Friday, 20 February 2015

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordecai Richler

I can't find an image of the cover from the edition I read, so we'll go with this one. It's interesting enough, although the edges of the map (and Duddy's shirt) are a little indistinct. On purpose? It's possible to read far too much into covers, but I do like all the ads in the background.

This was a reread, slowly, over the last month or so. I am not sure what to say about it. I can't say it's my absolutely favourite Mordecai Richler - Solomon Gursky Was Here is probably that. However, it's certainly up there as an accomplishment, if not exactly a pleasure. Duddy is one of Richler's great anti-heroes, and because he is so thoroughly that, it makes him difficult to write about.

That, I think is the genius here, to make you like Duddy while despising him. Giving him moments where he goes above and beyond for his family, only to undercut it by doing something despicable moments later. There is no rise and fall. There are little jagged moments in either direction, as Duddy navigates a world that never works in quite the way he wants it to.

If you'll forgive me a weird digression, there are ways in which this has resonances with Lev Grossman's The Magicians. As in, if there were magic in Richler's worlds, Duddy would be just the right kind of dissatisfied with the world to go after it, even if he didn't have the dedication to sit down to the books.

That's because Duddy is all about the shortcuts, without even really perceiving they are the shortcuts. He sees no reason he can't go from who he is to the proprietor of a resort town within an incredibly short period of time. He's willing to hustle, but not to work his way up. That combination of industry with utter inability to buckle down to any one thing and learn it well is one of his most charming and infuriating features.

Of course, there are also the underlying themes of class and anti-Semitism at work here. Duddy keeps crossing the line, asking for things too brashly, not playing by the rules in ways that make those who make their money by the rules uncomfortable. But it's not what he's doing that's really the problem. It's how he's doing it.

His money-lust is too naked, too obvious. He doesn't know how to hide it, how to pass it off as a mere trifle, something that he'd like but doesn't really need, to really cosy up too close to wealthy industrialists like Calder. Of course, being Jewish, he'd probably be handicapped among the Anglo Montreal elite anyway, but still, he doesn't have the social graces that wrap greed in a mantle of indifference. Which is obviously not the same as not being greedy at all. If he'd been born wealthy, been trained, known how to bring Calder's attention to the scrapdealer without looking like he was invested in it, this would be a very different story.

It isn't that Duddy is different from many of those around him, Calder, the Boy Wonder, even his Uncle, for all his uncle's later efforts to be a moral wealthy man. It's that he hides it less well. And that's why he's an anti-hero. We sympathize while we wince, but we are more ready to forgive those who do the same things with a smile and a suit. Duddy will make his money, but he will always be just a little too eager.

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