When the young man emigrated to a new land to make a name for himself, he came down with scurvy. The year was not 1752 but 1952. Canadian Mordecai Richler had gone to Paris to test himself as an author. He lived in a mouse-infested flat on meager remittances from home until his meat-and-bread diet resulted in the nutritional disease that causes internal bleeding and brittle bones.
For Richler, 49, that was long ago and far away. He has published eight novels since, including Cocksure and St. Urbain’s Horseman. His newest, Joshua Then and Now (Knopf, $11.95), is being hailed in the U.S. as his finest; in Canada it is No. 1 on the best-seller list.
Yet, though he has twice been honored with Canada’s highest literary prize, the Governor General’s Award, Richler has a low opinion of the artistic standards of his native land. Its “self-indulgent cultural nationalism” licenses mediocrity, he laments. Richler established his literary reputation abroad before coming home to Montreal after 18 years.
Since then he has become equally celebrated in films. His screen adaptation of his 1959 book The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (about “a little Jew boy on the make,” as a character in the film inelegantly puts it) won him an Academy Award nomination in 1975—and no friends at B’nai B’rith. ABC bought television rights to the movie that same year for $600,000, but did not air a sanitized version of it until last month. “Most of the humor was drained out,” Richler complains.
He can console himself with the success of Joshua. The book covers 40 years in the life of Joshua Shapiro, yet another of Richler’s Montreal ghetto kids who succeeds (this time in sports-writing and TV) with all his eccentricities intact. When affronted, Joshua becomes a phantom avenger who bewilders police by prying labels from wine bottles in a pompous connoisseur’s cellar and removing the signature from an expensive painting.
Richler himself admits to only fantasizing such pranks, although he was recently observed barefoot in his country home, furtively lacing his 15-year-old daughter Martha’s fudge brownies with Delamain cognac. His writings have allowed him to buy the seven-bedroom haven overlooking Lake Memphremagog, 90 miles southeast of Montreal, as well as a London town-house and to rent a three-bedroom flat in Montreal’s most prestigious apartment house, Le Château.
It is a life of privilege far removed from the Jewish ghetto centered around Montreal’s St. Urbain Street where Richler was raised. His Orthodox father, Moses Isaac, worked as a junk dealer after marrying the daughter of a rabbi. “We were poor,” recalls Mordecai, “but didn’t really suffer.” When he was 12, his parents divorced, and a short time later Mordecai broke with Judaism. “I think my family was more shocked that I wasn’t eating kosher food at 14,” he says, “than they have been by anything I’ve written.”
In 1956, while living in Europe, Richler married Catherine Boudreau, a sometime secretary from Ontario. “We were good and reckless companions,” Richler says. When they divorced in 1959, she briefly became a Buddhist nun in Taiwan and he married a Canadian model, Florence Mann. They have five children, including one from her first marriage, aged 23 to 12.
In 1958, with three novels but no best-sellers behind him, Richler was living a threadbare existence in London when he was tapped to do the final—but anonymous—rewrite of Room at the Top, which won the 1959 Academy Award for best screenplay. Since then Richler has been able to supplement his income from novels as a scenarist. “Once you start writing, you become rather cunning about experience,” he says. “Everything is useful.”
For the last three years Richler has been one of five judges choosing the main selections for the Book-of-the-Month Club. He is currently working on a screenplay about New York for Warner Brothers and has returned to an unfinished novel.
Puffing on Schimmelpenninck cigarillos and endlessly rewriting on an Olivetti, Richler spends up to six hours a day at work—and longer when he gets to the final draft. “I may be ill-tempered for a week,” he worries, “and it has nothing to do with the family. Everyone is walking on eggs while I go through this. Writing is a wasting disease, and it’s mine.”