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.
Barney’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.