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The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz – Mordecai Richler

August 22, 2011

“He writes with a swag.”

– Sorry, what was that?

“He writes with a swag. Him and John Ralston Saul.” I looked up from my book. My friend had clearly seen the title of the novel I was reading. We were in the mountains – I was reading, he was playing games with the other members of our wolf pack.

– I suppose so.

“I’ve never read anything by him. But the English teacher at the school I work at has always said that those are the two Canadian swag artists. He’s grizzled, smokes cigars. Reads a lot. He makes you think of England.” I wasn’t really following the logic of his story anymore.

– I just started. I’ll keep you posted.

This is how I was introduced to Mordecai Richler. In my hands and on the here-say of my friend’s tongue. Fifty pages later I closed the book (needing it to last another 5 nights, I had to ration my reading), looked up at their ongoing card game, and stated:

– I’m feeling the swag. I’m feeling like a man of 1950s Montreal, a Jew, fighting for my economic future against an ongoing tide of impossible factors.

They chuckled. So did I. Who says something like that in the mountains of all places? Did I realize how far away from that environment I was? And yet Mordecai Richler managed to send me there in the middle of an alpine paradise. Impressive.

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is the coming-of-age story of Duddy Kravitz, an ambitious young man growing up on St. Urbain Street in the heart of Montreal’s Jewish ghetto. A fascinating character whose sole goal, that of owning land, is handed down to him by his grandfather who loves but is somewhat disappointed in his own children.

We start with Kravitz being accused of having ruined one of his teachers’ life by causing his wife’s death. None of this is proven true, but it is clear early on that Kravitz is willing to do things that are almost entirely despicable to prove his worthiness – he is a young man in a sea of young Jewish men desperate t make something special out of himself. And the world of St. Urbain Street – with its host of memorable characters – provides Kravitz with all of the encouragement and disbelief to push him to follow his dreams. And little by little, he does.

In the summer after completing high school, he finds his land and starts to imagine how he can collect it. There is a lake, with trees, and hills, perfect for a resort and a kid’s camp. Lots of land around it.  As a young man lacking money, he can’t comfortably purchase the first plot when it comes up, but he does anyways. Managing to collect the money just in time. An event that pushes his ambition to higher and higher heights – and begins to show his immense desire to succeed by his own standards rather than those of the ghetto in which he was raised. He was going to make it, no matter the cost.

And this becomes the characters tragic-flaw. Though Kravitz is never presented as a hero, though he is always somewhat crafty, and willing to take advantage of them for his own gain, though he becomes increasingly desperate, you fall for him. He becomes an anti-hero that the reader roots for – you want him to succeed because, somehow, he has hints of an honourable person. You become infected by this need to read more and more and more – and find out the result. And the ending, while not entirely surprising, is disturbing – you feel cheated by a friend that you started to trust (an emotion personified by Kravitz’s on and off again girlfriend Yvette). And when, in the final pages, he feels as though he has actually achieved something, despite all of his shame, you are shaken by his inhumanity.

Do I recommend this novel? Absolutely. Its characters are so well drawn out. Duddy Kravitz is immensely complex, and his family is so bizarre and interesting. Richler’s dialogue booms with movement and swagger and movement – it feels like you are in a room overhearing a conversation. It flows and feels natural. And there are themes developed here – one’s desire to succeed, relations with parents and grandparents, one’s role in family, socialism and anti-socialism, trusting people even when they tell you not to – this really is a tour-de-force. And it is not all that challenging to read (though you realize it packs a punch with every event that takes place); thoroughly enjoyable.

I’ll read more by Richler. And I imagine I will come back to this book in the future. I was thoroughly, thoroughly impressed.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 22, 2011 7:10 pm

    I was impressed as well, though of the four adult novels I’ve read of him, it’s my least favourite. I’d put Barney’s Version above Cocksure above The Incomparable Atuk above this one.

    • August 22, 2011 7:15 pm

      Thanks for the comment John. My mom, who has also read quite a bit of his adult novels, has said the same thing – that there are far, far better books to his credit. I’m looking forward to reading a few others that I own by him – particularly Solomon Gursky was Here. The Incomparable Atuk also looks interesting, but with Barney’s Version having just had a movie release I’ll probably give that one a spin next so I can check out the film.

  2. August 25, 2011 1:33 pm

    Hey, that’s the review I would have liked to have written. I loved the book too. Barney’s Version is pretty good, and Duddy even makes a cameo in it.

    • August 25, 2011 2:33 pm

      If Duddy makes a cameo, then there is no reason not to check out this book. I really thought that he, as a character, was incredibly compelling. Perhaps this is because I am only just now entering my mid-twenties (24 still counts as early-twenties, right?) so the coming-of-age aspect of this story resonated with me. Nonetheless, I’d be curious to see how the character developed in Mr. Richler’s head – I assume he pops up as a much older version?

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