Sunday, September 8, 2013

Duddy Kravitz: The True Story Behind "Rags-to-Riches"

People say that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but I certainly do. And the cover pictured above was the main reason why I avoided this book for a good long time. Something about this sneering boy repulsed me – with his ratty hair and crooked smile. I knew that Mordecai Richler is a big name in Canadian lit, and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is his biggest book, but I just thought there was no way that I could ever like a book with this cover.

I have to admit that it was hard for me to get into it. The more I read, the more I saw why the cover is a perfect fit. One chapter begins, “Where Duddy Kravitz sprung up from the boys grew up dirty and sad, spiky also, like grass beside the railroad tracks.” The picture shows real truth about his character, the 19-year-old wheeler dealer.

Duddy grows up on St. Urbain Street, the Jewish ghetto in Montreal. (Among its other values, the novel gives a captivating glimpse into Jewish community life at mid-century.) The plot follows the pattern of the familiar rags-to-riches story. While Duddy is a young boy, his grandfather tells him “A man without land is nobody.” Duddy takes those words into his heart, and they become his consuming drive – to be a “somebody” in the eyes of his grandfather and his community.

The main tension in the novel, as I see it, lies in Duddy’s own character. On one side, Duddy longs to draw his family together in love. There are a few shining moments when he comes to the rescue of family members in trouble. For example, his brother Lenny decides to abandon med school and flee the city after he performs a botched abortion. At the height of his business activity, Duddy puts everything on hold and goes to Toronto to talk his brother into coming home. In this and a few other cases, Duddy shows genuine love that shines brighter than anyone else.

At the same time, Duddy craves land with all his heart, and he’s willing to do anything to get it. Lie, cheat, bully, steal – no tactic is too low, and no personal price is too high. In a post-mortem letter, Duddy’s uncle expresses the tension this way:

There’s more to you than mere money lust, Duddy, but I’m afraid for you. You’re two people, that’s why. The scheming little bastard I saw so easily and the fine, intelligent boy underneath that your grandfather, bless him, saw. But you’re coming of age soon and you’ll have to choose. A boy can be two, three, four potential people, but a man is only one. He murders the others.

The tragedy of the novel is that Duddy tries to hold on to these different people inside him. But that it also its greatest strength – few authors are as honest as Richler to give the human reality behind the “rags-to-riches” story. In the words of the Hebrew Scriptures, “The getting of treasures by a lying tongue is a fleeting vapor and a snare of death” (Proverbs 21:6). 

Photo from McCord Museum, S. E. corner, Vitre & St. Urbain Streets, Montreal, QC

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