Monday, April 10, 2017

Favorite Books (2): The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz

Reading for Enjoyment

Here I briefly discuss one of my favorite books; this might be a continuing series.

“A man without land is nobody.” 
Mordecai Richler [1931–2001],
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959), p. 49

Duddy Kravitz: First Edition Cover (1959); André Deutsch publisher. I first read this book in high school, the first of the many novels and non-fiction essays that Mordecai Richler wrote in his almost five decades of writing. 
Photo Credit: Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University Library
Source: 100 Objects

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959), by Mordecai Richler [1931–2001], is his fourth novel. The book is set in post-war Montreal of the late 1940s, a generation before mine. It is a coming-of-age story of its protagonist, Duddy Kravitz, who is born into a working-class Jewish family, when Jews in Montreal are neither part of the English nor of the French business establishment. Duddy wants more from life, driven by a desire to be “somebody,” a universal desire, I would think.

He is animated by the advice “to own land,” given by his grandfather, Simcha Kravitz, an immigrant shoemaker from Poland who is well-respected in the community. The streets of St. Urbain Street and others of the area, including St. Dominique Street, become his master in keeping with Duddy as the apprentice learning his trade. Yes, Duddy is a hustler, a young man who justifies his dubious behavior, an antihero, but both his purpose and his means are well understood. This alone makes Duddy sympathetic in some circles.

The book, although not meant to be, is instructive on the ways of the world, notably on its definition of success and on becoming a mensch, a “man,” an individual of substance and means and if it could be earned or gained. It also touches on the need for respect, primarily from one’s father but also from the wider community. This speaks not so much about happiness but more about the need for affirmation and the knowledge that you have made it, that you belong.

Duddy seeks the main chance, where financial security is the means to be such a somebody—this includes entering a world where admittance was previously barred by old-time prejudices. Money is a great equalizer. It can be said that money might not make you happy or buy you love, but lack of money will make you miserable and lonely. In a choice between money and poverty, sane people will choose the former and do well by it.

In an insecure world, money brings a good measure of security. It takes knowing poverty to understand its fears and why it drives men so much to escape its clutches. Arguably, there is a “Duddy” in many of us, notably if the beginnings are humble, i.e., poor. Such a state is not sustainable and there is no getting around this or denying it by dressing “a pig in silk.” Poverty is still poverty, no matter how it is romanticized or viewed by those who have never felt its sting.

Mordecai Richler: On the steps of his childhood home at 5257 St. Urbain Street in 1979. This is near (north of) the corner of Fairmount Avenue  a short walking distance to Fairmount Bagel, a Montreal institution along with St-Viateur Bagel, a block further north. I frequented both establishments. This is part of a now trendy area of Montreal called Mile End; this was not so when I was growing up in this area in the 1960s. You will note the long staircases in the front of the two-storey rowhouses. 
Photo Credit: George Cree; The Gazette (Montreal) 
Source: The Walrus

Although I have never been a “Duddy” while growing up in Montreal, I did grow up in a working-class area on Park Avenue—a few blocks from St. Urbain Street, where a good part of the novel takes place. While St. Urbain Street and the surrounding area around “the Main” informed Richler’s writing and his views, Park Avenue, Fletcher’s Field and “the mountain” has likewise informed mine. There are differences, formed by time and space, but also many similarities.

Not surprising, this closeness to the Jewish ghetto is raised in an article (“My Dad, the Movie, and Me; September 12, 2012) that Noah Richler wrote about his father in The Walrus: “[A]nd immediately at the foot of this side of Mount Royal is Jeanne-Mance Park, formerly Fletcher’s Field, and the streets of the Jewish ghetto my father had moved away from but never left.”

Such humble roots also encouraged a desire among its inhabitants to achieve something and become a somebody. Richler, to his credit, did. In my case, I encountered individuals like Duddy in my neighborhood. I later worked for individuals like Duddy—many of whom did achieve a measure of success and financial security. They, too, were a product of their upbringing at a particular time and place in Montreal, a minority within a minority community.

Such is the way it was, and the book, although a novel, does a good job of showing how some people lived during a period of Montreal history. Moreover, the book, like Richler’s many other works, is funny and satirical. Richler was a satirist and he was good at his craft. He found humor in all the right places and struck all the right chords. Richler knew well the city of his childhood.

If you are not a Montrealer, you can still laugh and enter this circumscribed but very well-described world while reading this work—the writing is so rich; if you are a Montrealer, particularly of a certain age, all the more so.