I read almost all of Richler’s books in my younger years and am thoroughly enjoying a disciplined re-read of his life’s work — and am equally delighted to see that a new generation is now discovering him. For those familiar with the best-known Richler novels, The Street is a bit of departure. It is a collection of 10 short stories and Richler did not write a lot of those — indeed, readers outside of North America may find it a challenge to locate a copy. Let me assure you, the slim volume is worth tracking down.
Those who have read Richler’s fiction will be aware that he constructs his novels in “episodic” fashion. Yes, there is an over-arching plot. But he develops it scene by scene and each of those is almost self-contained. The Street represents the flip side of that coin — it is not a novel, but the 10 stories that it contains could easily be read as a novel in draft form, scenes ready to be inserted into a bigger plot. Virtually every one illustrates why Richler deserves his substantial reputation.
“The Street” is where Richler grew up in Montreal — a Jewish community surrounded by the Anglos and French-Canadians. It actually involves five streets, all with subtle class differentiations (St. Urbain is the one that lives on, thanks to Richler), bounded by Main and Park — everything outside the small, self-contained community represents another world, if not a threat. In the introduction by the author to the volume that I read (you can find it at the New Canadian Library site here), Richler offers this explanation as a framing for these stories (I would argue that it frames his entire oeuvre):
On St. Urbain Street, a head start was all. Our mothers read us stories from Life about pimply astigmatic fourteen-year-olds who had already graduated from Harvard or who were confounding the professors at M.I.T. Reading Tip-Top Comics or listening to The Green Hornet on the radio was as good as asking for a whack on the head, sometimes administered with a copy of The Canadian Jewish Eagle, as if that in itself would be nourishing. We were not supposed to memorise baseball batting averages or dirty limericks. We were expected to improve our Word Power with the Reader’s Digest and find inspiration in Paul de Kruif’s medical biographies. If we didn’t make doctors, we were supposed to at least squeeze into dentistry. School marks didn’t count as much as rank. One wintry day I came home, nostrils clinging together and ears burning cold, proud of my report. “I came rank two, Maw.”
“And who came rank one, may I ask?”
For those who don’t know Richler, that excerpt tells a lot. His chronicles of growing-up-Jewish in Montreal were acrid enough that some called him anti-Semitic. Later on, his thoughts about Quebec separatists in a famous piece in the New Yorker were enough to provoke belief among some that he was a traitor to Quebec. For those of us who read widely, the response is far different — these are the impressions of an incredibly observant writer, who describes with precision the world where he grew up, its aspirations and its tensions. Mordecai was not a perfect person, but he certainly was an interesting one.
Consider, for example, his opening to “The Main”, a story about the boundary street (“rich in delights, but also squalid, filthy, and hollering with stores whose wares, whether furniture or fruit, were ugly or damaged”) of Richler’s St. Urbain-based community:
The Main, with something for all our appetites, was dedicated to pinching pennies from the poor, but it was there to entertain, educate and comfort us too. Across the street from the synagogue you could see THE PICTURE THEY CLAIMED COULD NEVER BE MADE. A little further down the street was the Workman’s Circle and, if you liked, a strip show. Peaches, Margo, Lili St. Cyr. Around the corner there was the ritual baths, the shvitz or mikva, where my grandfather and his cronies went before the High Holidays, emerging boiling red from the highest reaches of the steam rooms to happily flog each other with brushes fashioned from pine tree branches. Where supremely orothodox women went once a month to purify themselves.
The Jewish families shopped on the Main (“once a year before the High Holidays”) but for these adolescent Montrealers it also represented the first step out to a bigger world, the objective of every St. Urbain resident:
After the shopping, once our errands had been done, we returned to the Main once more, either for part-time jobs or to study with our malamud. Jobs going on the Main included spotting pins in a bowling alley, collecting butcher bills and, best of all, working at a news-stand, where you could devour the Police Gazette free and pick up a little extra shortchanging strangers during the rush hour. Work was supposed to be good for our character development and the fact that we were paid was incidental. To qualify for a job we were supposed to be “bright, ambitious and willing to learn”. An ad I once saw in a shoe store window read:
PART-TIME BOY WANTED FOR EXPANDING BUSINESS.
EXPERIENCE ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY, BUT NOT ESSENTIAL
We all have to grow up somewhere and, for those of us who grew up in working class neighborhoods in the post-war boom of North America, Richler’s adolescent world is an exaggerated reminder of that life (okay, one of my first jobs as a pre-teen was spotting pins in a bowling alley, worth a nickel a line). The way that he evokes Main Street as the opening to a “way out” brought tears to my eyes throughout the story.
If the tightly-knit world of the Montreal Jewish ghetto is one consistent of these stories, an equally important one is the never-absent presence of ingrained debt to family and friends (and sometimes community), perhaps best captured in “The Summer My Grandmother Was Supposed To Die”. My apologies for offering yet another lengthy quote, but I can’t beat Richler in the way that he introduces this story:
Dr. Katzman discovered the gangrene on one of his monthly visits. “She won’t last a month,” he said.
He said the same the second month, the third and the fourth, and now she lay dying in the heat of the back bedroom.
“God in heaven,” my mother said, “what’s she holding on for?”
The summer my grandmother was supposed to die we did not chip in with the Greenbaums to take a cottage in the Laurentians. My grandmother, already bed-ridden for seven years, could not be moved again. The doctor came twice a week. The only thing was to stay in the city and wait for her to die or, as my mother said, pass away. It was a hot summer, her bedroom was just behind the kitchen, and when we sat down to eat we could smell her. The dressings on my grandmother’s left leg had to be changed several times a day, and, according to Dr. Katzman, any day might be her last in this world. “It’s in the hands of the Almighty,” he said.
Grandmother might be dying, but that is not really what the story is about. Rather, it is a study in how a closely knit family, but one that is already feeling the tensions of conflict between generations, begins to discover the “rules” of what the new world is going to look like.
Overall, that insight pervades these stories: Richler is absolutely superb at capturing current reality, but his real interest is painting the picture of how things are changing for those who inhabit it, especially the young. I have gone on at too great length already but if you check out the collection you will also find thoughts on the impact for Montreal Jewish teenagers of the War in Europe, the Red Menace and Making it with Chicks. Not to mention frequent tangential visits to Tansky’s Cigar and Soda (“the regulars felt it was a good omen that the truckers and peddlars sometimes stopped there”) by the beleaguered husbands of the community, to play some cards, hang out and escape their wives.
If you haven’t read Mordecai Richler, The Street is not the best place to start (Duddy or Barney are probably better entry points) but do mark the collection down for future reference. If you have already read some or all of this master, this collection is essential — in shortish bits (137 pages in total and that includes Richler’s preface and an excellent afterword from William Weintraub), Richler develops some of the building blocks that will be essential to the novels that will be his lasting work. Truly, a gem.