Mordecai Richler reading room opens at Concordia

MONTREAL – Considering the history behind its centrepiece chair, desk and typewriter, a new reading room dedicated to one of Canada’s most acclaimed authors could have been titled Mordecai Richler Was Here.

“One misses the clutter, one misses his presence behind the desk where he spent most of his life,” said Florence Richler, his widow, as she stood in the bright room which recreates one of her husband’s workspaces.

“However, it is a wonderful space and I’m very, very proud of what Concordia (University) has managed to do.”

The room, on the sixth floor of the J.W. McConnell Library Building on the downtown Sir George Williams Campus, is near many of Richler’s old haunts.

Its walls are lined with books from his personal library that his son Jacob says his father used to consume with “relish and pleasure.”

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Atop his simple desk sits a well-used typewriter, in front of a worn high-backed chair. There are also a few personal knick-knacks and a cigar of the type that would fill his now-shiny ashtray as Richler pounded out his latest novel.

Among the works written at the desk were 1989’s Solomon Gursky Was Here; Joshua Then And Now, which came out in 1980; his last novel, Barney’s Version, which was published in 1997; and his series of children’s books.

The space also contains research materials and treasured photos.

“It’s a bit eerie walking into it,” Jacob Richler said of the room.

“Everything is so perfectly familiar. I haven’t seen these books for years but I feel like I have total recall of the shelves. To walk in is a bit of a strange feeling at first but once that subsides it makes me proud. It looks spectacular and I hope it’s well used.”

Florence Richler had the original idea for the space, feeling it would be a way to preserve some aspects of the writer’s workspace at the family cottage in Lac Memphremagog after it was sold.

Both Richlers chuckled when they were asked if it was more organized than when Richler occupied his writing space at home.

“Slightly more, yes,” Florence Richler said with a smile.

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“Which is to say, quite a lot,” added Jacob Richler. “He wouldn’t be able to find anything in here.”

A separate room contains more books from Richler’s library.

Richler, considered one of Canada’s greatest writers, died of cancer in 2001.

Concordia president Alan Shepard said the room will ensure that Richler’s work “will continue to be analyzed, celebrated and critiqued for years to come.”

Richer attended Sir George Williams University, which was later rolled into Concordia when it was founded, between 1949 and 1951. He then went to Europe and began his career as a writer.

He served as the university’s writer in residence in 1968 and 1969.

Jacob Richler, who is a journalist and the inspiration for his father’s Jacob Two-Two trilogy of children’s books, called Concordia’s dedication an honour in more ways than one.

“According to my research, no university has ever before posthumously honoured one of its dropouts with his own eponymous library and reading room,” he said. “Nor has a university asked the honouree’s son, another dropout from the same institution, to give a speech at its inauguration.”

Richler’s personal papers and library will eventually be available for consultation by students, writers and the public via an online database.

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The rooms will be open for public events, with people also being able to visit them by booking an appointment with Concordia’s English Department. Small tours will also be available for interested parties.

Florence Richler said her husband worked tirelessly to leave behind an enduring body of work.

“I think he would have been honoured,” she said of the new room. “It’s certainly been an honour for us and he would have been very proud.”