How Montreal nourished the writing spirits of Moore, Richler, Weintraub and Yanofsky.
One of the queens of the French language, Montreal has historically thrown bouquets to writers of English. Sometimes begrudgingly. Sometimes exuberantly. In the 1950s, Montreal, "awash in alcohol" and aclack with typewriters, serves as the journalistic meeting ground of three amigos: one self-effacing Jew (William Weintraub), one pugilistic Jew (Mordecai Richler) and one reluctant Catholic (Brian Moore).
Journalists by trade and novelists by aspiration, the trio exchange high-spirited epistolary banter, especially when one of them is off to Europe for further education in the world. They allude frequently to Joyce (Moore especially), to Hemingway (Richler and Weintraub), and to F. Scott Fitzgerald (Weintraub), who beat them to Paris by a few decades. They keep in touch with Mavis Gallant and Norman Levine. One of the delights of Weintraub's Getting Started is his showcasing of the threesome's zestful letterwriting skills.
Weintraub bouncily scopes out the heady days of Montreal's English-language journalism and three friends who would rather be creating characters than reporting fires. The trio with brio dream and fantasize. They "think continually of those who were truly great." They quack about their betters, their ambitions and their books: what's coming, what's out, who says what about what's out. Gossiping school children, they encourage one another, prod one another, praise when it helps, damn when it's necessary.
Lightness is the norm, but occasionally one of the trio ventures into sobriety. Catholic Moore ("Bishop Moore," as he signs off) notes that Jewish novels put "a tremendous emphasis on the rituals the people follow and on getting ahead, educating sons, observing the laws, etc.-- but never any reasons for these laws-- no philosophy -- no theistic argument-- like telling how a machine works without explaining why it works."
"Rabbi Weintraub" volleys back: "You have noticed that most Jewish novels are more interested in sociology than religion, more Sinclair Lewis than Graham Greene ... There seems to be very little Hell talk. Perhaps there wasn't any need to invent a Devil with the Inquisitor or the Cossacks always around the corner." They jostle about the afterlife (big in Moore's Catholicism, unnecessary in Weintraub's Judaism). They clash over Israel, Moore attacking, Weintraub defending.
In Weintraub's Getting Started, a couple of years old now, honesty refreshingly bursts through. The trio are friends, but not equals. "Much as one rejoices in the success of friends, like Brian's presumed future on Broadway, it does nothing to lessen one's feelings of failure, selfloathing ... Actually, one of the principal roots of my gloom was envy of the triumphs of Brian and Mordecai as compared with my own puny accomplishments."
Richler and Moore think more continually of being great than Weintraub does. Richler's talent lay in his gift for satire. In critic Russell Brown's comment, quoted in George Woodcock's Mordecai Richler, he "left no sacred cow unslaughtered."What he was not so good at in the early years was the creation of character, particularly female. In a letter to Moore, he writes, "I"m staking out a claim to Montreal Jewville." He acknowledges their "different temperaments, talents, etc." and his "congenital weakness in the creation of women characters." He admits that "I could never have written Judith Hearne." He waxes effusively that "only a few contemporaries, say Brian Moore, live up to what I once took to be the novelist's primary moral responsibility, which is to be the loser's advocate."
Moore, a little backhandedly, praises Duddy Kravitz, but "the thing is that while Duddy is great, some of the lesser characters don't come off nearly so well."Moore's talent lay in his ability to create characters, in his case female characters in particular-- a fact curiously glossed over in Brian Moore: A Biography by Patricia Craig.
There is considerable reference to Richler in Craig's biography; he has among the most references in the index. Weintraub enters less frequently, but no less tellingly. Craig quotes from his tribute to Moore at the Harbourfront Writers Festival in 1994: Moore's prose, Weintraub said, "besides being elegant, is wonderfully lucid and accessible. It's meant to be read, and not primarily to be studied."
Although Moore is Irish by birth and personality, he is Canadian by friendship. At one time, Craig writes, Moore makes the comment that he is "happy to be counted among a group of "creative Montrealers"," by which he intends Richler and Weintraub. Craig quotes a 1965 documentary film made about Moore: "If Northern Ireland had shaped him, Canada freed him to become a writer, London took a chance and published him, America became his home ... In the end, he derived a certain pleasure from the fact that he seemed to be unclassifiable by nationality, allegiance or literary practice."
With one home in Malibu, California (the not-so-secret dream of every Irishman), and another in Nova Scotia (partly to placate his Canadian wife), Moore-- ever the expatriate and extraterritorial-- always had his feet planted in two places, and always near water. "The places in which he felt most at home were by the side of oceans-- the West of Ireland, Amagansett, Malibu, and, later, the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia." Clearly, wherever the residence,Moore's sensibility remained north Irish. "His roots were in the North ... and a Northern outlook, with its pragmatism, enterprise, aversion to cant, its selfmockery and general drollness, was an inescapable inheritance."
One of the scars of the North has to do with religion. A Scottish acquaintance of mine teaching at Queen's University in Belfast once told me a story of his teaching an arcane point of early Scottish history. Someone in the class piped up and said, "Yes, that's all very well, but which group is the Catholics and which is the Protestants"" Ulster is so church-scarred that a study there of opposing groups in early Chinese civilization could lead to the same question. Moore not only wrote about the great divide in his novels set in Ulster, he lived it. Moore is a Protestant name; his grandfather was a Protestant who converted to Catholicism. "In a family of believers ... Brian was the odd man out, the maverick storyteller, the agnostic cuckoo in the prayerful nest."
Craig credits Moore for knowing very early on that "the only way to deal with Northern Ireland was to spend as much of one's life as possible away from it." In that respect, he followed his master, James Joyce, who had a similar aversion to the petty South.
For all the strengths of Patricia Craig's Brian Moore -- and there are many, particularly in the felicity of her phrasing and the charm of her storytelling -- given this Freud-spawned age, there is surprisingly very little analysis, never mind psychoanalysis, of Moore in relation to his family. Craig chronicles the disputes and the differences, including brotherly tensions, but does not scratch much beneath the surface. Moore believed, for instance, that his father died thinking him to be "a wimp" and "a nobody."How did that attitude affect Moore's fiction"
Illustration by Tom Pokinko
Craig makes very little mention of Moore's mother. She does note that in the early years he had "trouble distinguishing between his nanny and his mother."Where does the confusion about mothers lead in his novels" If his mother's presence was as slight as Craig seems to make it, how does her absence manifest itself in his fiction"
There is not much psychoanalysis of Mordecai Richler either in Joel Yanofsky's Mordecai and Me: An Appreciation of a Kind, but there is a great deal of self-scrutiny. Yanofsky lies on his literary couch and tells his psychiatrist (the reader) all about his infatuation with Mordecai Richler. A selfconfessed "literary stalker," Yanofsky goes in search of an unwilling subject (Richler not quite so unwilling as J.D. Salinger, Yanofsky not quite as hounding as Ian Hamilton). Yanofsky stalks lightly, but broods mightily. Why doesn't he recognize me" Why doesn't he remember my name" Why doesn't he see my talent" he asks himself in Woody Allen"esque self-interrogations.
He seeks out the famous writer at public readings, interviews him two or three times, rereads his novels, writes reviews on the novels, tracks down references to Richler in the press, worries about how Richler perceives him, and worries about the quality of his book on Richler. If Mordecai and Me were a Peter Greenaway movie, it would be called The Book of Worries. The worry is unnecessary. Yanofsky has written a good book: charmingly funny, excrutiatingly honest and consistently insightful.
While not as relentlessly light as Nicholson Baker in U and I (Baker's largely invented connection to John Updike)-- Yanofsky is too intense, too self-critical, too self-conscious for that degree of lightness-- Yanofsky performs his explorations of the self and the other in sprightly prose. Mind you, there are always parts of someone's conversation you enjoy overhearing more than others. There are a few annoyances. Yanofsky brings his dreams and his wife's interventions a little too frequently into the narrative, attempting to make these events seem spontaneous. They are far too staged for that. Consultation with a dream analyst, a shrink and a rabbi also seems a bit too stagey. Yanofsky is playing a game to lighten things, and the reader knows he is playing. Although willingly going along with the sport, the reader doubts the verisimilitude.
Yanofsky sees Richler's hunger. "A hunger that grows from being left out, insecure, unhappy ... He liked no word better than "charged"." He was ""charged with want"." He sees his love. "I"m much more interested in criticizing, always, the things I believe in or I"m attached to," Richler said in a 1971 interview with Donald Cameron. He sees the personality. Richler "makes no effort to impress you," unlike Yanofsky, who tries very hard to impress you. The two men are opposites in many respects.
Richler, at least in public persona-- aggressive, "rebellious, fiercely individualistic"-- is full of chutzpah and cockiness, while Yanofsky's persona is shy, hesitant, almost apologetic.
Yanofsky would have made a good Ulsterman, someone much more like Moore than Richler. Indeed, he characterizes his few interviews with Richler as 'strained and not especially illuminating" and his interviews with Brian Moore as "the polar opposite of Richler as an interviewee, approachable, forthcoming, charming, helpful, dapper."
Yanofsky relays Richler's mission "to be an honest witness to my time and place." He finds the perfect description of his subject: "a rumpled Zorro," which, in its way, is as fine as Richler's depiction of Canada as "the disgruntled progeny of defeated peoples."
With all their dissimilarities, Yanofsky and Richler have more than their Jewishness in common; they come from the same neighbourhood in Montreal and have heart-connection to a street Richler put on the world literary map: St. Urbain. At times, perhaps, Yanofsky identifies a little too closely with his subject. He bristles at Richler's exclusion from Professor Ruth Wisse's The Modern Jewish Canon. If the canon has room for the rebellious Roth, why not the curmudgeonly Richler" Yanofsky asks.
Yanofsky tells the reader a great deal about Richler: the family love in his late novels, the cartoon characters of his early work, his popularity in Italy (Richleriano has entered the language as a code-adjective for someone with no tolerance for political correctness: a great achievement for the scotch-drinking, cigar-smoking, satiric-talking grandson of a rabbi!), his relationship with his wife, Florence (Richler's first and most important reader, who did for Richler what Vera did for Nabokov and Nora did for Joyce: provided anchorage).
Yanofsky also tells a great deal about himself. The "me" of the book is as interesting as the "Mordecai." Yanofsky is a reader, a book reviewer, a bibliophiliac, a talker, an explainer, a prober. A little too mensch-y at times, reminiscent of Isaac Singer's character in "Gimpel the Fool"-- how can someone be this honest, this fair-minded, this modest"-- and yet the reader believes completely in his genuineness. Yanofsky acknowledges his doubts-- Is he a good enough writer" Is Richler a great novelist"-- and his wounds. His chief wound seems to be the father-wound. His father was given to self-pity; his father "lacked faith in himself," and some of that fatherly lack of faith has been visited on the son.
If Moore's father thought his son was a wimp, and Richler, the son, thought his father was a wimp ("My father never saw Paris. Never read Yeats. Never stayed out with the boys drinking too much"), Yanofsky's fear is that both he and his father are wimps. "I couldn't remember the last time I leaned against a bar," he writes about his encounter with Richler in a Montreal lounge. "I was a stereotypical Jewish male, a Jackie Mason joke. I had a better idea of what kind of cake to order than what kind of booze." It is not difficult to see why an insecure biographer would seek out a very (in appearance at least) secure subject. Yanofsky's way of putting this is: "I always had been and still was desperate for someone else's approval; Richler never was."
But for all their differences, Yanofsky does not shrink Richler down to his own perceived size. He does not occupy higher moral ground, as James Atlas did in his biography of Saul Bellow. He allows Richler to be his rumpled, dishevelled self who doesn't give a damn what others think. He sees Richler's "courage" and his "coldness" (Yanofsky's words). The "me" is fair to his "Mordecai," for my taste perhaps a little too enthusiastic about the novels, a little too understated about the journalism. Arguably, Canada has had better novelists than Richler, but has any journalist in our history written with more Swiftian bile and bite"
Yanofsky leaves the reader with his honesty. The reader feels that he touches a man in Yanofsky's account of Richler, not merely a book. "I needed Richler to be more compassionate in his work ... I needed him to be kinder and not just in his work. I needed him to be kinder to me." In Mordecai and Me, Yanofsky goes in search of a father and does not find him. What he finds instead is a self: an insecure, striving, yearning, flawed self, capable of clarity and courage. It is in his courage where the literary son (Yanofsky) most resembles the literary father (Richler).
J.S. Porter, born in Brian Moore's Belfast, is the author of Spirit Book Word: An Inquiry into Literature and Spirituality (Novalis, 2001).
Tom Pokinko is a graphic artist and illustrator based in Montreal. He has illustrated for the Literary Review of Canada and for the United Nations Association of Canada. His drawings have been featured at the World Summit on Sustainable Development 2002 in Johannesburg, South Africa. He can be reached at email@example.com.