Mordecai Richler

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The Independent Online

Mordecai Richler was through and through a Montrealer, writes Frank Gray [further to the obituary by Peter Guttridge and Carmen Callil, 5 July]. He loved the city for the poor Jewishness of St Urbain Street, the scruffy neighbourhood that was his playground and the source of so much of his writing material, wedged, as it was, between the Waspish, luxurious west end of the city and the poor French east end. He once wrote that while the Jews and French had little in common, one shared fear was that of the Wasp, which neither could understand. "You never knew what they were thinking," he wrote.

After the publication of St Urbain's Horseman Richler returned to Canada after years abroad and wasted little time in re-establishing himself as an acerbic commentator. He was angered at the kidnap crisis of October 1970, which started off with the kidnap in Montreal by French-Canadian terrorists of the British trade commissioner, James Cross.

Breaking into print, Richler thought the event a good thing for Canada in that it put the country on the world news map and ensured that French and English-speaking Canadians would have common cause by racing home early in time for the 6pm national news-feed out of New York, leading off with a story about Canada. Sure enough, on the day of the kidnap, 5 October, there was NBC's top newscaster Edwin Newman leading off with the story of the kidnap, bolstered by a map with an arrow pointing to Montreal.

Richler was cynical about Canadian and Quebec politics. In his short memoir, The Street (1969), he talks about how proud the youngsters of the 1930s were to be in a country so closely linked to the Crown and to have as its governor-general no less than the first Baron Tweedsmuir, John Buchan, author of The Thirty-nine Steps. This he thought was a fine thing till he started reading Buchan's works, in which he discovered a strong thread of the institutionalised anti-Semitism common in much literature before the Second World War. Richler found it difficult to reconcile respect for the Crown with affection for the King's representative in Canada.

This scepticism for officialdom was honed sharply in the ensuing decades under the long regime of Maurice Duplessis, the conservative and xenophobic Francophone nationalist who died in office in 1959.

Richler's anger at the way the province was going – again in the run up to yet another referendum on whether the province should pull out of the Canadian federation – blew up in 1992 with a massive essay, "Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!" It was published in full by The New Yorker, and then promptly put in book form (1992). The New Yorker, a weekly, said at the time that never had its magazine sold so well in Canada, and for months afterwards it was beseiged with back orders for the Richler issue.

Richler and his wife usually spent winters in London at their apartment off Sloane Street, returning to Canada for the spring and summer. When he relaxed, he liked nothing better than to drink his favourite Macallan's single malt whisky, smoke small Davidoff cigars and talk about baseball as it was – his favourite player was Sandy Koufax, superstar pitcher in the 1960s with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

I was incidentally acquainted with him over a period of decades, dating from the kidnap crisis, and last saw him, with shopping bags, in February, outside Harvey Nichols. He was pleased that the new premier of Quebec was the separatist Bernard Landry after the recent surprise resignation of Lucien Bouchard. "It's a good choice," he told me. "He's so extreme that even his most ardent supporters will desert him."

Once asked how he would like to be remembered, he told the interviewer: "Yesterday, the world mourned the passing of devastatingly handsome, incomparably talented Mordecai Richler, taken from us in his prime, aged 969." Alas, it was only 70.

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