Mordecai's last words

Biographer Charles Foran on finding notes and scenes for the novel Mordecai Richler did not live to finish

Mordecai's last words

Ulf Andersen/Getty Images/ Tedd Church/Toronto Star/CP

March 2001. He’d had a notion for an 11th novel as far back as fall 1999. Starting then, he had asked [his wife] Florence to help find and clip newspaper articles of an unusually dark hue.

“More body parts found in Toronto park” was a headline from Dec. 9, 1999, that interested him. The same was true for “Affair with youth led to axe killing,” from a February 2000 edition of the Daily Telegraph, which opened with the line: “A father beheaded his neighbour with an axe after she gave birth to his teenage son’s baby, Birmingham crown court was told yesterday.” On March 27 he was fascinated enough by a Times piece about a man who killed a transsexual married to his daughter, and then “tied the body in chains and padlocks and weighed it down with dumbbells before pushing it out to sea on an airbed at Covehithe, Suffolk” to add it to the file. Florence knew better than to ask his reasons, but she had noted his deepening fascination with plastic surgery in recent years. An old friend who had had a facelift had approached him at a hotel, and he hadn’t recognized her at first. Another time, greeting the wife of a prominent film agent—a woman straining to look half her age through successive cosmetic procedures—Florence observed him kissing the waxy cheeks with clinical attention. Her suspicions were confirmed when he asked if she would ever consider having work done. She said no, and when he added, questioningly, “Why alter yourself?” she was fairly certain that he was indeed “novelizing,” as he had told [his editor] Louise Dennys. But then On Snooker came along, costing him nearly a year.

As well, in the autumn of 2000 he had asked [his son] Noah to order Making the Body Beautiful: A Cultural History of Aesthetic Surgery and Venus Envy: A History of Cosmetic Surgery, books that seemed on topic with that waxy kiss. Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America and The Perfect Heresy, a study of the Cathars, a Gnostic Christian sect in medieval France brutally suppressed by the Catholic Church, may have related to the grisly articles about violent crimes involving real or perceived sexual deviance. By the following March, he was writing lightly altered versions of those articles bannered with the heading “Ezra’s Journal.” Another entry was a transcribed excerpt from the historian Josephus, whom Richler had long considered an equal to Maimonides, if a less pronounced influence. Reading The Jewish Wars as a young adult had assured him that nothing was new under the sun, and that man was capable of any and all horrors (a passing remark made on safari in Kenya about the hyenas had struck a Josephuslike note in Florence’s mind). Now he wanted to use Josephus in the new novel. Drawing from a section in The Jewish Wars called “Horrors of the Siege,” he transcribed a brief account of how Syrian deserters, trying to hide their money by swallowing coins, would be cut open by Roman soldiers who “pulled the filthy money out of their bowels.” On separate pages he also typed out advertisements of the “found humour” variety he liked to collect. One was reworked several times.

More substantially, he drafted a scene [reprinted below] involving a character named Marv who visits the Garber brothers, Hymie and Morrie, proprietors of Fantasy Holidays (“Your Dreams Realized”) . . . Using his week in Sun City on assignment for GQ, Richler envisioned theme camps in the wilds of British Columbia where the affluent could play cowboys . . . And the fantasy holiday idea [Marv] is selling to the brothers? It is never clarified, and the 1,000-word scene, which exists in multiple versions, ends there.

Another fragment concerns a conversation between a father and son about the boy’s prospective bride. “Molly graduated cum laude from McGill,” the son says. “Her master’s thesis, on ‘Misogyny & the heterosexualist in the novels of Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth,’ won a gold medal.” The girl’s parents are notable as well: the father a lawyer with an honorary doctorate from Ben Gurion University, and the mother a painter who has shown on Greene Avenue in Westmount, and once sold a portrait to a Gursky brother.

A final story fragment involves a book publishing deal for a novel written by an older writer widely presumed to be washed up. “He’ll never deliver, they said,” a boastful editor notes.

“He’s past it. Now I’m cock of the walk. We’re not only talking sales here, possibly a matter of indifference to an artist of your stature, but Booker Prize. Congratulations.” He also got far enough into the manuscript—in his head, if not yet on the page—to jot down one of his content lists, signposts for how the story would unfold. He envisioned: what’s her bloodtype? / weight-watchers “That’s cheating!” / brothel / L.A. / poker game “I acquiesce” / UFO / Gay Pride Night / Romanian Baby Night / Bernie re train wreck / plastic surgeon / $50,000 womb / “youthalize” / Aztecs / Conquistadors / Josephus / Queen Elizabeth bk.

Taken together, and considering that he had promised Louise Dennys a substantial manuscript, all this suggests that the 70-year-old was embarking on a novel that crossed the plot riot of Gursky with the satirical savagery, or even phantasmagoria, of Cocksure. How it all fit together—Marv and the Garber brothers, the late-career writer with a potential Booker winner, the father and daughter with Gursky links, the disturbing contents of “Ezra’s Journal,” including “The Horrors of the Siege” from Josephus, those plastic surgery books and queries, the sale of Romanian babies and the “$50,000 womb,” let alone the Conquistadors and Aztecs and Cathars and photos of lynchings—was something Richler was still working on in early April. It looked to be years of work; he certainly would not be making his January 2002 deadline. If any overarching theme can be discerned, it may have related to his remark to Florence: “Why alter yourself?” Transformations, disfigurations, violations, acts of wanton violence; all kinds of defilements upon the body, upsets to the natural order of life and death, birth and aging, appeared to be—in these jottings, cuttings and notes—at the forefront of his mind. Montreal, Westmount, Jewish energy and insecurity seemed certain, as always, to run like a river through the whole, and the humour promised to be as outrageous and morally fierce as anything he had produced.

As yet, the novel had no title.

April 10, 2001. At the “Oldie of the Year” luncheon, Richler was seated at a table opposite his old friend Beryl Bainbridge. He liked [the monthly magazine] The Oldie, which offered a mix of short pieces, columns and reviews of mostly “senior,” mostly British writers. In an issue from the previous summer, Richler’s musings on gay rights had shared space with a review of the letters of Kingsley Amis and a novel by Malcolm Bradbury, as well as personal ads for residential homes for the elderly, a penile vacuum pump, and a dating offer by “Bucks, widow, 60, happy, healthy, and hopeful.” He liked the Oldie’s busy social calendar almost as much. Its monthly luncheons, with guest speakers and a start time of “12 noon for drinks,” or its larger annual banquet, both taking place at the venerable Simpson’s-in-the-Strand restaurant, represented the kind of relaxed, self-amused London literary culture that he appreciated. For all his grumbling about Cool Britannia, his love of this aspect of the city, and his pleasure in being able to participate in it, remained strong. Enjoying a long lunch with a fellow veteran novelist had much to recommend it.

That day, however, he found he couldn’t keep his meal down. Embarrassed, he left the hall. Beryl Bainbridge followed him, and a doctor who happened to be in attendance sat with him in the foyer, asking questions about his previous bout with cancer. A cab was called, and he returned to the flat in Sloane Court.

Richler’s last work

After her husband’s death on July 3, 2001, Florence Richler sold their flat in London and had their belongings, including boxes of papers from his study, shipped back to Montreal. When she invited biographer Charles Foran to go through the boxes, he discovered the following neatly typed scene, clearly from a work-in-progress, likely written in March 2001. Florence, unaware that her husband had signed a contract to write a new novel, hadn’t known of its existence. When Foran read the scene aloud, she laughed. “That’s Mordecai!” And readers should be aware that, not atypically, the scene contains strong language.

Marv decided to take his pitch to Fantasy Holidays (“Your Dreams Realized”), which was run by the Garber brothers, Hymie and Morrie. FH Ltd. shares, listed on the Dow Jones, had tripled in value since its 1999 IPO, and were still listed as a “buy” in many a broker’s newsletter, the brothers celebrated for their pizzazz. Among their most reliable, if least imaginative ventures, were the Boot Hill and Dead Man’s Gulch Ranchero Magnificos, both located in British Columbia.

Out there, in the high country, European accountants, dentists, bankers and brokers could mosey about in Western gear, tricked out as gunslingers, testing their skills in high noon shootouts, bronco busting of a sort and Indian raids, as well as in revivifying after-dark trysts with the Frontier Girls in the Last Chance and Pussy Galore saloons. The girls, largely imported from liberated Russia, accepted all major credit cards and awarded double frequent flyer points for the increasingly popular Breakfast Hour Jiffies and Nooner Hand Jobs. Many of the girls were on offer for take-home use, including marriage, at prices listed in a naughty $100 illustrated catalogue that had become a collector’s item. The brothers also ran several baseball and basketball and hockey camps in Ontario, where middle-aged guys (once they had signed a no-claims release against hernia and other mishaps) could suit up against former major league pros they remembered from their own often impecunious adolescence. In these camps MVP trophies were even more hotly contested than the favours of cheerleaders, who came in different colours. A recent innovation, doing boffo business, was Camp Gladiator, enlivened by orgies in Nero’s Palace, where strategically placed booths accounted for a nice turnover in Viagra tablets. Old Mr. Garber, who used to perform at bar mitzvahs and weddings, could often be seen wandering about there, sawing away on his fiddle, Hava Nagila the tune most often requested. Still on the drawing board, but already heavily booked now that the word was out, was King Arthur’s Round Table: “Draw the sword from the stone and win a night with Guinevere or a complete set of Black & Decker tools.”

Flinging Marv’s suede-bound portfolio across the desk, Hymie said, “For bad taste, your proposal takes the cake. I’m amazed.”

“We value our good name here,” said Morrie.

“I’ll bet if I had come to you with proposals for Survivor or Castaway camps you would have turned both ideas down. Hey, Hymie, if I told you I had discovered E equals MC squared, you know what you’d say? ‘So what’ is what you’d say. I’m wasting my time here,” said Marv, sweeping up his portfolio.

Hymie snatched it back, flipped through it, made a face, and passed it to Morrie.
“You’re joking,” said Morrie.

“I kid you not.”

“We see where you’re coming from,” said Hymie, “but Jews can be very touchy.”

“You know what the Jew who has everything will still fork out plenty for? A guilt trip. Take it from me. Our people will love it. So will the anti-Semites. You reel in both those groups and there’s hardly anybody left out there. I’m also thinking TV rights. The ultimate virtual reality show. Ratings that go beyond your wildest dreams. Forget the Super Bowl. I’m talking global.”

“You’re crazy, Marv.”

“You betcha. They were attracting maybe 6,000 stiffs to the ballpark on a good night. So when I told them about the promos I had in mind what did they say, those pricks? ‘You’re crazy, Marv.’ Yeah. Crazy like a fox. 40,000 fans turned out for both of those games and they also sold out on repeats. I’m a trailblazer. A master of postmodern magic. Marv Rosenbaum dares to think the unthinkable and makes it pay off bigger than big.”

“We don’t want the fucking Anti-Defamation League getting on our backs. Shit, you know what they’re like,” said Hymie.

“One summer,” said Morrie, “I took my wife to Stratford and the Anti-Defamation League was protesting the production of that play about the Jewish insurance agent in Italy.”

“Shylock,” said Hymie.

“You think I didn’t remember the guy’s name? I’ll thank you not to correct me in front of strangers, Hymie.”

“Me, a stranger. I remember when you guys were struggling. Doing parties for Westmount. Arabian Nights with that farty belly dancer, God knows where you found her. King Solomon’s Temple night. Hey, for the Farbers’ bar mitzvah you had the boy brought into the banquet hall in a sedan chair supported by four schwartzes, and the Farbers were furious because they had invited the finance minister from Jamaica, where they were going to build a hotel, and he walked out.”

“The Anti-Defamation League could be a problem,” said Hymie. “Shit, a Jewish guy gets sued for feeling up his secretary and what do their lawyers say? Remember the Six Million.”

“Listen here, we’ll hire that schmuck who wrote the kosher sex book—you know, Michael Jackson’s rabbi—to welcome campers with a sermon. He’s very broad-minded. As rabbis go these days, real cutting edge. Cocksucking is strictly kosher, he wrote—”

“Hold on there,” said Hymie, writing down the title of the book on his memo pad.

“Me, I read that page aloud to my wife, she said, feh. That rabbi also wrote—”

“Is that book still in print?” asked Morrie.

“I’ll send you a copy. Anyway, the rabbi also wrote there is nothing wrong with making a video of yourself shtupping your wife. You know, she’s in Florida, you’re lonely, maybe feeling horny, you can slip it into the VCR. Such a video is okay, the rabbi wrote, as long as you don’t go in for commercial distribution.”

“How could you resist such a money-making deal?” asked Hymie.

“An operator like you,” said Morrie.

“Hey, we’ve been blessed with three young children. I love them. One of their schoolmates shows them such a video of their mother busy down there and one-two-three she loses her parental authority. Eat your broccoli, she says. Oh yeah, we saw what you ate last night.”

“I thought she said feh to such a thing.”

Marv wiggled his eyebrows. “Anyway this kosher sex rabbi does draw the line somewhere. Let me give you a for instance. He’s against shoving a firecracker up your partner’s arse and lighting it.”

“That could be a fire hazard,” said Morrie.

“So, are you going to give me a green light, boys?”

“The best I can offer you is that we will fly it past a focus group.”

“Like hell you will. I want you to know I’ve mailed myself this idea in a registered letter. Dated. Unopened. You want to fuck with me I’m going to New Age Tours.”

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