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1: MORDECAI: The Life and Times, by Charles Foran
Knopf Canada, 726 pages, $37. National Post, October 2010

Yes, this is it, the definitive biography of Mordecai Richler, one of the greatest role-model writers this country has produced. It reads more like a literary work than a scholarly one, as if flowing naturally from an immersion so deep that no note-taking was required. Yet the book is so detailed, so exhaustive, so astute and authoritative, that one can’t imagine there is anything more to add.
Biographer Charles Foran is a beautiful writer: a stylist. By 1948, he tells us, when Richler was a seventeen-year-old student at Sir George Williams University, already he was a “heat-seeking teenage journalist.” Within three years, Richler would be in France, working on a first novel called The Rotten People -- “a screed cross-eyed with self-absorption and judgmental to the point of being hateful.” A few years later, Foran tells us, Richler would be yearning to resume work on St. Urbain’s Horseman, “a book he had been writing for too long in his head and not long enough in his study.”
So the language sweeps us along. But let’s be clear. This 727-page door-stopper is written for readers who have completed Richler 101. Those who haven’t, and who might welcome a potted biography at this point, should refer to excellent biographies by Michael Posner and Reinhold Kramer.
Mordecai : The Life and Times is a tough-minded book worthy of its subject. It’s a warts-and-all portrait of the artist as street-fighter: ruthless, committed, and lethal when cornered or simply rubbed the wrong way. Of course the Saidye Bronfman anecdote is here. At the Montreal premiere of the movie version of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, she speaks from on high: “Well, Mordecai, you’ve come a long way for a St. Urbain’s street boy.” Our hero responds: “And you’ve come a long way for a bootlegger’s wife.”
Afterwards, in Foran’s telling, Mordecai’s wife, the long-suffering Florence – a Nora-Joyce figure but with brains and critical acumen – admonishes her husband for speaking to an elderly person in such a manner. One imagines him taking another sip of whisky.
Anybody avid to encounter Richler the Impaler need wait no longer than the preface. Foran serves up a 1973 speech in which the author, sounding like some Old Testament prophet, excoriates a Jewish student conference in Niagara Falls. Calling the students “moral and intellectual primitives,” he tells them: “Your Jewishness, unlike mine, is distorted, mean-minded, self-pitying, and licensed not by Hillel or Rabbi Akiba, but by urban ignorance. . . . I heard more anti-Gentile remarks here last night than I have anti-Semitic remarks in years passed in Gentile company.” Never had he “stumbled among such yahoos before.”
On occasion, the St. Urbain street scrapper had to take as good as he got. Poet Irving Layton, another combative Jewish Montrealer, called him “an establishment ass-kisser masquerading as a surly rebel,” someone who had decided that “it’s smart and profitable to retail family skeletons and to caricature Jews.” And after Richler mocked novelist Austin Clarke in print, calling him “a minor-league Leroi Jones” and a “self-advertised black militant,” Clarke wrote back privately, telling Richler he was bankrupt of ideas and imagination: “I was going to challenge you to a fight . . . and possibly kick your little arse, but again, I have this advantage over you, I am not running out of ideas, baby. You dig it?”
Such anecdotes and vignettes, and they are many, turn up like entertaining signposts along the way. Foran understands that for Richler, writing was both a vocation and a profession. And he understands, too, the literary jungle through which his subject blazed a singular trail, writing screenplays and journalistic articles, landing grants, doing whatever it took.
After two decades abroad, and while comfortably ensconced in London with his wife and five children, Richler sees fellow expatriate Doris Lessing lose contact with the real-world material that nurtured her. Appalled to find her writing about aliens and other worlds, and terrified that similar transformation might befall him if he remains abroad, he takes his wife to a fancy dinner and tells her they are returning to Montreal. Where Florence had fondly imagined living out her days in London, now she saw “the childhood and even identities of the children also being subjected to the exigencies of his creative work.”
Yet for Richler, renewed engagement with his home and native land was the only way to fly. Returning to Montreal gave rise to Joshua Then and Now, Solomon Gursky Was Here, and Barney’s Version. It also spawned Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!, a scathing parody of Quebec language laws that set a new standard for button-pushing in Canadian polemical writing.
Fully aware that Richler detested “psychobilge,” Foran proves fearless in probing his subject’s psyche. In his later years, Richler became so bitterly alienated from his mother that he would no longer speak to her. Foran suggests that this, and also Richler’s decades-long estrangement from his older brother, Avrum, derived from the same boyhood trauma.
In his late sixties, Foran tells us, Richler finally “delivered the news he thought his sibling needed to hear with a bluntness that was likely purposeful. ‘I saw them fucking,’ he said.” He was referring to his mother and a boarder in their home. As a boy of twelve, Richler had expected eighteen-year-old Avrum to return home from university and put things right. Instead, mild-mannered Avrum had accepted the new regime. “Had a half-century of fitful, uneasy contact between the siblings,” Foran asks, “been the result of that one unforgettable incident?”
In writing this book, Foran enjoyed unprecedented access to both the family and the archives of his subject, and it shows. He even turns up the Yiddish nicknames for Richler’s high school teachers. Indeed, one of the surprises of the book is the authority with which Foran writes about Judiasm.
The biographer casts a discerning eye over Richler’s various works. And he excels in serving up insider stories. Did you know that Doris Lessing had an affair with Ted Allen, and that Margaret Laurence followed George Lamming to London? Foran notes that Richler contrasted markedly with his writer-friend Norman Levine, a quiet, gentle man who “was not a natural hustler and fighter ready to defend and expand his turf.”
This is a portrait of a dedicated artist who raged against the dying of the light. As I finished this book, I felt tears rolling down my cheeks.

Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition by Paul Watson; and Minds of Winter by Ed O'Loughlin.

The headline is telegraphic: "How quest for Northwest Passage turned into search for tragic hero." It surfaced recently in The Scotsman, which was launching its 200th-anniversary celebration with a series of "greatest stories ever told over the last two centuries."
Since the 16th century, so the story goes, explorers had been searching for a northern sea route to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. In the mid-1800s, after Sir John Franklin disappeared into the Arctic with two Royal Navy ships and 128 men, the quest for that navigable Northwest Passage developed a double focus. Now, explorers sought to discover both the final link in the Passage and the fate of the lost Franklin expedition.
But already, with the word "discover," we have sailed into contention and controversy. I have long argued that during a single 1854 expedition, with the help of the Inuit, explorer John Rae solved both great 19th-century mysteries. Having identified Rae Strait as the missing link in the Passage, he reported, correctly, that the Franklin expedition had ended in disaster, with some sailors resorting to cannibalism.
To Rae's discoveries, scores of explorers, scientists and historians – among them Leopold McClintock, Charles Francis Hall and Frederick Schwatka – have added nuance, detail and clarification. Yet, at least one scholar suggests that "the gravitational pull of the Franklin disaster" distorts our understanding of exploration history. In a 2016 book called Writing Arctic Disaster: Authorship and Exploration, Adriana Craciun insists that John Franklin made only a minor contribution to Arctic discovery. And she questions the wisdom of celebrating "a failed British expedition, whose architects sought to demonstrate the superiority of British science over Inuit knowledge."
Craciun is probably right. And yet "Franklinistas" persist, driven variously by a yearning to discover some ultimate truth, by an ideological need to exonerate British imperialism or by a hidden agenda, as Craciun suspects, to open the Arctic to the oil industry. Certain it is that the Canadian discoveries of Franklin's two long-lost ships – Erebus in 2014, and Terror in 2016 – have triggered a tsunami of Franklin-related books. Among them, we find Franklin's Lost Ship: The Historic Discovery of HMS Erebus; Finding Franklin: The Untold Story of a 165-Year Search;and Sir John Franklin's Erebus and Terror Expedition: Lost and Found (coming in July).
Caught up in this tidal wave, two new works establish high-watermarks. In narrative non-fiction, we have Paul Watson's Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition. An award-winning journalist, Watson was on the search expedition that located Erebus, and subsequently broke the news of the finding of Terror. His new book is a splendid achievement.
In the first two-thirds, he delivers a lively rendition of the old familiar Franklin story – departure, disappearance, a decades-long search extending ever onward. He pays attention to Inuit place names, incorporates paranormal synchronicities, and brings key players to vivid life. The man can write. Yes, we hit a few glitches. The younger sibling of Eenoolooapik was not Ebierbing but Tookoolito. John Rae did in fact reach the Castor and Pollux River in 1854 before turning north. And the cook on the St. Roch expedition, Albert (Frenchy) Chartrand, died not in Gjoa Haven but in Pasley Bay on Boothia, where over his grave Henry Larsen built a cairn that stands even today. Small mistakes are inevitable in a work this size, and they don't come close to threatening the book's sweeping credibility.
The final third, highlighted by a sympathetic portrait of Inuk historian Louie Kamookak, contains much that will be new to most readers. It traces the evolution of underwater archeology in Canada, notes the singular contribution of David Woodman, and culminates in the discovery of the two ships. Along the way, Watson offers much to inspire debate. Some will remain unconvinced by the author's defence of those who, having located Terror, kept that achievement secret from their search partners for five valuable days. Others will dispute the notion that, if a few survivors did steer Erebus into a sheltered location, they somehow completed a Northwest Passage. Bottom line: Ice Ghosts is a notable contribution to the literature of polar exploration.
The same is true, in fiction, of Minds of Winter by Irish-Canadian author Ed O'Loughlin. Longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, this hugely ambitious novel touches on the Franklin expedition, but ranges widely through time and space. Van Diemen's Land, 1941; Lancaster Sound, 1848; King William Island, 1903; Ross Island, Antarctica, 1911; The Korea-Manchuria Border, 1904; Edmonton, 1932; Lough Neagh, Northern Ireland, 1942. We enter the wintry minds of an equally diverse range of fictional characters drawn from real life, among them Sophia Cracroft, Joseph-Rene Bellot, Roald Amundsen, Ipiirviq/Ebierbing, Cecil Meares, Jack London and even the Mad Trapper.
The centrifugal forces at work here are tremendous. Against them, to hold the novel together, the author deploys the structure that worked so well for A.S. Byatt in her Booker Prize-winning Possession. A contemporary framing tale focuses on a man and a woman engaged in a dove-tailing historical quest. O'Loughlin's characters, Fay Morgan and Nelson Nilsson, meet in the town of Inuvik, NWT, on the Arctic coast, where they end up trying to ascertain how a unique Arnold 294 chronometer, supposedly lost with the 1845 Franklin expedition, turned up in Britain in 2009.
Where Byatt manages to integrate the historical quest into her framing tale, the chronometer is a MacGuffin that recedes into the shadows after launching the whirling narrative. Almost every chapter, except for those set in contemporary Inuvik, features a new set of characters in a different time and place. The challenge is formidable, both for the author – who displays a prodigious imagination in creating, from scratch, one stand-alone scene after another – and for the reader. Those not steeped in the history of polar exploration may find themselves floundering in the wintry wilds.
Ken McGoogan
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Before turning mainly to books about arctic exploration and Canadian history, Ken McGoogan worked for two decades as a journalist at major dailies in Toronto, Calgary, and Montreal. He teaches creative nonfiction writing through the University of Toronto and in the MFA program at King’s College in Halifax. Ken served as chair of the Public Lending Right Commission, has written recently for Canada’s History, Canadian Geographic, and Maclean’s, and sails with Adventure Canada as a resource historian. Based in Toronto, he has given talks and presentations across Canada, from Dawson City to Dartmouth, and in places as different as Edinburgh, Melbourne, and Hobart.