Wednesday, April 16, 2008

London, 1961: Mordecai Richler Meets Philip Roth

In 1961 Mordecai Richler was living in London. Ron Bryden remembers a dinner at Stanley Price's house where Richler and Philip Roth were vying to best each other in terms of who could be more obscene. (Roth won with an incestuous neuf-soixante-neuf in which Christmas lights played a significant role.) Price was a British screenwriter who'd penned Golden Rendezvous, Shout at the Devil, Boo Maroo, and The Time Before That; Bryden was an editor The Spectator, and had met Richler through his publisher Andre Deutsch.

The account of the dinner's related in Michael Posner's The Last Honest Man, but only in a very cursory way. Bryden points out that at the end of the evening "Roth said to Mordecai as an equal, 'Why don't you come back with me to New York and go into the Jewish business?'" That was nice of him. Imagine Roth and Richler in New York in the '60s and '70s, hating the same people, spilling grape juice on the same waiters. Not much Desmond Pacey could say about that.

Roth had published Goodbye, Columbus in 1959, and was about to publish Letting Go. Goodbye, Columbus and Defender of the Faith had made Roth famous, and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz had established Richler as an author whose books could actually be read.

Mitchell Schwartz, a screenwriter who worked mainly in television, was at the Price dinner, and remembers the evening as follows. This is, to my understanding, the only record of this evening--other than Bryden's brief reminiscence--that exists:

"Richler and Roth were horrifying everyone with their obscenities. The women at the table started to leave. During dinner. They just got up and left. Richler was making endless jokes about Roth's penis, which he imagined, for some reason, to be enormous. He'd turned to his wife and said something like, 'Have to get some teeth pulled for that one.' She was mortified, but he kept going, on and on. I was sitting at the opposite end of the table, and I had turned around to watch them. It was funny, in an adolescent way, and I didn't think there was much harm in it. Roth said something horrible about Freud, a retarded child, and a box of clementine oranges, and Richler spit Scotch and water all over their beautiful Jacquard-woven tablecloth. What I objected to was the arrogance with which they proceeded to speak about their own work. Richler was quite adamant to Roth that there was no Canadian writing worth reading. He could name about three Canadian writers, but that seemed to be all he needed. Roth didn't know anything about the field, so he was completely in Richler's sway. Richler told him that most Canadian writers were either priests or cocaine addicts, which I'm sure wasn't true. Roth said that Richler reminded him of something he'd once said about Emily Dickinson--that the only positive thing one could say about her was that she was a good speller. Later, I understand, Richler used that phrase in an essay about a Canadian writer, and became quite famous for it [Note: Richler's phrase referred to F.P. Grove.]

"The problem with Roth was that he'd made quite a lot of money off the sale of the rights to his short stories. [Goodbye, Columbus was made into a film in 1969; Richard Benjamin starred alongside Ali MacGraw and Jack Klugman.] I'm talking about film rights. And he's not a particularly modest person to begin with. He speaks in a very deliberate way, and you get the sense that he's rehearsed everything, countless times, in the shower or before he falls asleep. He was teasing Richler's desire for Canadian sales. Roth had received a huge advance on his next book, and Richler was writing for less money than some of the sign painters I knew. Finally Richler turned to him and said, 'There are twenty-five Jews in Canada, and three million in the United States. But at least yours can read.'

"But it didn't last very long. Richler's wife was a very proper, humourless kind of person. I've spoken to people who knew him--Richler, I mean--and they found their spousal relationship quite intolerable. He was uxorious to a terrible degree, and she maintained this image of strict, didactic Catholicism that reminded me of stories I'd heard from friends who'd gone to St. Paul's--which is a very famous school in London. I don't mean that she was religious; rather, I mean that she was quite by-the-rules. I've heard stories to the extent that she often corrected people who misplaced their pronouns. But she was a very nice person. Now that I've mentioned Freud, it occurs to me he might have had quite a lot to say about that relationship.

"We were having after-dinner drinks and she came in and requested that they leave. Roth begged Richler to stay, but he would absolutely not disobey or argue with her. It was, 'Dear, I'm a little tired.' And he got up, finished his drink, and shook Stanley's hand.

"After they left Roth tried to get Stanley to say something about Richler's work, and Stanley said his last novel had been very good, but the earlier stuff was shit. He wasn't sure which direction he'd go--back to the shit, or on toward something else. Roth, of course, hadn't read anything of his. He asked me my opinion, and I told him that I didn't think being Canadian would help him very much. Now I see some irony in that comment. It was Canada that, as Norman Levine said, made him. If he'd gone to New York, I don't think we'd ever have heard from him again.

"One coda to the story. Before Richler left he asked to use Stanley's washroom. He closed the door, we heard the flush, the sound of running water, and then he and Florence were off. About fifteen minutes later I had the urge, and I got up and opened the door, walked in. And Richler had pissed all over the toilet seat. Thinking back, I realize he was probably quite drunk, but just had a gift for hiding it well. And, of course, it being 1961, he got in his car and drove home."

Typical Richler; typical Roth. There's a thesis there.

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