Mordecai Richler’s Belling The Cat

My only personal connection to literary greatness is with Mordecai Richler, via my grandparents, who were friends and neighbours of his in the Eastern Townships, Anglophone Montreal’s quondam country retreat. As a child, I read personalized copies of his celebrated Jacob Two-Two children’s books; as a teenager, reading The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, I marvelled that my native Montreal, modest to a fault, could furnish the setting for a novel. But the city he immortalized has not always reciprocated his affections, for when he wasn’t writing fiction, Mordecai was a tireless critic of Quebec and Canadian society: our petty nationalism, and the language laws it spawned; our parochialism, manifesting in an evident inferiority complex on the world stage; and the seemingly endless series of conmen and grifters who managed to worm their way into positions of power and influence. Consider the city’s tribute to Mordecai, in the wake of his death: a lone, nondescript gazebo, tucked into an inauspicious part of Mont Royal, completed more than a decade after his passing, over budget, for $750,000. Leonard Cohen, by contrast, has had two massive murals painted in his memory – but Leonard Cohen did not write Belling The Cat, a series of controversial opinions spanning politics, literature and sports, and sparing of no one.

What strikes me, reading this book some two decades after its publication, is how contemporary it feels. The essay on Saul Bellow, for example, describes the now-familiar encroachment of ultra-P.C. dictates into the realm of art:

P.C.’s brackish waters have polluted even Canada’s once pristine shores. W.P. Kinsella, author of Field of Dreams, has been found guilty of “cultural appropriation” for daring to write about Natives in his Hobbema stories. Then, at a recent meeting of the Writers’ Union of Canada, black, Native, and authors of Asian origin claimed that they were being discriminated against by ofay publishers and that their few books in print were seldom reviewed. They announced that they wished to convene a conference, paid for by the government, from which white union members would be excluded. Pierre Berton, the popular historian, his liberal credentials impeccable, was sufficiently intrepid to protest that this would amount to intolerable discrimination, but the wimp in the air, appropriately obsequious, allowed that as “a writer of pallor” he understood the minority group’s special problems. Oh dear, oh dear, once I was a Jew, born and bred in Montreal, but, in the new nomenclature, I find myself reduced to “a non-visible minority member,” and now “a writer of pallor,” narrowly Eurocentric for that matter.

Bellow – and Mordecai, in his turn – grasped something of the totalitarian undercurrents motivating this variety of criticism: art must bend the knee to ideology, and when that fails, only the approved-of artists should have their say. Another modern trend that earns Mordecai’s ire concerns the supersaturation of sex – in art, entertainment, advertising and even politics. “Assuming that Homo Sapiens has not yet attained a state of perfection and that evolution is a continuing process, I will now venture into Wellsian and Huxleian territory, anticipating a different Brave New World. Taking the idiot idiom and sexual thuggery of so many into account, I expect that thousands of years from now the new mutants will have their heads where their genitals used to be, and vice versa.” If this sounds dramatic, consider some of the material he reviews in this essay, including the book Ordinary Women, Extraordinary Sex:

Rachel Swift is the pseudonym of “an average woman in her thirties” who, having finally had her first orgasm during sex, decided to publish a step-by-step self-help book for others who were missing out. Practice control, she advocates. Prepare yourself by becoming proficient at masturbation. “Your own hands,” she writes, “are the most useful tool… [because] they are warm as well as uniquely sensitive.” But she also recommends rolled-up socks, or the arm of a teddy bear, which is soft and firm.

Once, she writes, while she was staying in a hotel room in Bali, “the waiter knocked on the door with a dish of exotic fruit. Feeling horny, I sized up the man – and decided his bananas looked more appetizing than he did. When he had shut the door, I unpeeled a not-too-ripe banana and used it to great effect.”

My considered advice is that if you are invited to Ms. Swift’s home for dinner, turn down the fruit salad.

Mordecai has a lot of fun in these essays, usually at other people’s expense, but there is a certain joy, for the reader, in witnessing a writer cut celebrities, politicians, hack writers down to size. Of Tom Clancy, for example: “His machines are three-dimensional but his characters are wooden.” Or of the former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney: “All politicians lie, but few as often, or as mellifluously, as did Sincerely Yours, Brian Mulroney, who lied even when it wasn’t necessary, just to keep in shape, his voice, a dead giveaway, sinking into his Guccis whenever he was about to deliver one of his whoppers.”

Which brings me to the collection’s title; I had to look it up myself. It comes from a fable, in which a group of mice band together to deal with a killer cat. One mouse throws out a novel idea, to which everyone assents: attach a bell to the cat’s neck, and we’ll always know when he’s nearby! Their jubilation at the ingenuity of the plan is interrupted when they realize its fatal flaw: who among them will “bell the cat”? The moral of the story, according to Wikipedia, is that an idea must also be evaluated on its feasibility. True enough. But in the context of Mordecai’s little essay collection, it takes on a different meaning: Mordecai is that brave mouse who, with his “scribble, scribble, scribble,” dares to take on the cats of the world.