Mordecai Richler`s Solomon Gursky Was Here


Solomon Gursky Was Here is an epic novel spanning nearly a
century and a half, from the mid 1800's to 1980's. It is the
story of the obsession of Moses Berger, a Rhodes scholar turned
alcoholic, with Solomon Gursky, the charismatic son of a poor
immigrant. Solomon, with his brother Bernard and Morrie, built
the massive liquor empire of McTavish industries. Moses is
attempting to write a biography of Solomon, which becomes his
life's work. Through his investigations the complex story of five
generations of Gurskys is revealed. The eldest is Ephraim,
Solomon'scriminal, perpetually scheming grandfather. Ephraim, is
constantly associated with the raven, he escaped imprisonment in
England in the mid 1800's by forging documents, also allowing him
to join a crew searching for the Northwest passage, called the
Franklin Epedition. The expedition turned into a total disaster,
Ephraim, the sole survivor. The youngest Gursky appearing in
this story is Isaac, Solomon's grandson. This complex tale
unravels, as Moses recalls, all of the events in his life which
pertain to it. Ever present in this Canadian cultural satire is
the theme of filial relationships and the exploration of Solomon
and his re-incarnation as Sir Hyman Kaplansky, in conjunction with
his family and their exploits. Every character in this novel is
in some way corrupt or failure. Moses is an alcoholic who did not
live up to his potential; Bernard is a greedy self-centered
bastard;

Solomon is a cheat, when it comes to gambling, women and anything
else you can think of. Richler, through this exaggeration of
corruption and failure, is satirizing the idea that Canada is a
second rate nation. One character, in conversation with Moses,
once said:

"Canada is not so much a country as a holding tank filled with the
disgruntled progeny of defeated peoples. The French-Canadians
consumed by self-pity; the descendants of Scots who fled the Duke
of Chamberlain; Irish the famine; and Jews the black hundreds.
Then there are the peasants from the Ukraine, Poland , Italy and
Greece, convenient to grow wheat and dig out ore and swing the
hammers and run the restaurants, but otherwise to be kept in their
place . Most of us are still huddled tight to the border,
looking into the candy store window, scared by the Americans on
one side and the bush on the other."(P.'s398-399)

This says, in no uncertain terms, that Canada is compromised of
people not worthy of other countries. The satirical nature of
this statement is alluded to by harsh words, such as "holding
tank" and "scared". Also by impersonal words, such as "progeny".
Most Canadians do not, as this says, envy the Americans and think
of America as a "candy store". Richler is attacking some typical
stereotypes of Canada and Canadians by exemplifying them.

Moses, who is Richler's voice in the novel, exhibits many
autobiographical characteristics: English speaking resident of
Montreal, raised on Jean Mance street. He has a strong religious
backround (Jewish), smokes a cigars, writes professionally and
lived in London, England for a period. Moses and his father L.B.
do not get along well. L.B., a failed poet, is resentful of his
son's literary talent. This leads to leads to L.B. treating his
son with contempt. On one occasion, Moses, home from school at
Balliol, tells LB that he submitted a short story, which LB said
"showed promise"(p.129), to "the New Yorker. L.B. belittled Moses
for his attempt which he suspected to fail and demanded that he be
given the mail upon it's arrival, to open it in private. When the
package from "the New Yorker" arrived, L.B. opened and read it in
private, then later invited Moses into the room. L.B. proceeded
to tell Moses that he also had been rejected by "editors who print
crap, so long as it is written by their friends, but who couldn't
tell Pushkin from Ogden Nash."(P. 132). Moses later learned that
the magazine had accepted his story and had sent it back
requesting a few small revisions. He, supposedly, ha d written
back saying "'the New Yorker' regularly prints crap so long as it
is written by their friends, they couldn't tell Pushkin from Ogden
Nash, and he was withdrawing his story." (P. 309). This filial
relationship is typical of all others in this novel. All are full
of anomosity and dislike. Many times they escalate of cruelty as
seen in this instance. Solomon Gursky led a prolific life
consisting of gambling, traveling, bootlegging, military
service(WWI) and many women. Through his teenage gambling
exploits, the first in a chain of hotels, which would lay the
foundation for the Gursky empire, was acquired in a high stakes
poker match, in which he