Some Grist For Mervyns Mill English Literature Essay

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Mordecai Richler's Some Grist for Mervyn's Mill provides an insight to the multicultural mosaic world of Canada. It is essential to speak about Mordecai Richler's life to obtain a better understanding of the short story as it contains important reflections of his experiences that enhance the uniqueness of the plot.

Mordecai Richler was born in Montreal in 1931 to a family of Orthodox Jews. The Richler family resided in the St. Urbain Street where the Jewish Diaspora of Montreal lived for a long time. Although Richler abandoned and later criticized the orthodox practices he had been taught, his Jewish identity played an important role in his life and novels. Despite his father's approval, who wanted his son to become a rabbi, Richler decided to become a writer, but to achieve this he felt the need to experience life in Europe what he described as:

"When I started out, Morley Callaghan meant more to us than any other Canadian writer; he had been to Paris with Hemingway and Fitzgerald and published as an equal. To us merely apprentices at that time, it meant that it was possible to be Canadian and first rate." [1] 

"It seemed if you wanted to write you had to get out. […] The standards went very high. I felt if I was gonna be a writer I have to prove myself either in London or New York and I choose London. I was in Paris for 2 years before going to London and that was a marvellous time to be in Paris, there were a lot of American writers there on a G.I. bill on that time. [2] "

Richler often spoke what was on his mind and stated that his goal was to be an honest witness to his time and place. As a social commentator and provocateur he often criticized Quebec nationalists and according to his critics widened the gap between Franc- and Anglo-Canadians. As Carole Garson pointed out Richler "prophesied a new broadening of Canada's predominantly patriarchal, WASP literary spectrum, a process accompanying the buoyant wave of political nationalism." [3] Richler later wrote ironically that he learned from Morley Callaghan there is no use to only write about the good sides of Canada:

"It settled in our minds that if you wrote well enough about Toronto or Montreal, the larger world outside will pay attention. Since then Callaghan has outraged the young nationalists by saying "Forget all about the words 'identity' and 'culture', just never mentione them. Seek only excellence and in good time people all over the world will ask about Canadians"." [4] 

Richler, as it can be seen in Some Grist for Mervyn's Mill, often found the literary world dull, and rather spent time with business men and lawyers. "In Richler's comic universe, the ratio of writers to businessmen is about what it is in real life- and in the self-absorbed laager of the modern novel this alone would give him distinction even if he didn't find it hard to take the whole concept of a "writer" seriously." [5] 

His short-story sequence The Street was published in 1969 in which many of the above mentioned influences and experiences that touched his life shaped the storylines of the texts.

The protagonist of the short story, Mervyn Kaplansky, who is working on his first novel to become a writer, somehow echoes Mordecai's thoughts about the self-delusional idealist writer who rather create a 'writer's atmosphere' than to realize what surrounds him

Mervyn ran from the rat race of the city only to begin his life as an author in the rat race in a Jewish neighbourhood, this twist forms adds to the sarcasm of the short-story.

The reader's first impression of Mervyn is that he feels he is superior to others, because he thinks that he knows what the true dimensions of literature are, he is sure he is creating something very big. He does not realize that by locking himself up in the Hersh's room he closes out life. The first description we get about Mervyn is from the young Hersh boy, who is the narrator of the story:

"Mervyn returned an hour or so later with his trunk, several suitcases, and an assortment of oddities that included a piece of driftwood, a wine bottle that had been made into a lamp base, a collection of pebbles, a twelve-inch-high replica of Rodin's The Thinker, a bull-fight poster, a Karsh portrait of G.B.S., innumerable notebooks, a ball-point pen with a built in flashlight, and a framed cheque for fourteen dollars and eighty-five cents from the Family Herald and Weekly Star. […] Mervyn was a short, fat boy with curly black hair, warm wet eyes and an engaging smile. I could see his underwear from button to button down his shirt." [6] 

Mervyns whole outfit shows and we know it form the boy too, that he is not entirely capable of living an adult life, he even seems to be younger than 23 because of his clumsiness . He is still chasing after his dreams, which is of course not a problem, but in the beginning he still seems to be unbalanced. It seems like he believes if he surrounds himself with writers' posters or relics that will help him to be a better writer, what is of course absurd. What adds to the twist of the short-story comes from its genre: we do not exactly know who Mervyn is we just get a hint about his personality through his actions. What we know is that he comes form a relatively wealthy family from Toronto and might have won a little award in some newspaper and this could be the source of his writing aspirations but we cannot say whether he is a genius or not. Maybe Mervyn will later become a serious writer, or end up as a sailor. From the ending of the short story it is hinted that he works somewhere as he pays back his dept in short payments but we cannot say anything sure about his future or what he will do with the experiences he got during his stay.

The short-story could be seen as a covered criticism about Jewish stereotypes as it is pointed out in Ethnic Humour by Don L.F. Nielsen that the readers are laughing at "a kind of playful and pugnacious urban humour" [7] Richler uses. There are many references to the Orthodox practices in it with an ironical nudge: "You believe in electricity? / There were no lights in the house. "We're not the kind to skimp" my father said." But we're orthodox here. Today is shabus." It is hinted that though Sabbath is the day when any work is prohibited, even electricity, it is acceptable to earn some money by taking in boarders. On the other hand the community also resembles the world where only successes counts, that on which side of the social ladder you will end up. Mervyn falls for this belief; he seems to enjoy the ado around himself. Despite he acts as a sensitive, deep-thinking author he always highlights that some day one big publisher will pay for his book, as if popular novels are more valuable than the others. He always seems to be confident about himself, about his writing abilities but in real he fears from loosing the respect of the community. He is turning to be some kind of a lecher as he refers to himself once, he secretly asks for money to send out copies of his work from Mrs Hersch, he fells behind with his rent. The inexperienced young and the author he wants to be (or at least he thinks how an author behaves) seems to create a tension in him, his behaviour also shows this in certain situations, like how he runs away and how he acted with Miss Rosen:

"All right. I wasn't going to blab, but if that's how you feel- modern men and woman, he told her, experiment before marriage. And right there on the bench he tried dirty filthy things with her. […] Mervyn denied that he had tried any funny stuff with Molly- he had too much respect for womankind, he said." [8] 

He feels the need to lie about his success; he is the one who is writing in the name of the big publishers. At first I believe he acted like this because he thought he could get more attention but he somehow hung up in his own speculations and when he realizes the greed behind the smiling faces he could only think of how to escape. This is a growing up period somehow for Mervyn, his first experience in the real world and he has to study it is hard, that without success you get no reputation, no love. When he starts to write for money- a resemblance of Richler [9] - to pay back his rent he looses something from his pure beliefs. Mervyns world is crushed because everything attacks it at once, he has to experience a love failure, he has to make compromises to make a living, he realizes it is not easy to be successful at once and that real love from people do not come easily, and society will always turn its shiny face to those who have already succeeded, and even true deep-thinkers have to wait for their turn and may never achieve anything. But maybe that grist Mervyn's mill so need to produce will come from this experience: "Nothing really matters. In terms of eternity our lives are shorter than a cigarette puff. Hey," he said. "Hey!" He took out his pen with the built-in flashlight and wrote something in his notebook. "For a writer," he said, "everything is grist to the mill. Nothing is humiliating." [10] 

As for Mrs Hersch, she really believes in Mervyn, for her it seems he is the one through whom she can be young again. She is interested in classics and believes in writers. She is kind of a patron for Mervyn, she lends him money, ask his husband to be understandable about the rent, acts as a matchmaker to make him happier. But she also has to face with Mervyn's 'betrayal' that the one she believed in left her without a world. It is also ironical that while Mervyn adored the company of those who rejected his true self, he forgot about the ones who believed in him. Mr Hersch sympathy for Marvyn, however, is because he finally sees Mervyn can make money from writing, and for the first time he sees himself in Mervyn and he says he does not want him to become a zero like him. He introduces Mervyn to the men's world, at this level he becomes a fatherly figure to Mervyn and he is very devastated when it turns out he lied. Mr Hersch protects Mervyn from his own friends' spiteful comments and for a man it is a very hard thing to do especially in a close community such as the Orthodox Jews. Although both Mr and Mrs Hersch used Mervyn to show off to their friends, their intentions are not bad, but they put the weight of their desires to Mervyn's shoulders without realizing it. Mervyn seems to regret somehow that he lied and ran away so this is why he is trying to pay back, but he does not want to get in contact with them and I believe it is not because he does not like them, but it is still too painful for him to look back.