I had mixed feelings about reading this book – on the one hand I looked forward to reading it because I so enjoyed Richter’s Solomon Gursky Was Here a few years ago. On the other hand, St Urbain’s was first published in 1971 and I’ve had problems with other novels of that era. That said – it’s the book chosen for the October discussion in the Booker Prize group so …
St Urbain’s Horseman
by Mordecai Richler
1971 / 502 pages
read by Robert MacNeil 13h 36m
rating – 7 – 1970s lit (I loved the ending)
Main premise: What’s a good upright middle-age and upper middle-class Jewish guy to do when his buddies from the hood seem to all be taking advantage of the new sexual freedoms and getting it on with whichever young thing has big boobs and a pair of legs? Ach –
But I started and sure enough – by Chapter 3 I was tuning out the 1970s sexist lingo. I had to read through a couple of reviews to see if I’d continue. I did, but it was out of loyalty to the group and the fact I’d actually bought the book rather than any interest.
Our angst-filled protagonist, Jake Hersch, is a 36-year old man, married with children, from Montreal, but living in London where he works as a director/producer in the film and television industry. The years were contemporary with the publishing – the very late 1960s , maybe 1971 – the times they were a changing with sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. And poor Jake wants in on the action but … he’s got principles and old Jewish ties.
Jake is a moral man, in love with his wife and very much a part of his own generation. He feels like he was born too late to be a part of the WWII generation and too early for the day’s hipsters. He’s squished into the middle, wanting the sex and freedom of the young folks – but the security of wife and family. He wants his family honor as well. He’s deeply envious of the lifestyle a few of his friends seem to be pursuing. Still, he’s not certain he wants to (or can) let go of the values he was raised with.
So his problem is really existential – how to be manly and free without losing your ideals in 1971? I see the satire, but it’s dated in the same way Playboy bunnies are dated. And the book just goes on and on and on to where Jakes seems to get a bit angry and somewhat mean-spirited in places.
** But that’s the point – Richler is saying that this “new age” (of hip, slick and cool – of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll) is vulgar and ugly. For a reader who experienced something different in 1971 that’s a huge turn-off. Jake wants to be able to fight this nonsense the same way his cousin Joey fights for truth and justice re the Nazis and the Spanish Civil War. (But in reality, Joey is not pure either.)
When the story opens Jake is involved in a court case due to the shenanigans of a con-artist he’s befriended named Harry Stein.
I think I was supposed to hold Jake Hersch in some respect and sympathy – I didn’t quite get there even though he didn’t actually participate in the wrong-doings of his friends. I felt kind of sorry for him – the way I feel sorry for the characters of Graham Greene and their religion vs sex themes. I don’ t think Richler or Jake is very clear about why Jake does not succumb.
Much of the story is made up of a series of backflashes to when he was growing up in lower class Montreal with his little Jewish gang of buddies. The stories then move to later in his life. Sometimes they deal with what his older cousin Joey might be doing – Joey is Jake’s deeply flawed personal hero and the eponymous “horseman.” But his heroics are all in Jake’s imagination. He’s supposedly chasing Joseph Mengele in Israel among other places. – (Living in days of old imo.)
Some of Jake’s friends are sexist to the point of misogyny and this novel is supposedly “realistic.” The women are generally true to an outline of young, long-legged, sex-objects with important breasts, etc. who throw their panties around and are generally the object of the men’s desires. There are some places where the narrative is just plain gross talking about defecation and nose buggers and other matters. Only Nancy, Jake’s wife, is a “nice lady” and that comes across as being about as life-like as cardboard.
Richler writes nicely although so much is “tough-cool” slangy dialogue it feels like a 1940s novel. Published 15 years later, Solomon Gursky Was Here had far more appeal, It was funnier. This seems like a specific coming-of-age story while Solomon Gursky was more of a generational saga.
Richler and Timothy Leary – in Google Books:
There also seems to be some anti-Semitism in that although yes, Richler is Jewish but the book is plumb full of Jewish “jokes” and pointed satire which doesn’t really sound right – it’s off in some way even if Richler says it’s satire and no one is safe. Might be a sign of the times a’changing and what was ok, is now not.
And this was on the same shortlist as Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor. (sigh) Fwiw, V.S. Naipaul’s In a Free State was the winner of the prize that year. (I need to read that.)
Richler prefaces St. Urbain’s Horseman with a quotation from Auden which suggests that he does not wish to be read as a mere entertainer, a fanciful farceur. Auden’s lines evoke a mood of cosmic despair illumined only by a rare “affirming flame.” What is there in the Horseman that would justify us regarding it as such a flame? Certainly the despair that we find there is serious enough; the world around Jake Hersh is sordid and vile. Jake himself despairs and lapses into neuroticism and paranoia as he struggles to defend the few liberal ideals he has salvaged from his war with an insane world. Confusedly he holds to his notions of artistic integrity and family loyalty, and worries ineffectually about social injustice and the starving millions. His is hardly a great flame, for he is not meant as a hero, but rather as someone who is representative of the helplessness of so many of his readers, who long for a saner world but don’t see how to go about attaining it. And so Jake clings to his comic-book fantasy of the horseman as righter of all wrongs and at the very end of a novel, which had begun farcically, we understand his need for this romantic escapism and dismayed by the injustice that has been done him, we are overwhelmed by tragic pity.