Archive for the ‘Richler, Mordecai (4)’ Category

KfC’s 2013 Project: Solomon Gursky Was Here, by Mordecai Richler

March 17, 2013

Personal first edition

Personal first edition

Including Mordecai Richler in KfC’s 2013 project of re-reading Canadian authors who influenced me was a no-brainer decision from the start. Like any Canadian reader of my era, I have known his fiction well for decades (and interviewed the man himself more than once). It was equally impossible to not be aware of his controversial political reputation — Quebec sovereignists have a one-man category of detest reserved for him. And there is no doubt that he is a special “friend” of the blog: The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is easily the most popular archived post here and Barney’s Version holds down sixth spot.

Having already reviewed those two popular choices did mean that deciding which Richler novel to include provided some challenge. In the final analysis, it came down to St. Urbain’s Horseman or Solomon Gursky Was Here — the first of those two is probably both better known and more typical of his work, the latter is perhaps his most unconventional adult novel. It has been some time since I last read Gursky and memory said that it had been a bit of a challenge — that was spark enough to convince me it was time for a revisit.

There are a number of traits that are present in all of Richler’s fiction. Growing up Jewish in Montreal is one, for starters. The plot line is always a rich stream, with the author usually enjoying pushing the envelope towards the bizarre. And in every book he uses those two over-arching themes as fertile ground in which to seed acerbic satire and grumpy, but often hilarious, observations on aspects of the current state of play.

All those threads are present in Solomon Gursky Was Here, but they come in different proportions than in his more popular works. The Gurskys are certainly Jews now living in Montreal, but that element doesn’t come with the usual familiarity of Richler’s St. Urbain Street — in this novel, they have roots elsewhere and have graduated to prominent global capitalism in the present. What is most distinctive in this novel, however, is that Richler pushes his many plots even further into the absurd than he usually does — and that does produce some challenge for the reader.

The unfamiliar ground is introduced right from the start. The opening takes place “during the record cold spell of 1851” in Magog, Quebec, 75 miles east of Richler’s usual urban Montreal turf. The patrons at Wm. Crosby’s lakeside hotel (“Refreshments served at any hour of day or night”) observe a sled pulled by twelve yapping dogs emerge from the swirling snow:

The dogs were pulling a long, heavily laden sled at the stern of which stood Ephraim Gursky, a small fierce hooded man cracking a whip. Ephraim pulled close to the shore and began to trudge up and down, searching the skies, an inhuman call, some sort of sad clacking noise, at once abandoned yet charged with hope, coming from the back of his throat.

In spite of the tree-cracking cold a number of curious gathered on the shore. They had come not so much to greet Ephraim as to establish whether or not he was an apparition. Ephraim was wearing what appeared to be sealskins and, on closer inspection, a clerical collar as well. Four fringes hung from the borders of his outermost skin, each fringe made up of twelve silken strands. Frost clung to his eyelids and nostrils. One cheek had been bitten black by the wind.

Ephraim unloads his sled and begins to set up camp — including building an igloo. Just before disappearing into the igloo, he bangs a wooden sign into the snow in front of it: CHURCH OF THE MILLENARIANS, Founder, Brother Ephraim. The scene is stranger by the next morning: three more igloos have appeared and a community of “little dark men” and their families have settled in. For the watchful Crosby Hotel bar crowd, it gets even more confusing:

When the first evening star appeared they saw the little dark men, beating on skin drums, parading their women before them to the entry tunnel of Ephraim’s igloo. Ephraim appeared, wearing a black silk top hat and fringed shawl with vertical black stripes. Then the little men stepped forward one by one, thrusting their women before them, extolling their merits in an animated manner. Oblivious of the cold, a young woman raised her sealskin parka and jiggled her bare breasts.

“Well, I’ll be damned.”

“Whatever them Millenarians is it’s sure as shit a lot more fun than what we got.”

Finally Ephraim pointed at one, nodded at another, and they quickly scrambled into his igloo. The men, beating on their drums, led the remaining women back to their igloos, punching and kicking them. An hour later they were back, all of them, and one after another they crawled into Ephraim’s igloo.

Okay, some back story is required here. The conceit is that Ephraim Gursky was a member of Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated 1845 expedition to the Canadian Arctic — while conventional wisdom says no one survived, Richler fiction says not only that Ephraim did but he has moved back and forth between the Arctic and southern Canada ever since. And is the ancestral father of the Gursky empire, a family-run business which is now a major player in the global liquor trade.

That empire was created by Ephraim’s grandsons, Bernard, Morrie and Solomon, during the Prohibition era. Building off a stake Solomon won by stealing and risking the family “fortune” (meagre savings from his father’s rural Saskatchewan hardware business) in a Prairie poker game (one of his prizes was the deed to the local hotel), they eventually got into the liquor-running business in Western Canada, moved east to the more lucrative Windsor/Detroit run and when Prohibition ended were well-positioned in Montreal to move into the “legitimate” liquor business where they have done exceedingly well ever since.

(Aside: Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Canadian history of the era will immediately make the connection with the Bronfmans, the family behind the Seagram liquor empire, who started out as rum-runners and went on to become one of the country’s leading philanthropic families. And while Richler wrote Solomon Gursky in 1989, elements of the story that I am characterizing as “absurd” live on in the present day. Canadian Club, the rye whisky brought back to prominence as Dan Draper’s drink of choice on Mad Men, was distilled in Windsor and smuggled into Detroit, on its way to Capone’s Chicago. And one of the current Bronfman heirs is in the news as I write this with a bizarre child custody dispute involving the rapper, M.I.A. Some things really don’t change.)

Solomon actually disappears from the novel shortly after that poker game — a sled (apparently driven by Ephraim) arrives and takes him north towards the Arctic. A central uncertainty of the plot is whether or not he is still alive and just what influence he has on its various elements.

That uncertainty provides yet another story line in the novel. Moses Berger is the son of the failed Montreal literary poet, L.B. Berger. As a child, Moses lived down the Mount Royal slopes from the Gursky family multi-mansion estate and becomes obsessed with Solomon’s story from the first time he hears of him. Moses’ lifelong pursuit of that story introduces a whole new set of oddball characters with whom Richler can play.

All of that is a very rudimentary sketch of the various story lines in Solomon Gursky Was Here. Each features a pretty much independent set of characters (although there is some overlap), each has its own intricate plot developments and each provides the author a platform for digressions into cryptic observation or bitter satire. Richler loves complexity and detail and you can rest assured that he spares none of it in any of the story threads.

The problem that I had the first time I read this novel was that there is so much going on (and so many people doing it) that I had a lot of trouble keeping it all straight. Richler shifts focus frequently and without warning — particularly in the first half of the book, when he is establishing these widely varied stories, I felt buried in a wealth of detail and characters whom I only vaguely remembered. The parts were certainly interesting and entertaining, but I wasn’t getting much of a sense of the whole.

That frustration did settle down midway through the book (although, given that it is 557 pages, that involved a considerable investment of time) and I found the latter half much more engaging. I must say I did have a similar experience this time through (my third, perhaps fourth, read of the novel) but had the comfort of knowing that it all does eventually come together.

The jacket promo of my first edition of Solomon Gursky Was Here refers to it as Richler’s “most ambitious and mysterious novel”. I would certainly quibble with “most ambitious” (Duddy and Barney both have an admirable depth to them) — “mysterious” is fair if you accept that it has both negative and positive possibilities. Richler is generally a very accessible author but that is not always the case with this one. His canvas for this one is truly large — while all the parts show his considerable ability, for this reader the bigger picture does not come together quite as readily as it does in his more popular novels.

(In April, KfC’s 2013 Project again heads into “different” territory. The author, Margaret Atwood, is certainly familiar. But the novel, her second, Surfacing, tends to be overlooked in current day attention. I remember well reading it when the author was only coming to prominence — I am interested to see how it has weathered the decades since.)


The Street, by Mordecai Richler

March 7, 2012

Purchased at

Mordecai Richler is a special friend of this blog. My post on his signature work, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, is at the top of the alltime KfC blog hitlist (although Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending is launching an impressive challenge). Richler’s final novel, Barney’s Version, holds down fifth spot. I owe a debt both to the teachers who put his novels on reading lists and to movie producers for provoking the ongoing interest.

I read almost all of Richler’s books in my younger years and am thoroughly enjoying a disciplined re-read of his life’s work — and am equally delighted to see that a new generation is now discovering him. For those familiar with the best-known Richler novels, The Street is a bit of departure. It is a collection of 10 short stories and Richler did not write a lot of those — indeed, readers outside of North America may find it a challenge to locate a copy. Let me assure you, the slim volume is worth tracking down.

Those who have read Richler’s fiction will be aware that he constructs his novels in “episodic” fashion. Yes, there is an over-arching plot. But he develops it scene by scene and each of those is almost self-contained. The Street represents the flip side of that coin — it is not a novel, but the 10 stories that it contains could easily be read as a novel in draft form, scenes ready to be inserted into a bigger plot. Virtually every one illustrates why Richler deserves his substantial reputation.

“The Street” is where Richler grew up in Montreal — a Jewish community surrounded by the Anglos and French-Canadians. It actually involves five streets, all with subtle class differentiations (St. Urbain is the one that lives on, thanks to Richler), bounded by Main and Park — everything outside the small, self-contained community represents another world, if not a threat. In the introduction by the author to the volume that I read (you can find it at the New Canadian Library site here), Richler offers this explanation as a framing for these stories (I would argue that it frames his entire oeuvre):

On St. Urbain Street, a head start was all. Our mothers read us stories from Life about pimply astigmatic fourteen-year-olds who had already graduated from Harvard or who were confounding the professors at M.I.T. Reading Tip-Top Comics or listening to The Green Hornet on the radio was as good as asking for a whack on the head, sometimes administered with a copy of The Canadian Jewish Eagle, as if that in itself would be nourishing. We were not supposed to memorise baseball batting averages or dirty limericks. We were expected to improve our Word Power with the Reader’s Digest and find inspiration in Paul de Kruif’s medical biographies. If we didn’t make doctors, we were supposed to at least squeeze into dentistry. School marks didn’t count as much as rank. One wintry day I came home, nostrils clinging together and ears burning cold, proud of my report. “I came rank two, Maw.”

“And who came rank one, may I ask?”

For those who don’t know Richler, that excerpt tells a lot. His chronicles of growing-up-Jewish in Montreal were acrid enough that some called him anti-Semitic. Later on, his thoughts about Quebec separatists in a famous piece in the New Yorker were enough to provoke belief among some that he was a traitor to Quebec. For those of us who read widely, the response is far different — these are the impressions of an incredibly observant writer, who describes with precision the world where he grew up, its aspirations and its tensions. Mordecai was not a perfect person, but he certainly was an interesting one.

Consider, for example, his opening to “The Main”, a story about the boundary street (“rich in delights, but also squalid, filthy, and hollering with stores whose wares, whether furniture or fruit, were ugly or damaged”) of Richler’s St. Urbain-based community:

The Main, with something for all our appetites, was dedicated to pinching pennies from the poor, but it was there to entertain, educate and comfort us too. Across the street from the synagogue you could see THE PICTURE THEY CLAIMED COULD NEVER BE MADE. A little further down the street was the Workman’s Circle and, if you liked, a strip show. Peaches, Margo, Lili St. Cyr. Around the corner there was the ritual baths, the shvitz or mikva, where my grandfather and his cronies went before the High Holidays, emerging boiling red from the highest reaches of the steam rooms to happily flog each other with brushes fashioned from pine tree branches. Where supremely orothodox women went once a month to purify themselves.

The Jewish families shopped on the Main (“once a year before the High Holidays”) but for these adolescent Montrealers it also represented the first step out to a bigger world, the objective of every St. Urbain resident:

After the shopping, once our errands had been done, we returned to the Main once more, either for part-time jobs or to study with our malamud. Jobs going on the Main included spotting pins in a bowling alley, collecting butcher bills and, best of all, working at a news-stand, where you could devour the Police Gazette free and pick up a little extra shortchanging strangers during the rush hour. Work was supposed to be good for our character development and the fact that we were paid was incidental. To qualify for a job we were supposed to be “bright, ambitious and willing to learn”. An ad I once saw in a shoe store window read:


We all have to grow up somewhere and, for those of us who grew up in working class neighborhoods in the post-war boom of North America, Richler’s adolescent world is an exaggerated reminder of that life (okay, one of my first jobs as a pre-teen was spotting pins in a bowling alley, worth a nickel a line). The way that he evokes Main Street as the opening to a “way out” brought tears to my eyes throughout the story.

If the tightly-knit world of the Montreal Jewish ghetto is one consistent of these stories, an equally important one is the never-absent presence of ingrained debt to family and friends (and sometimes community), perhaps best captured in “The Summer My Grandmother Was Supposed To Die”. My apologies for offering yet another lengthy quote, but I can’t beat Richler in the way that he introduces this story:

Dr. Katzman discovered the gangrene on one of his monthly visits. “She won’t last a month,” he said.

He said the same the second month, the third and the fourth, and now she lay dying in the heat of the back bedroom.

“God in heaven,” my mother said, “what’s she holding on for?”

The summer my grandmother was supposed to die we did not chip in with the Greenbaums to take a cottage in the Laurentians. My grandmother, already bed-ridden for seven years, could not be moved again. The doctor came twice a week. The only thing was to stay in the city and wait for her to die or, as my mother said, pass away. It was a hot summer, her bedroom was just behind the kitchen, and when we sat down to eat we could smell her. The dressings on my grandmother’s left leg had to be changed several times a day, and, according to Dr. Katzman, any day might be her last in this world. “It’s in the hands of the Almighty,” he said.

Grandmother might be dying, but that is not really what the story is about. Rather, it is a study in how a closely knit family, but one that is already feeling the tensions of conflict between generations, begins to discover the “rules” of what the new world is going to look like.

Overall, that insight pervades these stories: Richler is absolutely superb at capturing current reality, but his real interest is painting the picture of how things are changing for those who inhabit it, especially the young. I have gone on at too great length already but if you check out the collection you will also find thoughts on the impact for Montreal Jewish teenagers of the War in Europe, the Red Menace and Making it with Chicks. Not to mention frequent tangential visits to Tansky’s Cigar and Soda (“the regulars felt it was a good omen that the truckers and peddlars sometimes stopped there”) by the beleaguered husbands of the community, to play some cards, hang out and escape their wives.

If you haven’t read Mordecai Richler, The Street is not the best place to start (Duddy or Barney are probably better entry points) but do mark the collection down for future reference. If you have already read some or all of this master, this collection is essential — in shortish bits (137 pages in total and that includes Richler’s preface and an excellent afterword from William Weintraub), Richler develops some of the building blocks that will be essential to the novels that will be his lasting work. Truly, a gem.

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, by Mordecai Richler

January 11, 2010

Sorry about the bargain picture -- click to get to the bargain

“A man without land is nothing.”

Utter that sentence to any serious reader of Canadian fiction from a certain generation (say mine) and the response is entirely predictable: “Oh, you’ve been rereading Duddy.”

Yes, I have, and what a rewarding experience it was. First published in 1959, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz was Mordecai Richler’s fourth novel, but the first to gain widespread attention. In the half century since it was published, it has never disappeared from bookstore shelves and with good reason — it is as timely now as when it was first published.

Indeed, I would put forward the argument that The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz marks the beginning of the modern era in Canadian fiction (I know someone is going to dispute this with an equally good example, but that’s what comments are for). When it was published, iconic Canadian authors like Morley Callaghan and Hugh MacLennan were still writing, but their best work was behind them. Robertson Davies had published the Salterton Triology, but it was more English than Canadian — the even better Deptford Trilogy was yet to come. Richler’s Montreal-based colleague, Brian Moore, was building a bridge between Irish and North American fiction (his influential The Luck of Ginger Coffey would appear in 1960) but had not yet hit his stride. Margaret Atwood’s first volume of poetry would not be published until 1961; her first novel (the excellent An Edible Woman) not until 1969. Alice Munro’s first short story collection, The Dance of the Happy Shades, would not appear until 1968.

With this influential novel, Richler also, I would argue, presented a contribution to a very significant North American trend. J.D. Salinger had published A Catcher in the Rye in 1951, the novel that I think bears the most direct comparison to this one. Philip Roth’s Goodbye Columbus would be published in the same year that Duddy was. Bellow, Updike and Cheever were also publishing in the U.S. — Richler does not fall short in comparisons with any of them. If you like those American authors, you should also read Richler.

That is a very long introduction to a review of this novel, but I do think it is worth it — The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is an important book in the development of North American fiction and deserves to be recognized as such. I cannot recommend it too highly.

Duddy is a child of St. Urbain Street, Jewish Montreal, at a time when that ethnic group represented the immigrant class and St. Urbain was the neighborhood that would be home to Richler’s fiction for the rest of his writing career (although he does take some detours to “boulevard” Montreal). When we first meet him, Duddel is only fifteen and already developing his entrepreneurial “skills”, besetting a hapless teacher at Fletcher’s Field High School:

Since he had first come to the school in 1927 — a tight-lipped young Scot with a red fussy face — many of Mr. MacPherson’s earliest students had, indeed, gone on to make their reputations in medicine, politics, and business, but there were no nostalgic gatherings at his home. The sons of his first students would not attend Fletcher’s Field High School, either. For making their way in the world his first students had also graduated from the streets of cold-water flats that surrounded F.F.H.S. to buy their own duplexes in the tree-lined streets of Outremont. In fact, that morning, as Mr. MacPherson hesitated on a scalp of glittering white ice, there were already three Gentiles in the school (that is to say, Anglo-Saxons; for Ukrainians, Poles and Yugoslavs, with funny names and customs of their own, did not count as true Gentiles), and ten years hence F.F.H.S. would no longer be the Jewish high school. At the time, however, most Jewish boys in Montreal who had been to high school had gone to F.F.H.S. and, consequently, had studied history out of The World’s Progress (Revised) with John Alexander MacPherson; and every old graduate had an anecdote to tell about him.

Richler uses that section to introduce The Boy Wonder, Jerry Dingleman, who will become both the inspiration and curse that Duddy will face throughout the novel. The Boy Wonder proves that Jewish boys can make it, but they have to skate close to the edge — and occasionally cross it — to be able to do that.

“A man without land is nothing” may be Duddy’s inspiration but he did not invent it — the thought came from his shoemaker grandfather. It lodged, however, and nothing that the hero will do in the remaining pages of the novel will digress from it.

Teen-age Duddy heads into the Laurentians as a waiter at a resort (a Canadian version of the Catskill resorts) and discovers a lake surrounded by farms that may be coming up for sale. Land! He also finds a resort camp that he is convinced he can replicate — with improvements — on this land. He sees not just a camp, but an entire village (with appropriate development revenue), including a synagogue — remember, this is Roman Catholic Francophone Quebec. It would be a home, not just for his grandfather, but for his family. His older brother, Lennie, has beat the odds to become one of the few Jews in med school at McGill University. Duddy has found a passion that not only serves his own interests, it will become an essential part of the family history.

To accomplish this, Duddy needs to raise capital and it is in these sections that Richler’s salty humor comes to the fore. Our hero’s first effort is to produce videos of bar mitzvah’s, filmed by an alcoholic Englishman. He also imports pinball machines from the U.S., introducing the character of Virgil, an epileptic who is obsessed with the idea that Blacks and even gays have formed movements to forward their cause (remember, this is 1959 — Richler was ahead of his time in many ways), but the Health-Handicapped have been left on the sidelines.

Visitors to this site have a right to expect quotes and they are going to be disappointed with this review — you can open Duddy at almost any page and find wonderful Richler prose. Trust me, this is a book that rewards reading on every page. And as you become enrolled in Duddy’s quest (“A man without land is nothing”), you can’t help but join the journey.

Okay, I tested that hypothesis by opening the book at random — got page 138 — and here is an excerpt:

He phoned Yvette and told her he was sending her a check for three hundred dollars in the morning. He said he was making the movie for Mr. Cohen, but he didn’t tell her that if Mr. Cohen didn’t like it there was no deal. He was so happy about Seigal, too, that he didn’t realize until he got home that the Seigal bar-mitzvah was six weeks off and even if got paid right away it would be too late. He still had to raise twenty-five hundred dollars to pay Brault and twenty days was all the time he had. In the next three days Duddy visited eight potential clients. They were interested. Nobody showed him the door exactly, but first they wanted to see one of his productions.

I read virtually all of Richler’s novels when they first appeared and will admit that he had more passionate fans than me. He was a high-profile character across Canada and I never quite joined that group. The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is book two in my Richler re-read project (Barney’s Version is reviewed here) and it is a project that I intend to continue. Mordecai died in 2001 and, in some ways, has slipped from the radar since then. Barney’s Version is now being filmed and that will soon, deservedly, change. He is an important voice in the development not just of Canadian, but North American, fiction. And there is no better place to start than with The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz — a man without land is truly nothing.

A final note. I don’t usually promote buying books but there is a very worthwhile deal now available for those interested in Canadian fiction at McClelland & Stewart was the publisher that brought modern Canadian fiction to the world and, to celebrate their centenary in 2006, they produced some very handsome hardback volumes of eight major works from that period (the picture at the top of this review is from that group — the covers have a similar pattern). The book trade being what it is, Chapters is now selling those volumes they still have on hand at a major discount (price is $10 Cdn a book). If you want a starter set of great Canadian fiction, there is no better place to go — I’ve read them all, reviewed a few and can recommend (and will be re-reading) the rest. The chosen books are not necessarily the best for each author, but are representative. Some are already sold out and others will follow soon, but consider a purchase — if you want a Canadian starter set, buy as many as you can find. The list:

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
No Great Mischief, Alistair MacLeod
Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels
Such a Long Journey, Rohinton Mistry
The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Mordecai Richler
Away, Jane Urquhart
The Book of Secrets, M.G. Vassanji

Barney’s Version, by Mordecai Richler

September 23, 2009

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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