Utter that sentence to any serious reader of Canadian fiction from a certain generation (say mine) and the response is entirely predictable: “Oh, you’ve been rereading Duddy.”
Yes, I have, and what a rewarding experience it was. First published in 1959, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz was Mordecai Richler’s fourth novel, but the first to gain widespread attention. In the half century since it was published, it has never disappeared from bookstore shelves and with good reason — it is as timely now as when it was first published.
Indeed, I would put forward the argument that The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz marks the beginning of the modern era in Canadian fiction (I know someone is going to dispute this with an equally good example, but that’s what comments are for). When it was published, iconic Canadian authors like Morley Callaghan and Hugh MacLennan were still writing, but their best work was behind them. Robertson Davies had published the Salterton Triology, but it was more English than Canadian — the even better Deptford Trilogy was yet to come. Richler’s Montreal-based colleague, Brian Moore, was building a bridge between Irish and North American fiction (his influential The Luck of Ginger Coffey would appear in 1960) but had not yet hit his stride. Margaret Atwood’s first volume of poetry would not be published until 1961; her first novel (the excellent An Edible Woman) not until 1969. Alice Munro’s first short story collection, The Dance of the Happy Shades, would not appear until 1968.
With this influential novel, Richler also, I would argue, presented a contribution to a very significant North American trend. J.D. Salinger had published A Catcher in the Rye in 1951, the novel that I think bears the most direct comparison to this one. Philip Roth’s Goodbye Columbus would be published in the same year that Duddy was. Bellow, Updike and Cheever were also publishing in the U.S. — Richler does not fall short in comparisons with any of them. If you like those American authors, you should also read Richler.
That is a very long introduction to a review of this novel, but I do think it is worth it — The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is an important book in the development of North American fiction and deserves to be recognized as such. I cannot recommend it too highly.
Duddy is a child of St. Urbain Street, Jewish Montreal, at a time when that ethnic group represented the immigrant class and St. Urbain was the neighborhood that would be home to Richler’s fiction for the rest of his writing career (although he does take some detours to “boulevard” Montreal). When we first meet him, Duddel is only fifteen and already developing his entrepreneurial “skills”, besetting a hapless teacher at Fletcher’s Field High School:
Since he had first come to the school in 1927 — a tight-lipped young Scot with a red fussy face — many of Mr. MacPherson’s earliest students had, indeed, gone on to make their reputations in medicine, politics, and business, but there were no nostalgic gatherings at his home. The sons of his first students would not attend Fletcher’s Field High School, either. For making their way in the world his first students had also graduated from the streets of cold-water flats that surrounded F.F.H.S. to buy their own duplexes in the tree-lined streets of Outremont. In fact, that morning, as Mr. MacPherson hesitated on a scalp of glittering white ice, there were already three Gentiles in the school (that is to say, Anglo-Saxons; for Ukrainians, Poles and Yugoslavs, with funny names and customs of their own, did not count as true Gentiles), and ten years hence F.F.H.S. would no longer be the Jewish high school. At the time, however, most Jewish boys in Montreal who had been to high school had gone to F.F.H.S. and, consequently, had studied history out of The World’s Progress (Revised) with John Alexander MacPherson; and every old graduate had an anecdote to tell about him.
Richler uses that section to introduce The Boy Wonder, Jerry Dingleman, who will become both the inspiration and curse that Duddy will face throughout the novel. The Boy Wonder proves that Jewish boys can make it, but they have to skate close to the edge — and occasionally cross it — to be able to do that.
“A man without land is nothing” may be Duddy’s inspiration but he did not invent it — the thought came from his shoemaker grandfather. It lodged, however, and nothing that the hero will do in the remaining pages of the novel will digress from it.
Teen-age Duddy heads into the Laurentians as a waiter at a resort (a Canadian version of the Catskill resorts) and discovers a lake surrounded by farms that may be coming up for sale. Land! He also finds a resort camp that he is convinced he can replicate — with improvements — on this land. He sees not just a camp, but an entire village (with appropriate development revenue), including a synagogue — remember, this is Roman Catholic Francophone Quebec. It would be a home, not just for his grandfather, but for his family. His older brother, Lennie, has beat the odds to become one of the few Jews in med school at McGill University. Duddy has found a passion that not only serves his own interests, it will become an essential part of the family history.
To accomplish this, Duddy needs to raise capital and it is in these sections that Richler’s salty humor comes to the fore. Our hero’s first effort is to produce videos of bar mitzvah’s, filmed by an alcoholic Englishman. He also imports pinball machines from the U.S., introducing the character of Virgil, an epileptic who is obsessed with the idea that Blacks and even gays have formed movements to forward their cause (remember, this is 1959 — Richler was ahead of his time in many ways), but the Health-Handicapped have been left on the sidelines.
Visitors to this site have a right to expect quotes and they are going to be disappointed with this review — you can open Duddy at almost any page and find wonderful Richler prose. Trust me, this is a book that rewards reading on every page. And as you become enrolled in Duddy’s quest (“A man without land is nothing”), you can’t help but join the journey.
Okay, I tested that hypothesis by opening the book at random — got page 138 — and here is an excerpt:
He phoned Yvette and told her he was sending her a check for three hundred dollars in the morning. He said he was making the movie for Mr. Cohen, but he didn’t tell her that if Mr. Cohen didn’t like it there was no deal. He was so happy about Seigal, too, that he didn’t realize until he got home that the Seigal bar-mitzvah was six weeks off and even if got paid right away it would be too late. He still had to raise twenty-five hundred dollars to pay Brault and twenty days was all the time he had. In the next three days Duddy visited eight potential clients. They were interested. Nobody showed him the door exactly, but first they wanted to see one of his productions.
I read virtually all of Richler’s novels when they first appeared and will admit that he had more passionate fans than me. He was a high-profile character across Canada and I never quite joined that group. The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is book two in my Richler re-read project (Barney’s Version is reviewed here) and it is a project that I intend to continue. Mordecai died in 2001 and, in some ways, has slipped from the radar since then. Barney’s Version is now being filmed and that will soon, deservedly, change. He is an important voice in the development not just of Canadian, but North American, fiction. And there is no better place to start than with The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz — a man without land is truly nothing.
A final note. I don’t usually promote buying books but there is a very worthwhile deal now available for those interested in Canadian fiction at http://www.chapters.indigo.ca. McClelland & Stewart was the publisher that brought modern Canadian fiction to the world and, to celebrate their centenary in 2006, they produced some very handsome hardback volumes of eight major works from that period (the picture at the top of this review is from that group — the covers have a similar pattern). The book trade being what it is, Chapters is now selling those volumes they still have on hand at a major discount (price is $10 Cdn a book). If you want a starter set of great Canadian fiction, there is no better place to go — I’ve read them all, reviewed a few and can recommend (and will be re-reading) the rest. The chosen books are not necessarily the best for each author, but are representative. Some are already sold out and others will follow soon, but consider a purchase — if you want a Canadian starter set, buy as many as you can find. The list:
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
No Great Mischief, Alistair MacLeod
Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels
Such a Long Journey, Rohinton Mistry
The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Mordecai Richler
Away, Jane Urquhart
The Book of Secrets, M.G. Vassanji