Novelist hasn't quit his day job yet
For close to 40 years now, Morley Torgov, 84, has lived two distinctly different lives, juggling law with writing.
By day, from about 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. five days a week, he practises general commercial law in his downtown Toronto office, handling corporate work, working on real estate contracts and drawing up wills and trusts.
“Once I get home, my law office may as well be on another planet,” he said. “It’s not hard to disengage from law. I can compartmentalize my life.”
At night, after dinner and a drink with his wife, Anna Pearl, and on Saturday and Sunday mornings as well, he assumes his other identity as a novelist, spinning elaborate plots and creating complex characters.
“I won’t tell you how many hours I spend daydreaming,” he said, suggesting that his professional career may be an adjunct of his love affair with the written word.
Torgov, a lawyer since the mid-1950s, published his first book, A Good Place to Come From, in 1974. A memoir of growing up Jewish in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., it struck gold, having won the 1975 Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour.
He rewrote A Good Place to Come From six or seven times, thereby setting a precedent for himself. “The only way to write is to edit yourself mercilessly,” he said.
In 1983, six years after the publication of his second book and first novel, The Abramsky Variations, he won his second Leacock prize for The Outside Chance of Maximilian Glick, which was adapted for the screen and television as a feature film and a CBC series, Max Glick.
Torgov’s next novel, St. Farb’s Day, (1990), was nominated for a Leacock award, as was his young adult novel, Stickler and Me (2002).
The novel he wrote between these books, The War to End all Wars (1998), was in part based on his father’s experiences as a soldier in the Russian army from 1914 to 1917 in World War I.
“I started off aiming at a Jewish audience,” he said in an interview in his mid-town home. “But after my fifth book, I didn’t want to focus on Jewish topics any more. I’d been there and done, had come to the end of the line and felt I had to branch out.”
So, in a leap of faith, Torgov decided to reinvent himself and become a crime novelist. In 2008, the first of his Inspector Hermann Preiss detective novels, Murder in A-Major, appeared.
As he describes him, Preiss is an articulate, clever and sophisticated 40- something German who has transcended his miserably humble origins and worked his way up the greasy ladder of success.
And as its title may suggest, Murder in A-Major is musically infused, turning on a plot to drive the composer Robert Schumann insane and involving his wife, Clara, his protégé Johannes Brahms and a fellow composer, Franz Liszt.
The second novel in the Hermann Preiss mystery series, The Mastersinger from Minsk (Dundurn) is due to be published on June 16 and concerns no less a figure than the composer Richard Wagner and a scheme to murder him on the day of the première of his opera, Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg.
To Torgov, Wagner is one of the greatest geniuses of all time, his antisemitism notwithstanding. As he put it, “He has always fascinated me. He was a marvellous musician, but a deplorable human being, a quintessential scumbag.”
Torgov is currently working on his third Hermann Preiss novel, the tentative title of which is Key Witness. Franz Liszt and P.T. Barnum, the American circus impresario, are the central characters in a book that unfolds in New York.
As he pointed out, the Hermann Preiss series is steeped in historical facts and based on extensive research.
Being old school, he gathers his material from books rather than on the Internet. Amazingly enough, two of the books he still dips into were presented to him as bar mitzvah gifts in 1940.
The Preiss series is set in the 1850s and 1860s, one of the richest and most productive eras in the annals of classical music, when rivalries between composers were sharp and even vicious.
Torgov turned to the crime genre for commercial and personal reasons.
“Detective stories are popular, so I jumped on the bandwagon,” he explained. “But I’ve always been interested in classical music. I started taking piano lessons at the age of six or seven.”
Torgov was born in 1927, three years after his father, a Ukrainian immigrant, arrived in Canada and the year he set down roots in Sault Ste. Marie, where he owned two retail clothing stores.
“He wanted me to become a doctor, but my goal was to be a journalist,” Torgov recalled. “Law was really a compromise. I had to make a buck.”
Not enamoured of its cold winters and remote location, Torgov was glad to leave Sault Ste. Marie, which had 35 to 40 Jewish families in a population of 25,000 when he departed in 1947 to study at the University of Chicago.
Recalling his hometown, he mused, “It was a good place to get out of. It was too confining. I couldn’t wait to leave.”
As a young man, Torgov disliked the routine and outdated language of the law. “But the older I got, the more confidence I had in my profession.”
He has no intention of retiring. “They’ll have to carry me out of my office,” he said, noting that his law practice has kept him intellectually sharp and in touch with friends and acquaintances.
Writing has fulfilled him, even if royalties have not always met his hopes or expectations. Yet he has no desire to devote himself solely to his pastime. “I couldn’t sit in a garret writing all day,” added Torgov.
Oddly enough, Murder in A-Major, translated into French, Greek and Korean, has sold more copies in South Korea than in any other country.
“Sales in Canada have been fair. Not as much as I wanted,” he said.
His most commercially successful books have been The Outside Chance of Maximilian Glick and A Good Place to Come From, both of which have gone through several hardcover and softcover editions. Although not quite as popular, St. Farb’s Day, a novel revolving around a Jewish lawyer, was the recipient of the Toronto Book Award.
Since 1984, Torgov has donated 15 batches of his literary working papers – drafts of books, memorabilia and correspondence – to the Ontario Jewish Archives. “Its efforts at storage and preservation have been marvellous,” he said. “It’s a first-rate organization.”