Saying Goodbye to Mordecai

Saying Goodbye to Mordecai

Saying Goodbye to Mordecai
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
March 14 2003 5:15 PM

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Today's slide show: Images from Montreal. Today's audio: Gary Shteyngart explains why Montreal is his favorite city.

The authors finally meet
The authors finally meet

Five days ago I landed at Montreal's Dorval Airport, a thin man with a big appetite for all things edible, drinkable, and having to do with this city's great bard, the novelist Mordecai Richler. Today, sadly, my mission is coming to an end. My cholesterol and blood pressure are high, a small pouch of newborn fat is flapping below my navel, and my liver is seeking asylum with the Canadian authorities. I am hung-over, tired, and pleased to be alive. The mission, as you may recall, involved sampling the favorite vices of Barney Panofsky, the protagonist of Richler's last novel Barney's Version: Montecristos (the Dominican cigars), medium-fats on rye (a spectacular brisket served at the legendary Schwartz's Deli), single malts (preferably Macallan whisky), the veal-marrow hors d'oeuvre at L'Express restaurant, XO cognac, marbled rib steaks at Moishe's Steakhouse, and caffeine.

Good God, I've done it all, meeting, along the way, the people who knew Richler and miss him so terribly now that he is gone. The last item on my list was the XO cognac, which I sip at a restaurant called Toqué!, perhaps the finest of Montreal's newish (circa 1993) restaurants. Superchef Normand Laprise grew up on a Quebec farm, and the influence shows. His most magical dish is the foie gras, which is easily the best I've ever had, and I've eaten enough in my lifetime to decimate a good-sized duck pond. The foie gras is served differently every night; this time it appeared on apple puree, topped with caramelized onions, the texture both fatty and crisp, succulent and sweet, the last perhaps a result of Laprise's application of cherry vinegar. A real Quebec duck painfully lost its life for our pleasure, and the results are sublime. We also enjoy an appetizer of halibut cheek served on tomato confit and spinach puree, a special of the day, and finish off with Catalan truffle ice cream. The practically all-male staff is dressed in tight trendy shirts, looking like a bunch of graduate art students; goatees and soul patches abound, the words "emulsion" and "reduction" float into the air with a French accent. After gorging on truffle ice cream, I lift my glass of XO cognac and empty it into my gullet. "My work here is done," I say.

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One of my dining partners for the evening is my friend Kate Sowley. Earlier I had met her and her husband, Nicolas, at their townhouse apartment in the Plateau area (it's beyond my imagination what these kind of digs would cost back home in New York). Theirs is a family drawn to Montreal both from the neighboring town of Plattsburgh, N.Y., where Kate was raised, and Corsica, where Nicolas hails from. Their 2-year-old boy, Max, wanders around the premises speaking in a mixture of toddler French and toddler English. A true Montreal kid, he has already developed a hankering for brie.

As we have seen at our earlier stay at one of Montreal's new boutique hotels, architecture and design are as important to this city as the ducks and geese that drive its culinary imagination. Montreal now has perhaps the most important museum devoted to the craft, the Canadian Centre for Architecture (its collections are thorough enough to include a model of Barbie's Dream House). The museum's own architecture is as innovative as anything on display—a clever integration of a modern building with a historic Montreal treasure called the Shaughnessy House. The contrast between the two seamlessly integrated buildings is part of the fun, each offering the best of the last two centuries. The striking, light-filled entrance of the modern building features only Quebec materials, chiefly maple wood and Montreal gray stone. Don't miss the winter garden in the Shaughnessy House, where a circle of poinsettias along the stained-glass windows frames the urban view outside. The adjoining tearoom was once known as the "smoking room" and was originally clad in Cuban mahogany. There could be no better place to light up a Romeo y Julieta (not that the staff would let you) or one of Barney Panofsky's Montecristos.

With Richler on the mind, we visit the Sir Winston Churchill Pub (Winnie's to the locals), where the novelist's favorite barmaid, Margo MacGillivray, serves us cold Molson beers. Margo, a pretty, vivacious middle-aged woman in leather pants, was the inspiration for Betty, the barmaid in Barney's Version,and Winnie's made its appearance as Dink's, a stronghold of fine Anglophone boozing.

Richler had a seat at the very front of the bar (a plaque there will soon memorialize him). He described the crew at the fictional Dink's as "a few divorcées, a number of journalists … a couple of bores to be avoided, some lawyers, a marooned New Zealander, and a likeable gay hairdresser." Margo's job was to protect Richler from some of the "bores," making sure his perch at the end of the horseshoe bar was defendable. According to Margo, Richler would start his day at 11:30 a.m. with an espresso and a vodka and grapefruit, often complaining that the shots of single malt were too small. He was a shy man who disliked being complimented for his work but never missed the chance to denigrate the secessionist Parti Quebecois. "He thought they were a bunch of country bumpkins," Margo says, adding, "He spoke for us Anglos."

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But Richler certainly had a compassion and understanding for French Canadians; many of the most honest, exemplary characters in his fiction are Francophones. I remember the cabdriver in Barney's Version who complains to Barney about the excitement of the Canadiens playing for the Stanley Cup. " 'Mon blood pressure est sky-high,' said the driver. 'C'est le stress.' "

Leaving behind Anglophone downtown, we head for lunch in the Plateau. We are going to a place that's as French-speaking as you can get, La Binerie Mont-Royal. A few Canadian coins here will get you a bowl of sumptuous fèves au lard, sweet beans with a mild porky flavor. Pour some molasses on the beans, pick up a wiener on toasted bread, and you're set for a humble but filling meal. The owners are as sweet as the beans: Bernard and his lovely wife Suzanne, the ultimate mom-and-pop proprietors who have run the Binerie for decades (their 13-year-old kid helps out in the kitchen and will one day inherit the business). After the beans-with-lard experience, it is advisable to make room for the podding au chômeur, or "the unemployed man's pudding," a round of vanilla cake swimming in fresh local maple syrup.

I always have the beans before climbing Mont Royal, somehow they induce me onward and upward. Today, we will not climb to the summit of the mountain; instead we are headed for the Cimetière Mont Royal on one of its slopes, the final resting place of Mordecai Richler.

Richler had the right perspective on death. He didn't like it. But it was central to his writing. "Fundamentally, all writing is about the same thing," Richler said, " it's about dying, about the brief flicker of time we have here, and the frustration that it creates."

On this cold day, Richler's grave is covered in several feet of snow. My photographer John, who is a head taller than I am, takes the lead in wading toward the gravestone. Freezing and wet, I sweep aside the snow covering its lower half. The name of his widow Florence appears (one day they will lie side by side), and then MORDECAI, 1931-2001.

I remember how Barney Panofsky, in Barney's Version, visits the grave of his father: "I made my annual pilgrimage to the Chevra Kadisha [Jewish] cemetery and, as I do every year, emptied a bottle of Crown Royal whiskey on his grave and, in lieu of a pebble, left a medium-fat smoked meat on rye and a sour pickle on his gravestone."

Unlike the father of his fictional protagonist, Mordecai Richler is not buried in a Jewish cemetery. The final resting place of Richler, worldly and iconoclastic to the very end, is found in the nondenominational part of a predominantly Protestant cemetery, surrounded by gravestones with last names like Kyriacopoulos and Aziz. The family has put up a stone bench nearby overlooking the great city of Montreal. I promise myself that I will seek it out each time I visit.

Gary Shteyngart is the author of the novel The Russian Debutante's Handbook, a New York Times "Notable Book" for 2002 and winner of the Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, and many other publications.