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Solomon Gursky Was Here [Paperback]

Mordecai Richler
1.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

March 1989 0788152629 978-0788152627 First Edition
Berger, son of the failed poet L.B. Berger, is in the grips of an obsession. The Gursky family with its colourful bootlegging history, its bizarre connections with the North and the Inuit, and its wildly eccentric relations, both fascinates and infuriates him. His quest to unravel their story leads to the enigmatic Ephraim Gursky: document forger in Victorian England, sole survivor of the ill-fated Franklin expedition and charasmatic religious leader of the Arctic. Of Ephraim's three grandsons, Bernard has fought, wheeled and cheated his way to the head of a liquor empire. His brother Morrie has reluctantly followed along. But how does Ephraim's protege, Solomon, fit in? Elusive, mysterious and powerful, Solomon Gursky hovers in the background, always out of Moses' grasp, but present-like an omen.
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Bathroom walls, highway rock faces, and school desks often bear the simplest of human marks: X was here. Name, action, location: simple. However, anyone following such a trail--say, Mordecai Richler's protagonist Moses Berger--meets a fundamental problem. Solomon Gursky Was Here, but now he's not. Where is he now?

Biographer and boozer Moses Berger, the son of a failed poet, develops a lifelong obsession with Solomon, the black sheep of the rags-to-riches Gursky dynasty, whose history is inseparable from the rise of the Canadian nation. An ambitious gambler, autodidact, and daring lover, Solomon disappeared in his solo plane just as the family business shifted from midnight bootlegging to a multifaceted commercial empire. It may be that Solomon decided to leave his brothers (scheming Bernard and bumbling Morrie) behind to chase the major events of 20th-century history. Perhaps, like Ephraim, his forger-explorer-preacher grandfather, Solomon has returned to the solitude of the Arctic. Or he may have been murdered by his cunning brother Bernard: "Dig deep enough into the past of any noble family and there is a Bernard at the root. The founder with the dirty fingernails. The killer."

Sprawling across continents and generations, this quasi-biblical--or, better, Godfather-esque--epic is fundamentally concerned with greed. Power, money, flesh, and attention all tempt the innumerable characters in a wicked tale of adoration and betrayal. More fantastical than any of Richler's other novels, this shimmering web of disappearance and deception questions the wisdom and even the viability of any sort of loyalty. --Darryl Whetter --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

A brilliant but alcoholic biographer obsesses over Solomon Gursky, the outrageously daring bootlegger grandson of legendary lecher and arctic explorer Ephraim Gursky. PW said that the author's fifth novel brims "with sardonic humor, antic imagination and bravura storytelling skill. . . . A perfect, irreverent take on all levels of Canadian society."
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Solomon Gursky sucks Nov. 13 2011
Format:Hardcover
Pure crap. About half way through this book I decided to file it under "G". Very boring , very Jewish and totally ridiculous.
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Amazon.com: 4.6 out of 5 stars  12 reviews
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The next best place . . . Feb. 21 2001
By Stephen A. Haines - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
In Christian mythology the Wandering Jew is a subject of scorn. Bereft of a homeland, this accursed wraith crosses the landscape again and again, often as not bringing some tragedy or distress in his wake. Seen as the symbol of the Jewish Diaspora, the wanderer is the subject of suspicion, fear and accusation. This solitary and often tragic figure gives rise to repression and becomes the justification for unspeakable acts, of which the 20th Century Holocaust is merely the latest and best known.

Mordecai Richler has given us an astonishing and riveting account of one of these wanderers as he might have appeared in North America. As a child, Montrealer Moses Berger encounters the Gursky family. It's the first step in what will become an almost heroic quest for the truth behind the Gursky family's shadowy ancestor, Ephraim Gursky and the grandson, Solomon, who accompanied him on a journey in Canada's North. Ephraim, against all reason, apparently shipped aboard the HMS Erebus with John Franklin's ill-starred expedition into the Arctic. Richler demonstrates the Christian attitude toward the Jews with accounts of the many searchers for Franklin's remains. Those necrophiles uniformly scoffed at the notion a Jew could have been aboard, let alone survived, since "all know" these urban dwellers wouldn't have the fortitude or presumption to attempt such a feat. The evidence, however, suggests . . .

Richler has woven a rich tapestry with this mixture of invention and history. He does it so well that separating the threads of fact and fiction becomes an insurmountable task. And why not? He's given us a unique picture of the world's second largest nation. A fresh picture indeed, given that the nation of "two solitudes" conveniently forgets those of its number who are neither English nor French. If Ephraim Gursky sailed with Franklin and initiated a dynasty of Inuit Jews with such names as Gor-ski, Girskee, or Goorski. They wander, like their mentor, into the southern lands wearing, against all reason [again!] Jewish prayer shawls. They seem as homeless as their cantor, fulfilling, even in these outlandish circumstances, the Christian prejudice against wandering Jews.

Homeless he may be, but rootless the Wandering Jew is not. No matter where they settled, the Jews brought an endless capacity for adaptation, seizing whatever opportunities emerged to assist in their survival. Wherever they settled, they viewed it as "the next best place". The homeland of Israel remained within their consciousness, but they would do the best they could in whichever land they occupied. In the Gursky's case, circumstances kept opportunity at bay until Americans, in a flush of Protestant fervour, enacted Prohibition, almost certainly one of the least honoured pieces of federal legislation ever enacted. This was the moment the Gursky clan was able to seize, starting from minimal beginnings to emerge as a mighty empire built from alcohol. Richler has again merged fantasy with reality as his account of this aspect of the Gursky family would be better spelt "Bronfman".

Mordecai Richler's inventive mind and well-honed writing skills have provided us with a true masterpiece. He knows people, certainly the Montreal Jewish community, but far beyond that urban confine also. He takes us to the Arctic, the Prairies, flirts with England, pokes into America. The only missing scene is Van Dieman's Land [Tasmania], where Ephraim Gursky arrived as a transportee only two years before Franklin arrived as governor. These, however, are simply locations in which Richler can place his people. His cast is enormous, but he handles the lot with unmatched skill, presenting every persona as fully credible. We may not know the Jewish community intimately, but reading this book is an excellent means of viewing that community and how it sees the world. Moses Berger's quest for the Gursky story makes him the pivot around which this superb novel orbits as he encounters the key players in the story - especially the Wandering Jew.

It's good to see this book restored back in print. That gives more people an opportunity to comprehend Richler's absolute mastery of story-telling and conveying moods. He remains Canada's leading writing talent. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars an often interesting yet overcooked saga... Sept. 19 2003
By lazza - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I am a fan of Mordecai Richler. His books are well written, and often hilarious (..using the same sort of Judaic satiric wit ala Joseph Heller). And in 'Solomon Gursky...' we have a juicy premise: a Jew from mid-19th century travels to Canada and becomes a legendary figure among the Inuits, with his legacy felt over a hundred years later (in the twisted lives of his grandchildren). Unfortunately I was overall disappointed with the book. Why? ...
Well quite simply Richler has made the book far too grandiose in scope. He introduces too many characters, too many disconnected scenes, and the overall focus of the story becomes clouded over long before the end. While there are a good many interesting elements and characters to enjoy, and Richler's prose is as fine as ever, the book compares badly to his later works (such as Barney's Version). 'Solomon Gursky...' is a clear example of where less would have been more.
Bottom line: Richler goodness is largely wiped out by this overly long and complex saga. For die-hard Richler fans only.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Richler's best novel Nov. 12 2013
By VG - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Mordecai Richler's most ambitious and best novel, Solomon is a great, sprawling beast of a book, something to absorb slowly and read over several evenings. It's not a page-turner, exactly; rather, it's a deliciously-crafted, extensive, home-cooked meal - something to be enjoyed and savoured over an extended period.

While he was writing it, Richler famously said that it was a long, convoluted novel that he could shaft with a review far more scathing than anything he was likely to see once it was published. And many people complain that it's difficult to follow, but that's balderdash. Anyone who pays attention can follow it all without problem. I see the same charge leveled against Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin. Whenever anyone writes a book with a large cast, the whining starts: it should have been shorter, with fewer characters. I say the opposite: when you pen one delicious paragraph after another like Richler or Atwood, just keep it coming. Pile it on. How sad when it comes to an end.

This is the closest thing we have to the Great Canadian Novel (in English). The cast of characters, the action that sweeps down through the ages through all regions of the country, the ambitions, the losses, the tragedies, the very largeness and brashness of it all - it's as though Richler invented a whole mythology for Canada in one fell swoop. Such was not his intention, I'm sure, but the novel nonetheless has a huge sense of the country and its people. A beautiful piece of work. Five stars.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This has to be my favorite book of all time. April 19 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This book is among my favorites of all time. I have actually re-read it four times and each time I have found something new. Smith the dedicated anti-bootlegger and anti-corruption campaigner, comes through as a complete pain in the neck and don't you hate him. Solomon, the crook is a hero. A reader would hate to be like Moses Berger but is it not a sneaking regard that you are left with. It was great. And I'll read it again.
4.0 out of 5 stars Intricate, Intellectual, Sardonic, Complex March 7 2011
By Troy Parfitt - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Mordecai Richler's penultimate novel, and certainly his most ambitious, Solomon Gursky Was Here is a yarn spun around the Gursky brothers - Bernard, Morrie, and Solomon - kings of a whiskey empire forged from bootlegging, millionaires many times over, and based on Canada's Bronfman family. The brood constitute the grandchildren of one Ephraim Gursky, a Jew and sole survivor of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition, an 1846 attempt at unmasking the Northwest Passage.

Ephraim cuts a trickster figure; a Holy man and polyglot who has been self-employed as both thief and forger. In the Arctic, confronted by the Inuit, he calls forth an "eclipse," thus saving his hide and catapulting to the echelon of deity. He establishes a Jewish sect whose offspring sport parkas with Orthodox markings. He learns Latin, and, in one of the book's more bizarre, and irrelevant, sections, gives the business to the instructor's rigidly Christian wife. Glimpses of Ephraim's life come to us via Solomon, which come to us via Moses Berger, a scholarly alcoholic and philanderer who becomes obsessed with Solomon Gursky after he's killed in a plane crash in the North, perhaps because of some mechanical tampering at the hands of his brother, Bernard.

But is Solomon really dead? We're not certain, and the complex, time-skipping narrative, interlaced with snippets of Yiddish, machinations of bootlegging on the Prairies, Inuit myth, Judaism, a palm-greasing scene set against the backdrop of a fishing expedition in northern New Brunswick, references to Carl Jung, descriptions of nineteenth century London, analyses of human greed, perversion, and corruption, and a thousand other subjects, themes, connections, symbols, asides, etc., takes on a sort of mystery element. Through Berger's research (he is connected to the Gurkys through his father, a failed poet hired by the liquor barons as a speech writer cum cultural advisor, like the Bronfman's hired the poet A.M. Klein), we catch glimpses of Solomon at the Long March, Watergate, Nairobi, Israel, and, of course, the Canadian arctic. Or perhaps it's not really him. Or perhaps his sprit now resides in an arctic raven, a trickster figure in Native myth, playing games on mankind and watching on in amusement. You imagine a plot chalked out on about four dozen blackboards and you wish the first chapter were preceded by a genealogical chart. Solomon Gursky Was Here is outstandingly complex, and you wonder, more than once, in spite of the brainy detail and impressive intellectual workouts, if the narrator knows where he's going.

Many consider this to be Richler's finest novel, and although I would say it's the most remarkable (you can't help but marvel at how much the author knows, and the enormity of the task he's taken on), I enjoyed Barney's Version and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz better, even though, stylistically, Duddy Kravitz isn't even in the same league as Solomon Gursky. That isn't to say I didn't enjoy the book; I did, but alongside the sections that shone, there were sections unnecessary. Still, I'm giving the book four stars. It took Richler a decade to complete, and he remains, for me, Canada's best and most important writer. Technically, there are others who write as well (Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies), but there is no one more compelling. Although this book is often compared to Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, the analogy is fragile; yes, it's generational; yes, it delves into magical realism. But Solomon Gursky Was Here remains unique.

Troy Parfitt, author of Why China Will Never Rule the World
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