CanLit Challenge Book #23: St. Urbain’s Horseman by Mordecai Richler
Filed under: CanLit Challenge — Ibis at 12:46 pm on Monday, September 3, 2007

Book 23, St. Urbain’s Horseman (1971) – Mordecai Richler
From the publisher:
St. Urbains Horseman is a complex, moving, and wonderfully comic evocation of a generation consumed with guilt – guilt at not joining every battle, at not healing every wound. Thirty-seven-year-old Jake Hersh is a film director of modest success, a faithful husband, and a man in disgrace. His alter ego is his cousin Joey, a legend in their childhood neighbourhood in Montreal. Nazi-hunter, adventurer, and hero of the Spanish Civil War, Joey is the avenging horseman of Jake’s impotent dreams. When Jake becomes embroiled in a scandalous trial in London, England, he puts his own unadventurous life on trial as well, finding it desperately wanting as he steadfastly longs for the Horseman’s glorious return. Irreverent, deeply felt, as scathing in its critique of social mores as it is uproariously funny, St. Urbains Horseman confirms Mordecai Richler’s reputation as a pre-eminent observer of the hypocrisies and absurdities of modern life.

Other useful links:
the Wikipedia article on Mordecai Richler
Joe Wiseman talks about adpting the novel to television
CBC page on tv adaptation, including video trailer
CBC Archive on Mordecai Richler
Trapped on St. Urbain Street by Barbara Kay in The National Post
Memories of Mordecai Richler by Jack Rabinovitch in The National Post
The Novel is the Thing by Noah Richler in The National Post

My thoughts:
I quite enjoyed it. Lots of Canadian navel-gazing. :)

I’m afraid I missed a lot of the topical references (especially in the entertainment area) and because it was written fairly contemporaneously to the setting (the bulk of the novel takes place in the centennial year of 1967, coincidently also the year of the Six Days’ War, and the novel was published in 1971), Richler felt he didn’t really need to explain much. I think I may need to reread the parts about what actually took place when he came back from the funeral because I’m not sure if I got the whole story.

I really enjoyed the back-and-forth timeline of the novel.

I’m sitting here thinking of what to say, but there’s just so much fodder for discussion of this book that I don’t know what to say or where to begin.

Thoughts about the CBC adaptation (the quoted bits are from Shard02 on BookCrossing):

> I agree that the central section didn’t
> have much snap. Model went Wifey too soon!

I think because in the book she wasn’t an English model, but a visitor to London from Ontario. I don’t remember if Richler ever tells us her profession.
Plus, they compressed everything- – in the book, they meet in 1959 (at one of Luke’s parties in London, not in Canada) and the trial takes place in 1967. By that time they have three children, not just one.

> Of the three sections, I much preferred
> the boyhood stuff and regretted being
> snapped out of it so early,

I didn’t care for that part very much because though the ambiance they created was great, I felt the acting of the boy playing Jake wasn’t the greatest. They also left out his early years during the war, which had such a big impact on why he was so caught up with the idea of Joey being a champion against the enemies.

They could have also put in bits later on about how he had come across evidence over the years that led him to believe that Joey fought in the Spanish Civil War and in Israel against the Arabs in the 1948 Arab-Israel War. (Of course, because of the time compression, they have Joey leaving St.Urbain later than that.) This would have been much stronger than the inserted story about Joey in Yellowknife and the idea that Hannah and not Jake had made up the Horseman persona.

Without that supportive evidence, it looks like Jake is even more crazy with his Joey-obsession than he actually is. Throughout the book, Richler is at pains to make sure that Joey is a very ambiguous and ambivalent figure, even to the last page where Jake puts “presumed dead” in his Horseman notebook.

>and I thought
> the court proceedings went on far too long
> for such a predictable diversion.

It was a little unbalanced; Again, I think because of problems with the adaptation. Instead of treating the trial as the central story with the rest being brought forth almost as flashbacks, it’s all in a chronological narrative and as such the period of the trial seems to be given undue weight in the scheme of things.

> the production worked as ‘St. Urbain
> Lite’, with the horseman little more than
> an amusing motif.

A little too much focus on the romance-stuff and not enough on the Horseman side of things (i.e. Israel, the Holocaust, Jake’s powerlessness & midlife inferiority complex)?

I agree with you both, Shard & Dunzy- – Horseman Lite without a lot of edge but not a bad adaptation either. I thought the best parts were when they stuck close to the words of Richler, using his dialogue etc.

I liked Elliott Gould’s portrayal as Uncle Abe and Gabriel Hogan’s as uber-WASP, Luke Scott.

I just remembered one of my favourite parts that they translated well to the screen–when Jake is in with the Inland Revenue guy and is justifying his expenses: payments to Jean Beliveau, John A. MacDonald (a lush LOL), and secretary Laura Secord (I think he called her a sweet girl or something?).

> Up there “digging for nickels” – LOL!
> By “inserted story”, do you mean that it
> wasn’t in the original? I don’t recall
> this northern note, which made Hannah’s
> sophistication quite puzzling :)

The part about them being abandoned in Yellowknife by Baruch was in the book, but not the whole thing about Joey being a great rider when he was a kid and him going into the bush to punish the two men (for whatever it was they did- – I forget the details from the movie now) and Hannah calling him the Horseman.

>Btw, I
> guess that by now the resonance has faded
> re Wifey’s origins as an upper-crust Upper
> Canadian!

Upper Canadian, but not upper-crust. Her father was a shoe salesman. But she did grow up somewhere less urban than Montreal–there’s a good discussion about how she understands gardening-type things that Jake at first has no clue about. It’s funny that they kept the part about her flat being a sublet which makes sense if she’s a middle-class Canadian that’s only been in London for a few days, but doesn’t really if she’s an English model with quite an upper-class accent.