Solomon Gursky Was Here

Solomon Gursky Was HereAfter all his years on the rivers it finally struck him that he wasn’t the angler but the salmon. A teasing, gleeful Solomon casting the flies over his head, getting him to roll, rise, and dance his tail at will. P.533

In what is touted by critics as possibly Canadian author Mordecai Richler’s best novel, we accompany Moses Berger in his obsessive quest to unravel the secrets of the Gurskys, a Jewish family who ran one of the biggest Canadian business empires. Berger, the son of a Jewish poet, a drunkard and an unsuccessful writer, particularly searches for traces of Solomon Gursky, the most enigmatic of the three Gursky brothers who saw the rise of their family’s fortune during the prohibition years as bootleggers and rumrunners. Fleeing court action against him and his family, Solomon reportedly died in a plane crash.

Thus, following Berger, we zigzag through time and place, from 19th century London, the Arctic Circle, up to 20th century Canada. There’s the adventure of the Gursky patriarch, Ephraim, a criminal from London who joins the ill-fated Franklin expedition to the Arctic, survives it and lives with Inuit tribes, and then swindles hapless pioneers in 19th century Canadian frontier lands. We read Ephraim’s grandchildren’s exploits in building their family empire, their dysfunctional lives, and the feuds that followed over their wealth. Berger’s own storyline, his childhood and the life of an unsuccessful writer in the figure of Berger’s own father.

Newspaper clippings, letters, even a chapter from a novel supposedly written by one of the characters, and other memorabilia that adds to Berger’s investigation are inserted in between chapters. Historical figures hobnob with fictional ones. And since Berger’s quest (and thus the narrative) spans six generations of the Gurskys, we get a family tree (and a map of Canada) before the first chapter begins. It’s a wonder how each disparate scene are weaved together into a richly coherent whole.

Solomon Gursky Was Here is part of Penguin’s Modern Classics series. I don’t know if it really is a classic. How do they determine such things anyway? But this is one is a good and highly readable book. ■

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2 Comments

  1. The two Penguin modern classics I recently bought (Borges and Anais Nin) finally provided an answer to the above-stated question of how the publisher determines a modern classic.

    This is found in the last page before the back cover: The Modern Classics list includes “an organic, ever-growing and ever-evolving list of books from the last hundred years that we believe will continue to be read over and over again.”

    “They could be books that have inspired political dissent… may have caused shock and outrage. Many have led to great films… They have broken down barriers – whether social, sexual, or… the boundaries of language itself…” and so on.

    The key point there, as I highlighted, is expressed by the phrase “that we believe…”

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