The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz

 

Mordecai Richler

 

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD! This is a discussion amongst participants of ReadLiterature.Com's reading group. Since they have all read the book, they discuss it freely - including it's twists, turns, and the ending. If you have also read the book, you might enjoy the comments of other readers. But if you haven't and intend to do so, then the following discussion might ruin it for you.

 

 

Consensus:  Four and a half hearts Hearts

 

 

Posted by Lale on 17/9/2001, 1:16:25

 

Since 11th of September none of us could talk or even think about anything much other than the terrorist attacks that killed thousands of people, people just like us, ordinary people.

 

Maybe we need a little distraction now.

 

A few weeks ago we decided to start a discussion group, to read one book chosen by the group (or by individuals, taking turns) besides our normally scheduled reading. September's book was, chosen by me, Mordecai Richler's "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz". On 8th of September, after finally finishing the a collection of plays by Chekov, I picked up Duddy Kravitz and headed to Helsinki for a three-day trip. I couldn't put Duddy down. It is one of those books that hooks you right at the beginning, doesn't mince words, doesn't need any "getting into". So, I read it on the plane to helsinki and then, while there, I read it at every opportunity. I finished it in two days.

 

I was excited about our upcoming discussion. We were all going to talk about it, all at the same time, interrupting one another and completing each other's sentences. I couldn't wait until I got back home and posted a note here.

 

We left our hotel in Helsinki about the same time the tragedy started in New York. Of course, we had no idea then. When we landed at the Charles de Gaulle Airport, we noticed that one monitor in each of the monitor clusters there was a red and yellow announcement that said something like "Recent evenements aux Etats-Unis, air traffic perturbe, please contact your airlines." We didn't know how serious the "evenements" were but we found out in the taxi.

 

Anyway, let's try to talk about Duddy Kravitz: "A man without land is nobody."

 

I liked this book enormously. However, I am surprised that some of the critics have used the word "funny" for this book. It is not a funny book. Dark humour is not the same as funny. There were moments of truly hilarious moments of course, like the excerpts from the magazine, The Crusader, but in general it is a sad story.

 

Nobody got off clean. Nobody was one hundred percent dirty either. There were times when you *had* to sympathize with Duddy. How he longed for love of the members of his family. How he kept on asking about his mother, "did she like me?". How he cuddled up to Lenny during the night they spent in Toronto. And how he was pushed away.

 

So, what did you guys think of it?

 

Anatomy is the big killer, you know.

 

Lale

 

 @

 

Posted by Dave on 17/9/2001, 4:22:37

 

Yes, anatomy is definitely the big killer! We eat bread and it comes out toasted!

 

I also tended to read this book at breakneck speed... it seemed that once I started it I found it difficult to put aside for too long. I am still fascinated by Duddy's "apprenticeship". He is one of the most clearly developed characters I've ever read about, and his ruthlessness reminds me of Steerpike in Mervyn Peake's trilogy entitled Ghormenghast (a totally different genre).

 

This is a story about ambition run amok! A precocious upstart trying to satiate his obsessive perception of "success". Duddy's particular obsession is, as Lale mentioned, this phrase that "a man without land is nobody". I think Richler created a fascinating (realistic, albeit despicable) character here in Duddy. For me, Duddy was thoroughly despicable in the dictionary sense of "deserving to be despised"... he is the kind of person that, if I met him in real life, I would listen to (because HE would be the one doing the talking) for maybe three or four minutes maximum before my every internal instinct would be saying "run like hell"! A shyster! I agree with you Lale that Duddy at times evoked my sympathy... but then I read the NEXT page... and I wanted to strangle him again. Or... or LAUGH! I agree with you that this is "not a funny book" like Wodehouse or whatever... but seriously there were so many moments when I literally laughed out loud (an extremely rare occurrance for me when reading). For instance, the scene of the first screening of the Cohen movie produced by John Friar... truly hilarious as I picture Duddy literally trying to squirm himself into the upholstery of the chair! And just the average dialogue is funny... the Jewish banter. For instance, how many times do they say "A big deal" out of nowhere, or put the word "but" at the END of the sentence! "Jeez" it's funny!

 

I wondered if Richler had a hard time keeping his protagonist so consistently despicable, really I found very few redeeming moments for the character of Duddy. I was especially appalled with his treatment of Yvette and Virgil... the two people who tried the hardest to be a part of his dream and see it fulfilled. His forging of Virgil's cheque was for me the end of Duddy... it's like he was already a car rolling downhill with no brakes, but that action of his sent him over the cliff. He has the cold audacity to take them all out for dinner afterwards... paying the bill with his guest's own stolen money. Duddy the hero!

 

Richler does NOT leave things there though. In the final pages, we're still not sure if Duddy has actually been re-united with his conscience, but we do know that it has at least given him a good kick in the rear end. In a very poignant scene, Duddy brings his family out to his ill-gotten LAND, and the very man who represents Duddy's life-phrase about land, walks away from him in disgust. This is the old man, Duddy's "zeyda" Simcha... and I think this is the most important moment in the book. Rather than pick out his own plot of land, he quietly hobbles off the hill and back to the car. His silence and subsequent tears convey his profound disappointment with Duddy, more than words ever could. Later, at Lou's Bagel and Lox Bar, Duddy tries to literally RUN from the shame that Simcha's rejection represents. He finds Yvette, and she too, utterly rejects him. Everyone has had enough of Duddy. Has he?

 

He gets back to the Bar and is confronted with the possibility that perhaps the only thing legendary about Duddy Kravitz are the stories that his father Max is already inventing. There can be only one thing more miserable than someone who reaches his goals by trampling on others, and that is to find out that after all the trampling that has gone on... you're no success story after all! On the last page, Duddy can't even afford bus fare! He becomes a nobody... with land!

 

 @

 

Posted by Anna van Gelderen on 17/9/2001, 14:30:01

 

I am amazed that I never heard of this book before. It is excellent and deserves a wide public. Like Lale and Dave I enjoyed reading it very much.

 

Of course it is all about the American Dream gone rotten. Duddy Kravitz is the prototype of the Nobody who wants to be Somebody, thinking the only way to achieve this is by getting rich. In his case he interprets this as becoming a wealthy landowner, spurned on by his Grandfather's saying that a man without land is nothing - which is an understandable sentiment for a recent immigrant from a part of the world where Jews were not allowed to own land.

 

Anyway, Duddy is the perfect embodiment of the idea that in America (including obviously Canada) anybody can become rich if only he wants it badly enough and works hard enough. And Duddy certainly works his fingers to the bones. You must give him that. But to succeed he must also be completely ruthless. And that Duddy is, too. From the beginning the author leaves us no doubt that Duddy is a despicable character: the way he torments his teachers leaves no room for sympathy whatsoever. This impression of Duddy as a ruthless egomaniac is later reaffirmed by the way he uses trusting and unselfish people like Yvette and Virgil.

 

Still, I also sometimes felt sorry for Duddy, which is maybe what Lale meant when she said this was a sad story, too. He has such bad examples and such bad advisors. His father is a weak man who has lost his selfrespect because he has taken up pimping to supplement his meagre earnings. He is therefore only too well aware that he is no role model for his younger son, instead of which he incites Duddy to become like the Boy Wonder, the local mobster. Mr Cohen, the successful scrap metal dealer, can hardly be called a wholesome influence either. Just as Duddy, shocked into a something of a consience by Virgil's accident has tentatively come to realize that "Money isn't everything" (p. 266) Mr Cohen gives him the following advice: "'My attitude even to my oldest and dearest customer is this,' he said, making a throat-cutting gesture. 'If I thought he'd be good for half a cent more a ton I'd squeeze it out of him'." (p. 267)

 

Near the end of the book, just for a minute, when his grandfather turns away from him at the site of his dreams, it still seems possible that Duddy may come to his senses. But then a waiter recognizes him as 'the Mr Kravitz who just bought all that land' and by the way Duddy smiles and triumphantly hugs his father we know that a change of heart for the better is now permanently out of the question.

 

And even then, I still felt sorry for this person who has allowed himself to be utterly corrupted by his relentless urge for recognition and love.

 

Anna

 

 @

 

Posted by Chris on 18/9/2001, 16:02:00

 

I, too, am amazed that I've never heard of this book or its author prior to Lale's inspired stewardship. While reading I was continually surprised at Richler's subtlety and ability to layer the narrative with humor and dark truth.

 

Duddy chases the typical immigrant American (and apparently, Canadian) dream - to rise from poverty to "be somebody." His ambition is typical of immigrant communities in that his desire is not just to "be somebody," but to make sure all those around him know that he's made it. He is still imbued with the immigrant, and particularly North American Jewish immigrant, sense of otherness; of the necessity of constant vigilence to watch for those who will take away or disparage his dream.

 

Sadly for Duddy, his ambition narrows his vision and he becomes so obsessed with his dreams that he uses all those who care for him as stepping stones. His connections, his brother, his father, Virgil, and the tragically human Yvette (in my opinion, Richler's finest character in the book) are all equally used and manipulated by Duddy. The reader, while liking Duddy for his cleverness and pluck, cannot help but abhor his interpersonal behavior, and while the message that successful people must needs be manipulative sometimes is clear (Mr. Cohen's speech, for example), Duddy goes beyond the norm.

 

One of the pleasant surprises of this book was Richler's treatment of the Jewish community's collective suspicion and paranoia (what some call the ghetto mentality) as regards the non-Jews in Montreal. Some works are dominated by this suspicion and portray immigrant Jews as obsessed with the Gentiles and their hatreds. Yet any book centred around Jewish characters would be remiss to ignore this suspicion, and Richler succeeds admirably at striking a balance; allowing for its influence but not exagerating the extent to which it prays on the minds of the characters.

 

Stylistically, Richler presented something of a puzzle. In many ways his prose is very sparse - he uses very little physical description and relies almost entirely on dialogue - but at the same time is rich. I'm reminded in some ways of Hemingway's famous simplicity in that Richler doesn't bother with flourid descriptions, obtuse literary philosophizing, or deep character introspections. Instead, he let's the chracters speak for themselves, and in doing so gives the reader unparalleled insight into their motivations and fears. His style is full of subtle nuance and complexity disguised as simplicity.

 

However, this very style produces my one criticism of the book. Because situational descriptions are so sparse, there were many instances when the characters' tones and emotions were unclear. By relying so much on dialogue, dramatic conversational shifts wherein a character (usually Duddy) would become angry or suddenly pensive often seemed awkward; leaving me unclear about why the sudden emotional change. Admittedly this criticism is a small one and did not substantially detract from my utter enjoyment of this novel.

 

The Verdict: 4 Stars.

 

 @

 

Posted by Lale on 20/9/2001, 11:29:06

 

One thing that was remarkable about Duddy was that he trusted Yvette. When someone asked him (I forgot who) "How can you hand over so much land to this girl ?", Duddy didn't skip a beat, he said "So? You have to trust someone." Actually that happens to be my philosophy too. You have to trust someone, and then another someone and then another. You should trust a few someones. You can't live your life suspecting everyone. I hate it when I hear people say "never trust anybody" or "I wouldn't trust my own blood" What kind of a life that must be?

 

I am not saying that one should be naive. It is smart to be prudent. But it is also very very good to trust. Some of the people you trust will cheat you, you'll get burned, that's life, bad luck. In Ottawa, our house got broken into and every piece of jewellery that was ever given to me since I was born, 30 years worth of memories were stolen. That happened without me trusting the wrong person. You can get burned anywhere anytime.

 

Duddy, actually, trusted almost everyone, come to think of it. He trusted Yvette and Virgil, the old school friend Hersh and the intellectual types that showed up in his apartment. He didn't even worry too much about Calder or Cohen. He pretty much trusted everyone. That was an interesting aspect of him.

 

Too bad he couldn't live up to the confidence Virgil had in him.

 

Lale

 

 @

 

Posted by Lale on 20/9/2001, 11:57:13

 

Chris, I was also amazed with how most of the book relied on dialogue. And very terse dialogue too. I found it brilliantly expressive with such economical use of words.

 

I never knew you could say so much with just "jeez", "you don't say" and "sure thing".

 

I had once started writing a story entirely in dialogue. Now, I am optimistic and inspired. I will pick it up again.

 

Lale

 

 @

 

Posted by Anna van Gelderen on 22/9/2001, 16:46:27

 

That's an interesting point, Duddy's being such a trusting person. I agree that it is a positive character trait. This would grant Duddy at least one redeeming feature, unless you think it is just a manifestation of either supreme self-confidence or a complete lack of imagination. Personally I think that it also reflects a certain amount of naiveté, especially in the episode where he is set up with the roulette wheel. Every reader smells a rat from the start, but Duddy never really seems to suspect a scam. For a short while therefore we feel sorry for him (at least I did). This naiveté and his briefly being the underdog make him almost likeable. This makes him a more rounded character in my opinion.

 

Both the episode with the roulette wheel and his complete trust in Yvette also show that he is willing to take risks not everybody would have the guts to take. I don't think I would ever trust another person with all the title deeds to my land (if I had any), but then I am lawyer: I am being paid to be suspicious. By the way, can anybody tell me what "ver gerharget" means?

 

 @

 

Posted by Dave on 23/9/2001, 7:57:18

 

Tonight I was over at a friend's place... we made a real overly-dressed custom pizza and then turned on the tele to see what was there. To my utter enjoyment and surprise, a documentary of Mordecai Richler was just beginning! It was great... really old stuff, an interview with him that was done in 1970 for the National Film Board of Canada. He just seemed like such a cool guy, and he had many interesting things to say... at one point the camera panned to a pile of papers on a shelf, and then Mordecai explained that it was the manuscript of St. Urbain's Horseman in its many stages of re-writing. (Seriously, it was three stacks of paper, each about 2 feet thick). He said that his best work is usually the stuff he doesn't have to revise or re-write, which confirmed my sense of his writing as being "raw" (my word for it).

 

Anyway, the documentary was followed immediately by the movie of "The Apprenticeship Of Duddy Kravitz" starring Richard Dreyfuss as Duddy. It was very well done, and through this movie I got a new appreciation for Duddy... a sympathy even. The roulette scene is especially intense... Duddy is drenched in sweat as Irwin begins to win all the money from him. When he realizes he's lost everything, Duddy runs outside and we see him actually vomiting, he's so upset. In the movie we see that Duddy always MEANT well by the things he did. There is a scene where he screams at Yvette "Do you think I enjoyed stealing that money?" referring to his forging of Virgil's cheque, and for the first time I realized that maybe he did it because he "honestly" felt he could help Virgil (and many others at the future Kravitzville Resort) better than these people could help themselves! Dreyfuss and the guy who played Max were superb, and I highly recommend the movie. It follows the storyline remarkably well. John Friar was a blast!

 

This movie was followed by another... Richler's "Joshua Then and Now"... it was definitely Richler Night In Canada! I saw by the credits that he wrote the actual screenplays, which shows his versatility as an artist. A man of many talents who will be sorely missed. From our comments, I'm sure we will read more of his novels in the future, I know I intend to.

 

 @

 

Posted by Lale on 23/9/2001, 12:46:19

 

There is a movie??? What year? Is Dreyfus really young in it? Did you by any chance tape it?

 

Optimistically speaking, there is about 0% chance of me finding that movie in Paris. We rent videos from an English video store (the store is really "English", on the window it says "tapes for hire" and they carry a bizarre collection. They don't have any Jerry Lewis movies for instance, because they said, "he is not that popular in England". They do have all the recent Hollywood movies and a limited collection of World Cinema but they don't have anything less known or obscure.

 

I would love to watch that movie. I guess I'll have to wait until we return back to Canada.

 

Anyway, back to Duddy, under normal circumstances nobody would sign their land over to someone else but if you were underage... He didn't feel uneasy about it.

 

"Ver gerharget" must be Yiddish. I assumed it would be a curse phrase like "damn it". Now that you mentioned it, I am more curious about it. Maybe a little research in internet will reveal something. Stand by.

 

Lale

 

 @

Posted by Lale on 23/9/2001, 12:59:42

 

I found "ver derharget" in http://www.koshernosh.com/greeting.htm, it means "drop dead". They might have mistyped it. They have a good list of Yiddish greetings and nasty curse words (yes, all in the same list).

 

Lale

 

 @

Posted by Lale on 23/9/2001, 13:23:22

 

Anna, I found the video in amazon.co.uk, it is 1974 make (so Richard Dreyfuss would be young), it is 14 pounds. I will order it. After we watch it, I will mail it to you. I can't take it with me back to Canada, it wouldn't work over there.

 

To Chris, Dave and other friends who reside in North America: sorry, it won't work on your VCRs. Your best bet is your local video store.

 

Dave, it is amazing that you came across this movie on tv, what a coincidence.

 

Lale

 

 @

Posted by Dave on 24/9/2001, 0:50:28

 

Lale, as soon as I saw that the movie was going to be on I thought of you (seriously, I did) and I grabbed a videotape and taped it, with the intention of sending it to you. I was over at my friend's so I was not at all familiar with the VCR machine, and only afterwards did I realize that it was recording on the slowest possible speed, recording on top of about a hundred previous movies! So the result is NOT very good at all... as I replayed the tape today I had to exclaim... "ver gerharget" a few times! So it is good that you located the movie in a "NEW" format somewhere. I think you will really enjoy it, and yes, Dreyfuss is VERY VERY youngish in it. He's like a kid but!

 

 @

Posted by Guillermo Maynez on 2/10/2001

 

Well, obviously I was the last one to finish the book, but I do share many of your comments. I didn't really like Duddy -not my kind of friend-. I liked the book very much and I think Richler tells us a moral without being lecturizing. Of course, in a very narrow sense, Duddy is a winner: he's willing to do anything to fulfill his dreams. But, unfortunately, he's got the wrong dreams. There's no doubt Duddy was destined to make it in life, since he got the will and the drive to work hard, and he's smart as hell. But he misses every chance to be happy and by the end the result is a disaster: yes, he has the land, but not a penny to pay a bus fare, much less develop his property. He's lost the respect of his grandfather, he's cheaply sold the antiques and library of his uncle Benjy, he is in heavy debt with no means to pay for it, but, worst of all, he's lost a wonderful woman and a good friend.

 

He has stolen from Virgil and deeply hurts his feelings and those of Yvette. Contrary to what someone (I think Anna) said, I think nothing can justify what he did. Too many people -good and bad- fall victims of Duddy's absolute lack of ethics. And his background serves us to understand, but never justify- his actions.

 

I am sure that the future has many setbacks coming for Duddy and I'm glad. I hope he is never able to develop his land and he has to start back from nothing and this time he realizes that a good woman like Yvette, a smart and gentle friend like Virgil, and the respect of his grandfather are something much more valuable than a piece of land. Shame on Duddy and greetings to the late Mordecai Richler for a very good novel about the American dream perverted and twisted.

 

Good work, Lale, it was a very good book you recommended to us. I join the ranks of those who has never heard about this book (or the author). Living in Mexico, I hope I can find the next book for discussion.

 

 @

Posted by Lale on 2/10/2001, 11:37:00

 

: he's cheaply sold the

: antiques and library

: of his uncle Benjy,

 

Oh, I had totally forgotten about that. He sold the library and the antique furniture. And he blamed Uncle Benjy for that. Benjy didn't leave him any money, so he deserves his furniture to be sold. He had it coming to him. I thought Benjy's leaving Duddy the house was going to be a turning point in Duddy's life. Because, in fact, that was the most precious thing that Benjy could leave. It was his home built for his own children. But, no, Duddy needs cash. He can't morgage the house so, off goes the rare books, rare furniture... Sold for only a fraction of their worth.

 

Lale

 

 @

Posted by Suat on 11/10/2001, 23:47:37

 

I read Duddy Kravitz in three consecutive days. After the second day, I was almost ready to give full marks even though I was kind of annoyed with a couple of small nuisances.

 

Yes, they were cute, but I found the two insets much longer than they should be: the narration of his first video and Virgil's newsletter. I got the joke after the first couple of pages and afterwards I was annoyed to be taken away from the story. I also found the usage of words "wha?" and "jeez" more numerous than necessary. These words were used even out of character, for example, Yvette, a young French Canadian girl, used "wha?" in a few occasions.

 

Despite these insignificant annoyances, I was captivated by the story and I was ready to finish the masterpiece (!). Then came the turning point, Duddy's reading of his uncle's letter. It raised my expectations to the highest levels, but unfortunately Duddy went downhill from that point taking the book with him. To me, a novel is the depiction of rising of human character. If the hero fails so does the book. For the captivating story, I will give 3.5 hearts to this book.

 

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