KfC’s 2013 Project: Solomon Gursky Was Here, by Mordecai Richler

Personal first edition

Personal first edition

Including Mordecai Richler in KfC’s 2013 project of re-reading Canadian authors who influenced me was a no-brainer decision from the start. Like any Canadian reader of my era, I have known his fiction well for decades (and interviewed the man himself more than once). It was equally impossible to not be aware of his controversial political reputation — Quebec sovereignists have a one-man category of detest reserved for him. And there is no doubt that he is a special “friend” of the blog: The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is easily the most popular archived post here and Barney’s Version holds down sixth spot.

Having already reviewed those two popular choices did mean that deciding which Richler novel to include provided some challenge. In the final analysis, it came down to St. Urbain’s Horseman or Solomon Gursky Was Here — the first of those two is probably both better known and more typical of his work, the latter is perhaps his most unconventional adult novel. It has been some time since I last read Gursky and memory said that it had been a bit of a challenge — that was spark enough to convince me it was time for a revisit.

There are a number of traits that are present in all of Richler’s fiction. Growing up Jewish in Montreal is one, for starters. The plot line is always a rich stream, with the author usually enjoying pushing the envelope towards the bizarre. And in every book he uses those two over-arching themes as fertile ground in which to seed acerbic satire and grumpy, but often hilarious, observations on aspects of the current state of play.

All those threads are present in Solomon Gursky Was Here, but they come in different proportions than in his more popular works. The Gurskys are certainly Jews now living in Montreal, but that element doesn’t come with the usual familiarity of Richler’s St. Urbain Street — in this novel, they have roots elsewhere and have graduated to prominent global capitalism in the present. What is most distinctive in this novel, however, is that Richler pushes his many plots even further into the absurd than he usually does — and that does produce some challenge for the reader.

The unfamiliar ground is introduced right from the start. The opening takes place “during the record cold spell of 1851″ in Magog, Quebec, 75 miles east of Richler’s usual urban Montreal turf. The patrons at Wm. Crosby’s lakeside hotel (“Refreshments served at any hour of day or night”) observe a sled pulled by twelve yapping dogs emerge from the swirling snow:

The dogs were pulling a long, heavily laden sled at the stern of which stood Ephraim Gursky, a small fierce hooded man cracking a whip. Ephraim pulled close to the shore and began to trudge up and down, searching the skies, an inhuman call, some sort of sad clacking noise, at once abandoned yet charged with hope, coming from the back of his throat.

In spite of the tree-cracking cold a number of curious gathered on the shore. They had come not so much to greet Ephraim as to establish whether or not he was an apparition. Ephraim was wearing what appeared to be sealskins and, on closer inspection, a clerical collar as well. Four fringes hung from the borders of his outermost skin, each fringe made up of twelve silken strands. Frost clung to his eyelids and nostrils. One cheek had been bitten black by the wind.

Ephraim unloads his sled and begins to set up camp — including building an igloo. Just before disappearing into the igloo, he bangs a wooden sign into the snow in front of it: CHURCH OF THE MILLENARIANS, Founder, Brother Ephraim. The scene is stranger by the next morning: three more igloos have appeared and a community of “little dark men” and their families have settled in. For the watchful Crosby Hotel bar crowd, it gets even more confusing:

When the first evening star appeared they saw the little dark men, beating on skin drums, parading their women before them to the entry tunnel of Ephraim’s igloo. Ephraim appeared, wearing a black silk top hat and fringed shawl with vertical black stripes. Then the little men stepped forward one by one, thrusting their women before them, extolling their merits in an animated manner. Oblivious of the cold, a young woman raised her sealskin parka and jiggled her bare breasts.

“Well, I’ll be damned.”

“Whatever them Millenarians is it’s sure as shit a lot more fun than what we got.”

Finally Ephraim pointed at one, nodded at another, and they quickly scrambled into his igloo. The men, beating on their drums, led the remaining women back to their igloos, punching and kicking them. An hour later they were back, all of them, and one after another they crawled into Ephraim’s igloo.

Okay, some back story is required here. The conceit is that Ephraim Gursky was a member of Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated 1845 expedition to the Canadian Arctic — while conventional wisdom says no one survived, Richler fiction says not only that Ephraim did but he has moved back and forth between the Arctic and southern Canada ever since. And is the ancestral father of the Gursky empire, a family-run business which is now a major player in the global liquor trade.

That empire was created by Ephraim’s grandsons, Bernard, Morrie and Solomon, during the Prohibition era. Building off a stake Solomon won by stealing and risking the family “fortune” (meagre savings from his father’s rural Saskatchewan hardware business) in a Prairie poker game (one of his prizes was the deed to the local hotel), they eventually got into the liquor-running business in Western Canada, moved east to the more lucrative Windsor/Detroit run and when Prohibition ended were well-positioned in Montreal to move into the “legitimate” liquor business where they have done exceedingly well ever since.

(Aside: Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Canadian history of the era will immediately make the connection with the Bronfmans, the family behind the Seagram liquor empire, who started out as rum-runners and went on to become one of the country’s leading philanthropic families. And while Richler wrote Solomon Gursky in 1989, elements of the story that I am characterizing as “absurd” live on in the present day. Canadian Club, the rye whisky brought back to prominence as Dan Draper’s drink of choice on Mad Men, was distilled in Windsor and smuggled into Detroit, on its way to Capone’s Chicago. And one of the current Bronfman heirs is in the news as I write this with a bizarre child custody dispute involving the rapper, M.I.A. Some things really don’t change.)

Solomon actually disappears from the novel shortly after that poker game — a sled (apparently driven by Ephraim) arrives and takes him north towards the Arctic. A central uncertainty of the plot is whether or not he is still alive and just what influence he has on its various elements.

That uncertainty provides yet another story line in the novel. Moses Berger is the son of the failed Montreal literary poet, L.B. Berger. As a child, Moses lived down the Mount Royal slopes from the Gursky family multi-mansion estate and becomes obsessed with Solomon’s story from the first time he hears of him. Moses’ lifelong pursuit of that story introduces a whole new set of oddball characters with whom Richler can play.

All of that is a very rudimentary sketch of the various story lines in Solomon Gursky Was Here. Each features a pretty much independent set of characters (although there is some overlap), each has its own intricate plot developments and each provides the author a platform for digressions into cryptic observation or bitter satire. Richler loves complexity and detail and you can rest assured that he spares none of it in any of the story threads.

The problem that I had the first time I read this novel was that there is so much going on (and so many people doing it) that I had a lot of trouble keeping it all straight. Richler shifts focus frequently and without warning — particularly in the first half of the book, when he is establishing these widely varied stories, I felt buried in a wealth of detail and characters whom I only vaguely remembered. The parts were certainly interesting and entertaining, but I wasn’t getting much of a sense of the whole.

That frustration did settle down midway through the book (although, given that it is 557 pages, that involved a considerable investment of time) and I found the latter half much more engaging. I must say I did have a similar experience this time through (my third, perhaps fourth, read of the novel) but had the comfort of knowing that it all does eventually come together.

The jacket promo of my first edition of Solomon Gursky Was Here refers to it as Richler’s “most ambitious and mysterious novel”. I would certainly quibble with “most ambitious” (Duddy and Barney both have an admirable depth to them) — “mysterious” is fair if you accept that it has both negative and positive possibilities. Richler is generally a very accessible author but that is not always the case with this one. His canvas for this one is truly large — while all the parts show his considerable ability, for this reader the bigger picture does not come together quite as readily as it does in his more popular novels.

(In April, KfC’s 2013 Project again heads into “different” territory. The author, Margaret Atwood, is certainly familiar. But the novel, her second, Surfacing, tends to be overlooked in current day attention. I remember well reading it when the author was only coming to prominence — I am interested to see how it has weathered the decades since.)

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11 Responses to “KfC’s 2013 Project: Solomon Gursky Was Here, by Mordecai Richler”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    Hello Kevin: I haven’t got to Braney’s version yet–too many other things happening at the moment. I didn’t know that the author was a controversial figure. Why? Controversy always seems to impact readership

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Richler had no time at all for the Quebec separatists and their “independence” movement. The fact that he chose to write about it in American publications (like the New Yorker) made him even more of a target.

      His “personality” certainly had an impact (positive) on his readership in English Canada, but my evaluation would be that that political aspect was a relatively minor factor. He was outspoken about a number of other things (including his love of Scotch and the Monte Cristo cigars that figure in a couple of his works and the first edition cover of Barney). And he was very much a “boulevardier” in the Montreal scene.

  2. Shawna Says:

    Thanks for the review, Kevin! You did a great job of pulling together the different story lines and highlighting some of the complexity of the book. I’m still not totally sure why but this remains my favorite Richler novel, maybe just because I enjoy both Ephraim and Solomon as characters and I like the mysticism-meets-modern-day aspect of the book.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      You make a very good point. Unlike Richler’s other novels where the central cast is relatively small, this one offers readers a choice of potential favorites (Moses would be another one). Part of the challenge for me in getting into the rhythm of the novel in its first half came from the continually shifting point of view as he moved from character to character — I didn’t yet have a very good fix on some because there were so many of them.

  3. Kate Says:

    This book is sitting on my shelf waiting for a re-read some time in the next few months. I read it in my late teens and remember it as being very confusing but at the same time compelling. Thank you for this review, and it has pushed this book closer to the top of my TBR stack. I can’t wait to see how it stacks up for me 15 years after my first read.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I was surprised at how contemporary many of Richler’s asides and “cheap shots” were — the novel certainly was not dated in any way. And the confusing parts were easier for me to handle this time around, although the early parts still were a bit of a challenge in keeping everyone straight since I had forgotten a number of the major characters and even more of the minor ones.

  4. Guy Savage Says:

    Ok, thanks for the explanation. BTW, my cover of Barbey’s version is a scene from the film.

  5. Finn Harvor Says:

    “The jacket promo of my first edition of Solomon Gursky Was Here refers to it as Richler’s “most ambitious and mysterious novel”.

    I suspect part of what the copywriter was referring to was the length of the novel. Publishers and agents tend to have guidelines for how long a novel they will publish can be. These vary, but generally speaking 150,000 words seems to be an unspoken limit in Canada. SGWH is longer. There are other conspicuously long novels in the Canadian canon. But not very many. And all of them, as far as I can tell, fall into the categories of historical fiction or multi-generational family saga. Other literary cultures produce very long novels, too, and a lot of them also can be placed in these genres. But these cultures also produce novels specifically about contemporary life. (SGWH seems to me a hybrid in this respect.)

    I’m not saying that’s ipso facto better; I’m a big fan of well-written history. But I am saying that even when CanLit is ambitious, its tendency — or at least the tendency of those who decide what gets into print — is to ignore and/or squelch work whose ambitions go beyond the intuitively defined “acceptable ambitions” that predominate in the Canadian literary scene.

    IMHO, we’d have a stronger literature — and more high-profile canon internationally — if we published more long social novels specifically about contemporary life.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I am inclined to agree you that length played a part in that copywriter’s description — although I suspect the multiple plot lines were an even greater factor.

      I’d also say a quick search would lend to support to your point about length in general — a quick scan of Giller winners to date would seem to show that only A Fine Balance would be regarded as a long novel. Having said that, I’m not sure I would agree with the conclusion you draw — although I have to admit I can’t find any ready arguments against it.

  6. Beck Says:

    My god, that cover is lovely. Your review is really intriguing– I loved Richler in high school, but never gave this title a shot. I’m in the mood for some CanCon, so I think I’ll dig up a copy.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      The raven on the cover does feature as an ongoing omen throughout the book — I didn’t mention that in the review because it simply would have taken too long to explain. If you liked Richler in high school, this one is probably worth trying in adulthood — it will certainly bring back some memories (mainly when he dips his pen into a little playful poison) but also introduce you to a different side of the author.

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