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Pity the People in Richler's Embrace

What if Mordecai the Brilliant and many other writers had left their families and lovers in peace?

By Crawford Kilian 15 Nov 2010 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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Richler mocked friends and relatives in his novels.

Two recent books that would seem to have little in common: Ian Tyson's autobiography The Long Trail: My Life in the West, and Charles Foran's Mordecai: The Life & Times, about the late Mordecai Richler.

Tyson is of course a legend of Canadian popular music, from 1960s folk to modern cowboy songs. Richler was the storyteller of Montreal's Jewish community, and especially of its rise from Depression-era St. Urbain Street to the Old Anglo enclave of Westmount. For all their differences, they both raise questions about the ethics of art.

Judging from these books, I would certainly prefer to have these men as friends rather than enemies. They could be very unpleasant to deal with, and even their friends had to put up with a lot. Tyson is a fierce right-winger, contemptuous of government aid to the arts. But he's a formidable advocate for preservation of prairie grasslands. Richler built a career out of being rude in print and in person, but he could also be strikingly sensitive and affectionate to friends and (some) family.

As biographies, both books could be better. Tyson is taciturn, saying as little as possible. Foran says too much, plodding through Richler's life as a series of trips to Europe, trips to Montreal, lunches with Conrad Black, and drinks with buddies. Richler's books and articles get little analysis except in terms of sales and media reaction.

But both books raise an issue that has troubled me as a writer for decades: Is it really fiction if you just tell the story of your family and friends with their names changed?

Resemblance to real persons is entirely intentional

Countless writers, of course have done just that: Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, and Scott Fitzgerald, to name just three Americans. That's why books still have those little warnings to ward off libel suits: "Any resemblance to real persons is purely coincidental."

Such books have become modern classics, solemnly taught to generations of college students. And plenty of pop songs have the same autobiographical theme: "You're So Vain" is supposed to be about Warren Beatty's priapic career, and "Julia" is John Lennon's homage to his mother.

I have two problems with such autobiographical fictions. First, they're an invasion of privacy. Second, they rely on our love of gossip rather than our love of truth.

Richler mocked his friends and relatives, especially his mother, in his novels. Though he mocked himself as well, he didn't alert the Richlers and Rosenbergs that he was going to build a career ridiculing their efforts to get on with their lives.

Autobiographical fiction is attractive to young writers unsure of their skills, but even as a major author Richler exploited in fiction almost everyone he encountered in life. Folan tells us that when Richler's wife Florence was about to read the manuscript of Barney's Version, he felt obliged to assure her that unlike Barney Panofsky, he had not been unfaithful to his second wife.

Ian Tyson's songs have their autobiographical elements as well, but he conceals them far better. "Four Strong Winds," he tells us, was inspired by a failed romance with a young Greek woman, but he composed it in New York in 1962 just to imitate what his buddy Bob Dylan was cranking out so effortlessly.

The cowboy as journalist

Other songs also reflect Tyson's unhappy dealings with women, but he doesn't condemn them -- only himself. "Cowboy Pride" is a criticism of Tyson's own middle-aged love for "that waitress/And she's underage and wild." When the waitress, much older, has left him, he doesn't blame her; in "Irving Berlin (Is 100 Years Old Today)," he just bursts out: "Good God Almighty! Is it ever going to rain? /Are you ever coming home?"

Like Richler, Ian Tyson is a hell of a journalist. In songs like "The Steeldust Line," "Spring Time in Alberta," and "Claude Dallas," he evokes in a few minutes what writers like Richler, John McPhee, and Truman Capote took whole books to convey: a culture, a land, an outlaw. And in songs like "Milk River Ridge," he can write purely fictional short stories.

Tyson says he gained his access to the culture of the West through the writing of Will James, not from youthful experience with roping steers and herding cattle. Like Don Quixote, he imitated in life the romantic heroes of literature. While many of his songs are autobiographical or journalistic, they're variations on a literary theme.

Like a good journalist, Tyson protects his sources. As a novelist, Richler and many others simply hang their sources out to dry. This seems to me an abuse of artistic ethics, an invasion of privacy.

The author as tattletale

It is also an abuse of art itself. If we know that a novel or short story is "really" about the author's awful wife or his friend's alcoholism, we read to be titillated, not enlightened. Ezra Pound famously said that "literature is news that stays news." Autobiographical fiction is gossip that stays gossip.

"Write what you know" is a truism of creative-writing classes, and of course we all know our families and neighbourhoods. But writers of fiction should also know what they read, and should be able to abstract good, original fiction from their lives and their reading.

I don't begrudge Mordecai Richler his success. He was a wonderful writer, and he would have injected a lot of bad-tempered common sense into Canadian discourse in this past decade. When he wrote nonfiction and polemic, no other Canadian could match him. He was truly a prophet honoured in all lands but his own Quebec.

Still, I wish that Richler and many other writers had left their families and lovers in peace, and demanded more of themselves than mere gossip.  [Tyee]

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