look, I don’t want to excerpt this, I don’t want to cut and paste it. I want to run it in it’s entirety. And it has to come on page 454 or whatever," Foran recalls. "In other words, the reader has to know what went into this. Otherwise, it could come across as cruel — and it is still shocking, that any child would speak to any parent in that way. But if you’ve spent 450 pages or so ... to my mind, it’s tender and ferocious and sad.”

Foran has written a big, rich book for a big, rich life – the story of a complex  and multidimensional man who, while often perceived as an acerbic and foreboding literary icon in public, was a kind and gentle family man who adored his wife and children and loved his close friends. Richler was not only a man of letters, but a true mensch as well, and Foran has done him justice.

Mordecai: The Life and Times is available nationwide from Knopf Canada.

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