Thursday, November 24, 2011

Grumpy Old Men (On Richler and Sendak)

At my Jewish high school in Montreal, Mordecai Richler, of course, was a bit of a hero. Whether or not he liked it, and even though he relentlessly lampooned the Jewish community, he was still one of ours. February at our school was public speaking month. So, every February, the teachers compiled and distributed a list of quotations to all of us groaning, gawky teenagers – possible speech topics from which we were to choose. Each year, not unexpectedly, writing from Richler’s books was excavated and placed completely out of context on this public speaking list. Richler’s “memorable quotes” could be read alongside pieces of wisdom from the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela.
A recurring favourite was a piece of dialogue lifted from a scene in Duddy Kravitz. Drunk Aunt Ida tells Duddy: “The human personality is like an iceberg. Nine tenths of it remains submerged.” Of course, our teachers chose this quote because it’s something all teenagers feel: misunderstood.  So, predictably, each year, earnest speeches of the you-don’t-know-me variety proliferated. We applauded our classmates and felt better about ourselves.

We had no idea where these words came from, so neatly pared down and packaged as generic “inspirational quote.” We didn’t know, but our teachers did. They knew that Duddy, by way of response, thought, Ver gerharget! or drop dead

They were making fun of us.

Appropriately, of course, because Richler was famous for making fun. The fragile teenage psyche certainly didn’t escape his mockery. He also ridiculed Pierre Trudeau, the Jewish community, the Church, the Montreal police, and other writers. Byron was a "sicko," Dylan Thomas "a schnorrer born" (that's a sponger, for those of you who'd like to add another Yiddish word to your vocabulary and help keep a dying language alive - alas! alas!).  Celebrated writers in general are "outrageous liars, philanderers, drunks, druggies, unsuitable babysitters, plagiarists, psychopaths, cowards, indifferent dads or moms and bad credit risks." He also gently mocked his friends, his family, and above all, himself. Have you read Barney’s Version?  (Have you at least seen the movie? I missed the one weekend it played in Fredericton because I was occupied complaining about how the local cinema never shows the good movies. But my friend Jacob went to high school with the lady who plays Barney’s daughter and I saw her at a bar one time. Just saying.)

Richler has been on my mind because another of my favourite curmudgeons, Maurice Sendak, has recently released a new book, Bumble-Ardy, and he’s had a lot of publicity. He's a popular interview subject because he makes these crabby pronouncements that the interviewer imagines will get her readers all hot and lathered and sending outraged e-mails. For instance, he tells The Guardian's Emma Brockes, of Salman Rushdie, "He's detestable. I called up the Ayatollah, nobody knows that." Brockes notes that Rushdie once gave Sendak a terrible review in The New York Times, and he's nursed the grudge ever since. So, you see, it’s really about him. Are they narcissists? Sure, but that is part of the game. The thing about Sendak and Richler is, they give offense, but with such a strong sense of self-mockery that it's hard to stay angry. My favourite moment in the Brockes interview is when Sendak says of his dog, an Alsatian called Herman, "He's German.” After a beat, he adds, “He doesn't know I'm Jewish." This kind of sweet self-effacement covers all manner of sins. Sendak pokes fun, and if you're not laughing, well, then, you're a tedious thing, aren't you?

I love these writers because their writing is iconoclastic. Sendak says that he refuses “to cater to the bull — of innocence”: the children in his books are as “ferocious, inventive and troublesome as they are in real life.” Richler just had everybody wringing their hands. I love these writers because their utter irreverence is so calculated. They are smart, incisive, funny, and totally uncompromising.

The knowledge that the author of Where the Wild Things Are is an irate (but mostly loveable) man comforts me. It gives me hope that I, too, could someday tread a little less lightly in my writing. I’ve had Richler and Sendak on the brain because, as I make progress on my thesis (honest, Ross!), I’m beginning to realize how much I censor myself. Instead of saying what I mean, I find myself writing into an idea(l). I try to be nice, or sparse, or pretty, when really, I would like my writing to be more like theirs – uncompromising, just a little. 

Sarah Bernstein
Editorial Assistant