Richler Room opens doors at Concordia

Florence Richler with son Jacob views the typewriter and desk her late husband Mordecai Richler wrote many of his books on.      [Janice Arnold photo]

MONTREAL — The manual typewriter, plush armchair and pine wood table that Mordecai Richler wrote on, along with the pictures, mementos and hundreds of books that he surrounded himself with, have been enshrined at Concordia University.

The Mordecai Richler Reading Room, on the sixth floor of the J.W. McConnell Building where the English department is located, was officially opened recently in the presence of the writer’s widow, Florence, and son Jacob.

The room is set up much the way it looked at the family’s Lake Memphermagog country home, except it’s a lot more pristine – the ashtray, for example, has been emptied of cigar butts.

Richler attended Concordia’s predecessor, Sir George Williams University, from 1949-51, and served as its writer in residence in 1968 and 1969.

There are actually two rooms: an adjacent one houses more books from Richler’s eclectic collection, everything from the literary classics and political non-fiction to a complete set of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s talmudic commentary.

In total, 6,000 books are now in Concordia’s possession, many of which are annotated by the late author. The great majority of Richler’s archives are housed at the University of Calgary, but Concordia now houses some of his papers as well.

The books and papers will soon be available for consultation by students, writers and the general public via an online database.

The space is both a permanent tribute to the late novelist, screenwriter and essayist, who died in July 2001, and an expression of the university’s determination that Richler’s work will continue to be the subject of study and research.

The personal effects were donated to the university by Richler’s literary estate, thanks to the effort of Concordia past president Frederick Lowy, who championed the project.

Richler was hailed as a “literary icon” by current president Alan Shepard.

“The creation of the Mordecai Richler Reading Room will ensure that his works continue to be analyzed, celebrated and critiqued for generations to come,” Shepard said. “We thank the Richler family for giving us this deeply personal collection and for understanding the importance of Mordecai’s connections to Concordia – both historical and philosophical.”

Richler “never shied from speaking his mind,” he said, and Concordia aims to be similarly bold.

The rooms are not really a shrine. They will be used for readings and other cultural events, master classes and short writing residencies. Visible at all times through glass walls, it is hoped the room’s presence will inspire young writers.

Jacob joked that this may be the first time a university has “posthumously honoured one of its dropouts,” doubly noteworthy since his son is also “a dropout from the same institution.”

He said it was his mother’s idea to somehow preserve her husband’s favourite work space after the Eastern Townships house was sold – a space, Jacob noted, he and his siblings were rarely allowed to enter.

Florence Richler, who did not speak at the opening, issued this statement: “It was my wish that Concordia be custodian of my late husband’s writerly possessions. Mordecai worked incredibly hard to leave behind a body of work that would endure. That legacy will be immeasurably strengthened” with the opening of the room.

Critics have observed that Richler’s novels have not been taught much at Canadian universities and have been the subject of scant scholarly attention since his death.

Two of his books are currently on the syllabus at Concordia. English professor Jessica Langston said she teaches The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz in her introduction to Canadian literature course, as well as Richler’s less well-known 1957 novel A Choice of Enemies. Duddy, which was published in 1959, remains popular with young people today, she said.

Financial support for the reading room project was also given by David and Ruth Steinberg, Beryl Goldman and the Felicia and Arnold Aaron Foundation. Alvin Segal, chair and CEO of Peerless Clothing, allowed Concordia to store the items free of charge in his warehouse for more than a year.

English professor Jason Camlot, who supervised the cataloguing of the books by 10 students said, “There are real treasures in this collection that researchers will want to consult, such as papers related to an unwritten, non-fiction book.”

The opening ceremony included the screening of a new short video about Richler narrated by Jacob. It includes a clip of his irreverent father declaring, “Imagine, a kike with a passion for something besides money.”