Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Jewish-Canadian Cultural Icons: the lives of Mordecai Richler and Celia Franca

The Empty Chair and it’s ensuing explanation by President of PEN and author Charles Foran began the night on a reflective note. The atmosphere soon became lighthearted and jovial as Charlotte Gray, a biographer herself, asked a variety of interesting and deeply thought provoking questions.


Carol Bishop-Gwyn, author of the compelling biography The Pursuit of Perfection: A Life of Celia Franca, discussed how her biography may not have been published were Celia still alive,  describing Celia as “difficult” when the project was being worked on before her death in 2007. But both Carol and Charles Foran, author of  Mordecai: The Life and Times agree that their subjects had certainly wanted nothing more than to have their lives commemorated in some way. Both Franca and Richler left every note, letter, and scrap of detritus to the archives. Bishop-Gwyn emphasized that these personal letters and private diaries were how she discovered Franca’s voice in her writing, that connection that allows biographer to briefly understand their subject on a level that is not merely academic.


Gray raised and very interesting question about Franca and Richler feeling like outsiders as Jewish-Canadians; Franca facing anti-Semitism in Toronto decided to turn away from Judaism completely and certainly did feel like an outsider because of her “dark, sultry, Eastern atmosphere” said Bishop-Gwyn. Mordecai Richler however, as Foran tells it, internalized every aspect of the Torah and his faith and argued against it. However, Richler was an outsider in literature circles because he was “anti-everything”, said Foran. Foran goes on to say that Richler was one of many Diaspora writers in post-war North America working to bludgeon in their own mark. Foran describes them as “forcing themselves upon mainstream North America... they were the New World, and they were coming at you.”


Which is certainly something done successfully by Richler who has more than left his mark on Canadian literature. It is the humanity of the subject that shapes a biography. These surprises often fall into place when writing biography such as the 2,400 word letter that is at the heart of Foran’s book. He was only able to gain access when the restriction was lifted on it in the archives for a few days by Richler’s widow, Florence. This letter from Richler to his mother is one that ends their relationship and he makes it clear that they will never speak again. Foran describes it as “sorrowful, furious, indignant, regretful, unapologetic,” filled with a vast range of emotions but still eloquent and remarkably written.


Bishop-Gwyn’s moment of surprise and the thing which truly represents Franca's humanity was a short, pencil written, diary-like entry written around the time when she was being pushed out of the National Ballet, it becomes almost suicidal, Franca wondering what she will do now, commenting on how her husband does not love her. This woman who was the epitome of composure puts aside her mask for a moment and becomes a very vulnerable, scared woman. While these two moments in the biographies are very different from one another, they have similar impact: the reader and biographer are given a glimpse into the personal lives of a cultural icon.


As Foran said early on in the night, he does not say anything about being the authoritative source on the life of Mordecai Richler, but what he is trying to do, and what Bishop-Gwyn agrees she strives for as well, is the tactile experience of a life. Certainly the biographies achieve this experience, but the event itself gave one the sense that their subjects were manifest in the lives of the biographers, and this allowed them to portray with integrity who they were as they saw it.