Barney’s Version, by Mordecai Richler

KfC's 1997 copy

KfC's 1997 copy

Mordecai Richler (1931-2001) enjoys a well-deserved international reputation. The author of 10 adult novels and numerous other works (including three children’s books), he has come to be regarded as a voice who captured the Jewish — and indeed, non-Francophone — experience in Quebec (most particularly with Duddy Kravitz, but also Solomon Gursky) in a way that no other author even approached.

For those of who lived in Canada during his “mature” period, it is also true that Mordecai the person slowly, but surely, overtook Mordecai the author. He was a boulevardier whose exploits in the bars and streets of Montreal could not be ignored. He became a curmudgeon of the first order — unfailingly charming with some, insufferably rude with others. And his distaste for the separatists of Quebec was legendary, even though he could hardly be called an advocate of federalism. Nothing was too sacred for Mordecai to piss upon.

giller avatarBarney’s Version won the fourth Giller Prize in 1997. It was to be Richler’s last novel, published only four years before his death. Any reading of it now would seem to indicate that Richler was fully aware that this was his last work of fiction and that he would waste no opportunity in exploiting this last chance. He did not, in spades.

There is a plot to Barney’s Version. Barney Panofsky, at the age of 67, is putting pen to paper for the first time to write his autobiography, motivated by the looming publication of another autobiography from his long time nemesis, Terry McIver, whom he first met way back in 1950 in Paris. Barney is a wealthy producer of television commercials, industrial films and general schlock. He is also in the early, well perhaps advanced, stages of senile dementia, perhaps Alzheimer’s. While he admits, grudgingly, that he is by definition only an occasionally-reliable narrator, he has a lot of axes to grind, dating back almost a half century, which he has every intention of doing in this manuscript. And grind them he does.

The novel is structured in three parts, devoted to each of Barney’s three wives. The first, Clara, he married while in Paris in the early 1950s. A hopeless artist and poet at the time, Clara committed suicide — she has gone on to become a feminist icon in the 1990s when Barney is writing this book. The second, known throughout the book only as the Second Mrs. Panofsky, was a result of Barney’s attempt to go straight. That did not last long as Barney fell in love with the third, Miriam, at his wedding reception. Miriam, the mother of his three children (one of whom edited this autobiography, complete with correcting footnotes) left him a few years ago but Barney is still convinced that he can win her back.

Oh, and there may be a murder involved, for which Barney was charged, found not guilty in the eyes of the law, but not society. It is a sign of his memory loss that even he is not sure whether or not he actually did it. You will have to read the book to find out.

And if you think that is what Barney’s Version is about, then there is some wonderful land in a swamp in Florida that I would love to sell you. This rather long excerpt is a much better illustration of the book:

Yes, carbon paper, if any of you out there are old enough to remember what that was. Why, in those days we not only used carbon paper, but when you phoned somebody you actually got an answer from a human being on the other end, not an answering machine with a ho, ho, ho message. In those olden times you didn’t have to be a space scientist to manage the gadget that flicked your TV on and off, that ridiculous thingamabob that now comes with twenty push buttons, God knows what for. Doctors made house calls. Rabbis were guys. Kids were raised by their moms instead of in child-care pens like piglets. Software meant haberdashery. There wasn’t a different dentist for gums, molars, fillings, and extractions — one nerd managed the lot. If a waiter spilled hot soup on your date, the manager offered to pay her cleaning bill and sent over drinks, and she didn’t sue for a kazillion dollars, claiming “loss of enjoyment of life”. If the restaurant was Italian it still served something called spaghetti, often with meatballs. It was not yet pasta with smoked salmon, or linguini in all the colours of the rainbow, or penne topped with a vegeterian steaming pile that looked like dog sick. I’m ranting again. Digressing. Sorry about that.

You can open this book almost anywhere in the first 350 pages and find that curmudgeon at play. Boulevardier? Note the Romeo y Julietta cigar on the book cover — Montecristo’s, Cabana’s and others are featured throughout the book. Barney drinks a lot of Macallan single malt (Richler’s favorite), but many other malts (and cognac and champagne) also get consumed. Food? Lots of pate, escargot and oysters in the opening Paris section, but a continuing thread of medium fat brisket, latkes and knishes in the Montreal section. Part of figuring out this book is to know how to rank your cigars, whisky and food — the place on the scale of the indulgence being consumed (be it cigar, whisky or food) is a reliable indicator of how seriously you should treat that particular subject.

All of which is to say that, despite the existence of the plot, this novel is Richler unloading on the world. It is not a double-barrelled shotgun, it is one with at least eight barrels, and very wide-ranging shot. Nothing escapes it: Hemmingway, Pierre Trudeau, the separatistes, Israel, feminists, the Montreal Canadiens, many movies, Toronto (oh my god, Toronto), British semi-aristocrats — the list is endless. Another example:

I understand why our most perspicacious men of letters object to the current trend in biography, its mean practitioners revelling in the carve-up of genius. But the truth is, nothing delights me more than a biography of one of the truly great that proves he or she was an absolute shit. I’m a sucker for studies of those who, in the words of that friend of Auden’s (not MacNeice, not Isherwood, the other guy) “…travelled a short while toward the sun/And left vivid air signed with honour.” But took no prisoners en route, now the facts are known. Say, the story of T.S. Eliot having his first wife locked up in the bin, possibly because she had written some of his best lines. Or a book that delivers the dirt on Thomas Jefferson, who kept slaves and provided the prettiest one with an unacknowledged child. (“How is it,” asked Dr. Johnson, “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty amongst the drivers of the negroes?”) Or reveals that Martin Luther King was a plagiarist and a compulsive fucker of white women. Or that Admiral Byrd, one of my boyhood heroes, was actually a smooth-talking liar, a terrible navigator, an air traveller so frightened of flying that he was frequently drunk while others did the piloting, and a man who never hesitated to take unearned credit. Or tells how F.D.R. cheated on Eleanor. Or that J.F.K. didn’t really write Profiles in Courage. Or how Bobby Clarke slashed Kharlamov across the ankles, taking out the better player in that first thriller of a hockey series against the incredible Russians. Or that Dylan Thomas was a shnorrer born. Or that Sigmund Freud faked some of his case notes. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

How many icons can you insult in one paragraph (and I haven’t even quoted the whole paragraph)? I’d say this book sets the record. Nothing escapes Richler’s ire. And then, in the final 75 pages, he remembers that he has a plot — and he delivers on that plot.

I liked this book when I first read it 13 years ago — I’ll admit, I was mesmerized by it this time around. I suspect that is because I am edging closer to Barney’s age (and I’ve drunk my share of single malts, etc., and am starting to forget names). If you have read Richler and enjoyed him, Barney’s Version is a book not to be missed. If you haven’t read Richler, don’t start here — there are simply too many inside jokes (and I’m not sure how well it travels outside of Canada). Go instead to The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz or Solomon Gursky Was Here. And when they talk about Philip Roth and Saul Bellow as great authors, once you have read those two novels, you will join me in saying “And what about Mordecai Richler?”

A final warning. Canadian “movie mogul” Robert Lantos (would Richler ever love that!) optioned rights for this book a few years ago and it would appear the movie may actually get made next year. Do not, on any account, wait for the movie. It might be quite good in its way, but it will be a pale reflection of the book.

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35 Responses to “Barney’s Version, by Mordecai Richler”

  1. Anna van Gelderen Says:

    How interesting! I recently bought this novel, after having enjoyed The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz several years ago, AND I am starting to forget names. This is therefore bound to be a success with me ;-)
    I must be sure to read it before the movie comes out, though, because naturally I want to avoid the impression that I am one of those people who only a read a book after they have seen the movie.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I will be very interested in your impression, Anna. So much of Richler’s satire relates to marginal Canadian events that I wonder how it lands with someone living elsewhere. On the other hand, the early Paris sections do set up a lot of the rest of the book and they are truly international. Do return with your thoughts once you have read it — and while the book looks and feels long, it isn’t. One of the things that Richler is particularly good at is moving his narrative at a very quick pace.

  3. Sheila o'Brien Says:

    Now Duddy Kravitz is shilling for your blog? Oy!

  4. Arthur from Montreal Says:

    Kevin, your review of Barney’s Version is perceptive and enthusiastic enough to make me want to reread the book. Incidentally, the film version is in production now, here in Mordecai Richler’s native city. The film, produced by Robert Lantos, stars Paul Giamatti in the title role, with Dustin Hoffman playing his father Izzy and Rachelle Lefebvre, Minnie Driver and Rosamund Pike as the first, second and third Mrs. Panofsky’s respectively.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Welcome, Arthur from Montreal. Thank you for the update on the film — I’m sure people will find it useful and I was not aware the production had already started. Your comment also gives me the excuse to add something that I couldn’t fit into the review. Many of the characters in this book, particularly in the later Montreal sections, are based on equally well-known Montreal characters (i.e. newspaper columnist Nick Auf der Maur). I’m an Albertan and don’t know Montreal well enough to know them, beyond knowing they exist. Somebody who knows the city better than I do will find a whole additional layer of interest. And I do recommend a reread — it was certainly worth it for me.

  6. deucekindred Says:

    What an excellent review!! The second I finished this I re-read it again. My only encounter with Richler consists of the Jacob Two-Two books so I have ordered both the Apprenticeship of Duddy Kavits and Solomon Gursky was Here and then i’ll move on to Barney’s version.

    Thanks! :)

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks, deucekindred. I pulled Barney’s Version out as part of a project to reread some previous Giller winners, but I too plan on heading into the basement and retrieving Duddy and Solomon. May even treat myself to new volumes if the ones down there are as beaten up as I expect them to be.

  8. Tom Cunliffe Says:

    A hilarious quoted paragraph towards the end of your review. A writer with a chip on his shoulder indeed.

    I’ve not read anything by this author despite his international standing – thanks for the background and review

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tom: There are those who would said that Mordecai’s chip eventually not only became bigger that his shoulder, it was bigger than his whole body. He is one of the better satirists of the modern era. If you haven’t read him, I would recommend Duddy Kravitz, although it has been some years since my last read (I plan another in a few months) and I do have a fear that it may be somewhat dated.

  10. Gillian Howard Says:

    Kevin — I think I’m remembering correctly but will plead age if I am not…….wasn’t there a Richler typeface created for this book? G.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Gill: I don’t know — my version looks pretty conventional. Sarah, can you help please? Kevin

  12. Gillian Howard Says:

    ——————————————————————————–
    Dispatches from the Sporting Life

    Written by Mordecai Richler

    Trade Paperback | 320 pages | Vintage Canada | Sports & Recreation; Humor – Essays
    978-0-676-97478-2 (0-676-97478-3)

    May 27, 2003 | $22.95

    The first book to be set in the new Richler typeface, commissioned by Random House of Canada Limited and Jack Rabinovitch in memory of Mordecai.

    Mordecai Richler’s final book pays homage to his personal heroes and celebrates a writer’s love of sport with his trademark irascibility, humour and acuity.

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thank you Gill — I think I would have noticed the type face in
    Barney’s Version. And I have not read Dispatches etc. so would not have noticed it. I’ll try to pick up an example for posting.

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Here is a link to the Richler typeface — http://www.canadiandesignresource.ca/officialgallery/?p=1136
    which is taken from Barney’s Version. I note that McClelland and Stewart have reissued Duddy in hardback and wonder if it is in the new typeface. Will report back when I have it in hand.

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Here is some more data on the Richler typeface from Sarah MacLachlan at House of Anansi:
    Kevin:

    The typeface was commissioned by Jack Rabinovitch in honour of his great friend. And yes when they did the Dispatches collection they designed it with that type. Noah’s book was also designed using that typeface and a number of books since…The Giller Prize site should have some info on the creation of the type. I think that one of the great things about it are the dingbats – a cigar, a rose, lots of Mordecai icons.

    s

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Here is another link — http://www.shinntype.com/Richler.pdf — to the design of the Richler typeface which includes the dingbats.

  17. Randi Solomon Says:

    I enjoyed your review very much, although I think this would be a perfectly good introduction to Richler, as I have my grade 12 English class read it, and most have had no prior experience with his work. As well, a minor question… wasn’t it solely Michael, Barney’s son, who edits and footnotes the text, offering corrections where anocronisms and flaws are found?

    I look forward to the film (even though it will be cast ironically by mainly American actors). What would Richler say to that, I wonder?

  18. Randi Solomon Says:

    rather, “anachronism” – pardon the misspelling : )

  19. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Randi: My impression (and I have not gone back to the book) is that Michael did consult with his siblings, but did retain final control. It may be an ambiguity in the book that is deliberate. Certainly, Michael is responsible for the footnotes.

    I don’t think Richler was a Canadian cultural protectionist, so I don’t think he would object to the casting. I do think that if someone had said all the actors had to be Canadian, he would be the first to stand up and shout “bullshit” or something far more offensive.

    We do miss him.

  20. Anna van Gelderen Says:

    Hi again, Kevin. I promised I would read Barney’s Version before the end of the year and I did. I finished it a couple of days ago and loved it. The references to local politics and so on did not really stand in the way of my enjoyment of the novel and I just skimmed the paragraphs devoted to icehockey (as I suspect most people do).
    And wasn’t it funny that Duddy Kravitz kept popping up every now and then?
    I have already put Solomon Gursky Was Here on my wish list, so that will be my next Richler read.

  21. KevinfromCanada Says:

    One of the surprises of 2009 for me was how much I enjoyed Barney’s Version — I liked it when it was published, but found it even more perceptive now. I have Duddy ready to go in the next week or two and also intend to get to Solomon Gursky in 2010 — don’t hesitate to stop by here with thoughts if you get to it before I do.

  22. moviegeek Says:

    I have not read the book but after seeing the film I might do it.
    Unfortunately the film felt too episodic and there were too many characters most of whom were barely touched and became more like caricatures.
    However Giamatti is AMAZING!!
    this is my review of the film

    http://wp.me/p19wJ2-cv

  23. KevinfromCanada Says:

    moviegeek: I don’t normally post links, but thank you for this one. I know that Richler’s family thought the movie was going to be good when it was in production. And I can certainly report increased hits on this book review since the movie opened. So thank you very much for your thoughts on the movie — I haven’t seen it, so I will refrain from offering extraneous comments on it.

  24. Lee Monks Says:

    I picked up the book from a local Oxfam recently, read about 50 pages and put it down, not because I didn’t like it: I found it riotously entertaining and am saving it ‘for best’. I have since watched the film which was very good (Giamatti is typically great) although how you’re supposed to get that sense of Richler’s restlessly mirthful wordplay translated to the screen fully I’m not sure. Surely impossible.

  25. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lee: I figure that Richler provides enough character that a good actor has lots to explore (and go beyond the book). But I also agree that “mirthful wordplay” (actually, it oftens has a harsher edge to it) is reserved for those who actually read the book. So the book and the film end up being two quite different things, which is not a problem for me at all.

  26. Lee Monks Says:

    Absolutely: most cinematic adaptations suffer precisely due to pointless attempts at overt adherence. The book should surely serve as a template in most cases from which the director and actors draw the apposite elements out of.

  27. Heather Says:

    I have my English degree – what a tragedy that Richler wasn’t a part of my curriculum. I absolutely loved this book! I chose it for my book club (meeting tonight) – not sure how it will be reviewed. It was dense and challenging, and I’ll admit I had to look up many social/political/literary references.

    Though I did read Duddy Kravitz in Junior High, and enjoyed it (I’m thinking I would like it more now), Barney’s Version is a masterpiece! I still haven’t watched the movie – I fear for great disappointment.

  28. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Heather: Thanks for the comment — I received it as I was getting ready to write my review of Richler’s short story collection, The Street, which will be posted tomorrow. There is no doubt that Richler occupies a very special place in Canadian literary history.

    The movie of Barney’s Version is just fine as a movie, but no where near as good as the book. The author is just to “on” in his writing for a movie to be able to incorporate all that you can find in the book. It is worth a watch but wait a while before you try it.

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