Mordecai Richler, an iconic writer whose career was as rich and varied as his persona was controversial and uncompromising, is almost impossible to sum up. A Montreal native, he spent almost 50 years as an influential essayist, novelist, screenwriter and children's author. His contributions to the Canadian literary canon and to Canada's conversation about itself are epic. The man loved whisky, the Montreal Canadiens and, above all, a good political fight. In the words of his long-time colleague Robert Fulford in his 2001 obituary for Richler in the National Post, "He once called a book of his essays Shovelling Trouble, and in a sense he was always in trouble - the glorious trouble of an author who tried to tell the truth whether it bothered his readers or not, and like every good writer enjoyed annoying as well as pleasing the public."
Richler was loved and loathed throughout his professional life, which began in earnest with the publication of his fourth novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz in 1959, a portrait of a young Jewish entrepreneur in Montreal, which he later helped turn into the Oscar-nominated 1974 film starring Richard Dreyfuss. Even though Richler lived in Britain between 1954 and 1972, Montreal was always his spiritual home and the setting for many of his future novels.
His most successful books include St. Urbain's Horseman (1971), for which he won the Governor General's Literary Award; Joshua Then and Now (1980); Solomon Gursky Was Here (1989), for which he won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize; and Barney's Version (1997), for which he won both the Giller Prize for Fiction and the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour. Richler was working on a script for the film version of Barney's Version when he passed away. The 2010 movie received seven Genie Awards and a Golden Globe for Best Actor for lead Paul Giamatti. Richler also wrote the screenplay for Joshua Then and Now (1985).
Richler was a famous curmudgeon, but he was a curmudgeon with fi ve children who were the impetus behind the addition of children's book author to his resumé in the 1970s. Richler's popular kids' book Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang (1975) received numerous awards, and was made first into a stage play and then a live-action movie in 1978 (with another version produced in 1999). Two more books followed - Jacob Two-Two and the Dinosaur (1987) and Jacob Two-Two's First Spy Case (1995) - along with a multi-episode animated TV series.
Richler may have been accidentally controversial, if there is such a thing, with his novels. His habit of portraying the Jewish community that he was a part of in a not-entirely flattering light, for example, didn't always make him popular. But it was in his career as a satirist and a journalist that he really engaged with the issues of the day. The various subjects of his hundreds of brilliantly penned essays, published in the most influential newspapers and magazines in Canada, the U.S. and Britain, range from Québécois and English Canadian nationalism (famously against) to sports and snooker (famously for). He published Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Requiem for a Divided Country in 1992. Richler was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 2001 shortly before his death. He always did like to have the last word.