Thursday, November 09, 2006

Gopnik on Richler

I was all ready to cringe at Adam Gopnik's excerpt on Mordecai Richler in Macleans – so many writer-admirers get Richler wrong simply through being too, well, admiring. Gopnik, however, does an excellent job of mapping out Richler's precise boundaries as a writer, his limitations. (Admittedly, he tends to posit them simultaneously as strengths, which is fair enough, though I don't agree with the assertion that Richler actually outshone his British contemporaries). I was really knocked back by the passage below, because it gets at something I've been struggling to articulate for a while, in terms of what is missing in a lot of contemporary Canadian fiction:
Where the American Jewish novelists were American first of all – "I am an American, Chicago born" is how Augie March greets us – and could lay claim to a whole literature, to Melville and Whitman as much as to their parents' jokes, Richler, like the Australian and Caribbean writers, had first to show that what he was writing about existed at all. He had to show that a language and lore existed before he could attach it to anyone else's tradition.

The satiric, deprecatory tone that he shared with Amis and Braine was therefore allied in his writing to a larger ambition – he had to write about a city (and country) that didn't quite know it was one, about the manners of a tribe who hadn't been told they had them. The urge to inventory a reality that everyone else thought was merely a dependency, one that didn't really count, is present everywhere in his novels, and it creates an unwilled expansiveness, an appetite for setting down experience, that feels less claustrophobic than the worlds of his English contemporaries. It was the same tone, but they were describing a world shrinking inwards. He was describing one pushing out.

So he had to give form to a world before he could make fun of it, and the two ambitions were so closely allied – the affectionate urge to inventory a city and tribe already vanishing as he wrote of them; the satiric urge to mock their narrowness and pretensions – that they became indistinguishable.

(Emphasis mine.)

2 comments:

randwich said...

If that's true about Mordecai's Montreal, a place and time that I think had a distinct culture that didn't have to prove itself, what do you (and here "you" indicates the third person "on" in French, but also directly you, Nathan Whitlock)do about Toronto today?

nathan said...

Hey Mr Wich,

I done talked about that here:

http://tinyurl.com/y2vycp

and here:

http://tinyurl.com/yyrzpw