My debt to Richler

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I didn’t have Mordecai Richler on my mind when I was working on my new novel The Art of Being Lewis. I was writing the story of a man’s apparently perfectly-constructed life disintegrating around him. And when I first began, I saw the story’s engine as being kickstarted by one or two great mistakes made by the main character, Lewis Morton.

So for my models, I read Conrad’s Lord Jim and Coetzee’s Disgrace. As I wrestled with whether to use the usual past tense that most novels are written in or the more immediate present tense, Disgrace also offered an example of a choice that suited the voice and style of my story.

But as I made my journey through the writing of the novel, it became obvious I was not writing a story about a character dealing with the aftermath of a clearly delineated disgrace of his own relatively quick making. Lewis Morton was a man who had over time, starting in youth, deliberately turned his back on his past, on himself, on his potential: a man who had built a well-ordered and outwardly successful life on a shaky foundation.

So when my editor Marc Cote asked me to rework the sequencing of some of the scenes, including the calamitous one in the park by the river, and asked me to restructure the flashbacks to Lewis Morton’s youth while he tries to make sense of his present life which is collapsing around him, he asked me which of Mordecai Richler’s novels was my favourite.

When I replied it was Solomon Gursky Was Here, Marc rather curtly told me to reread Joshua Then and Now. While the comically epic Gursky jumps jubilantly around in time and place, between centuries and continents and characters, Joshua has a fairly simple structure of cutting back and forth between Joshua’s present predicament and his unorthodox childhood and youth. It was very helpful for me to reacquaint myself with how Richler deftly manages the dual storyline.

I had read Joshua Then And Now when I was a young teenager. (And around the same time, when I was doing a bit of theatre, I had auditioned – unsuccessfully – for the part of the young Joshua in the Ted Kotcheff film of the novel.)

I came first to the book not as writer but as a reader. Although I was writing poetry at the time, novels were far and away in my future. Over thirty years later I had the great pleasure of rereading Joshua as a writer of fiction.

Then when I put in a little twist in the rewrite of the epilogue of The Art of Being Lewis, Marc noted – approvingly, I think – that this bit was pure Richler.

But it wasn’t until David Bezmozgis read the manuscript and praised the book as “a smart, funny and warm-hearted novel in the spirit and lineage of Mordecai Richler” that I began to appreciate in retrospect what I owed to the literary master of Montreal.

Something about the humour, admittedly, although I’m not nearly as funny as Richler, and certainly not satirical.

The trope of the middle-aged man dancing precariously on the edge of public embarrassment and humiliation, yes, but whereas Richler’s male heroes are wise-cracking intellectual tough guys with more than their fair share of exuberant self-confidence (much like Richler himself), Lewis Morton is wracked with ridiculous self-doubt.

The Jewishness, but without the hard edge. And while Richler’s main characters typically triumph in flamboyant fashion over the adversity that he strews with such zest across their paths, Lewis Morton transforms himself in an understated, although colourful way. (In fact, I think it’s the universal individual struggle to become who one is that is the central, recurring theme of my fiction.)

But perhaps the greatest debt I owe Richler is not so much to his example of style or themes or characters as it is to his conception of literature. And this was a seed that was planted relatively early.

Back in my early twenties, after suffering through the dry academic articles attendant upon a BA in Political Science, I decided to take English literature courses with the idea of qualifying to do an MA in English.

This was in the early nineties, and Gursky had come out three or four years earlier. I remember reading the novel for a course and laughing my way through it as I kept turning the pages to unravel its multiple mysteries.

The big lesson that book taught me – and it still amazes me that I hadn’t really learned it before because I had always been an avid reader – was simply this: literature could and should be nothing less than pure fun.

Literature shouldn’t be a slog. It shouldn’t require an outside interpreter to explain the significance – and sometimes even the basic meaning – of what you are reading. It should contain more solas than sentence, more pleasure and joy than anything that might be deemed to be intellectually good for you.

This was an invaluable lesson for any embryonic writer and one I try to live up to as a writer to this day. Hence an approach to plot in a literary novel that ideally keeps the reader in a state of healthy suspense and reading. A refusal to be too precious and self-consciously literary. A deliberate lightness with any deep “meaning.” I am proud of these qualities insofar as they have shaped my second novel.

After the manuscript of The Art of Being Lewis was completed and winding its way through the twists and turns of the publication process, my reward to myself for finishing it was to reread Solomon Gursky Was Here.

I laughed as hard and turned the pages as quickly as I did the first time around.

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