Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is a kind of bildungsroman for an anti-hero. We first meet Duddy through his Scottish history teacher, the tired and broken Mr. MacPherson, who earns Duddy’s enmity when he insults Duddy’s father and quickly finds out that he has crossed the wrong boy. From the first, Mordecai Richler establishes that Duddy is a bully and prone to holding a grudge. Indeed, Duddy’s long memory figures prominently in a novel that is, as its title implies, his personal journey into adulthood.
One of the best tricks that Richler pulls off is managing to make a short span of time feel like over a decade has passed. The story takes place before Duddy reaches twenty-one (then the age of majority in Quebec), with the bulk of it happening when he is around eighteen or nineteen years old. Owing to the speed with which Duddy wheels and deals, however, it feels like more years pass. The moment Duddy graduates from school and is unleashed upon the unsuspecting Montreal landscape he never rests. Always, his grandfather’s assertion that “a man without land is nothing” nips at him, spurring Duddy onwards in the pursuit of picturesque farmland around Lac Saint-Pierre.
The novel succeeds or fails based on one’s feelings about Duddy. It’s easy to love him: he is relentless, almost a force of nature. When he is good, when he is helpful and kind to those around him, he is like nothing else. He is clever to the point of cunning, and when he’s with his father or even his grandfather, there is a tenderness to him—a fierce desire to make his family proud. Uncle Benjy recognizes this when he later confers upon Duddy the title of “head of the family”. Unlike the other Kravitz men, Duddy is an operator. For all his father’s tall tales about friendship with the enigmatic Boy Wonder, it’s Duddy who gets things done.
It’s easy to hate him: he is relentless to the point of self-destruction. When desperate—and oh, how often he gets desperate—he will lash out and make deals no matter what the cost, breaking them later if he comes to regret or feel chained by them. At times it almost feels like Duddy cares about nobody other than himself—this is untrue, manifestly, because he cares about his family … but he is not someone who gets close to others. The way his mistreats Yvette, his sometime-lover whom he calls his “girl Friday”, is the most egregious example of Duddy’s ability to hurt those close to him.
Yvette enters the story as something less than a girlfriend of Duddy’s. They grow close during his summer at a hotel in St. Agathe, where Yvette hails from. She eventually acts as a secretary and middleman for Duddy’s dealing with a notary through whom he begins to buy up the land around Lac Saint-Pierre. Yvette is older and able to hold title to land, so the land is actually in her name for most of the book. However, Duddy and Yvette’s relationship is anything but straightforward. Duddy routinely pursues other women, and other men seem to enter Yvette’s orbit (but it’s not always clear what her relationship with them is). Virgil later acts as a third body in this problem, his cohabitation with the two of them introducing a new dynamic that eventually results in Yvette’s retreat back to St. Agathe.
The novel follows a rise-then-fall pattern standard for these kinds of coming-of-age stories. Nevertheless, the ending is quite interesting. Duddy is poised between two, seeming mutually exclusive paths. He can choose kindness, goodness, a life with Yvette and a conscience free of guilt … but at the cost of that land. Or he can allow his ruthless pursuit of the land to trump all other concerns … but it means saying goodbye to Yvette forever, and likely making more enemies along the way. Richler pleads with Duddy to take the former course through the voice of Duddy’s departed Uncle Benjy in a letter that laments how the harshness of the world often makes us harsh in turn. And for a short time, it feels like Duddy will actually manage to shake off this obsession with land … for a time.
In the end, Duddy brings his family to see the lake and all the land he now owns. He has burnt a lot of bridges in the process, and the victory is bittersweet. His grandfather, the man whose advice started this all and to whom Duddy promised some land for a farm, is upset by the price of all this. Duddy suddenly finds his triumph now tastes of ashes. But he is not to be beaten so easily, and the end of the novel implies that Duddy is committed to being a “smooth operator” and a big player in the community of Montreal Jewish businessmen. Whether this makes him happy or not is not question Richler answers.
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is a compact and careful story with a lot to recommend about it. The description on the back of my edition rightly pegs Duddy as “one of the most magnetic anti-heroes in Canadian fiction”. This is the first novel I’ve read from Mordecai Richler, and already I understand why he has received such acclaim. Although the story is deeply connected with the topical concerns of that era—the integration of Jews into a larger, predominantly francophone Montreal; the threat of Communism and the McCarthyism of the United States; the nascent movie production business—it still feels timeless, and it helped me understand how people who grew up in an area like Duddy’s might have felt and struggled back then. You can’t ask for much more than that.