Sunday, September 6, 2015
Barney's Version by Mordecai Richler
A faux memoir by a thrice married Canadian television producer
Barney Panofsky, a Jewish guy from Montreal with a huge chip on his shoulder, sits down to write his memoir after getting offended by the contents of a "friend’s" memoir. Meanwhile, clues abound that Barney suffers from memory loss. Time, therefore, is of the essence. The book is divided into three sections, named after his three wives. Clara tells of his Bohemian years in Paris, The Second Mrs. Panofsky tells of his time as a rich successful businessman. And Miriam relates the years of his marriage to the beautiful love of his life, and how, because of his own prideful misjudgments, he lost her. Meanwhile, Barney’s trial for the murder of another old friend is interspersed throughout the sections, its solution withheld until the very last page.
At first I was thinking, this is kind of a budget Philip Roth, straining for laughs, but as the story went on I was able to appreciate more its deliberate structure, and I realized that the book is a genuine work of artistry, a character study of an obnoxious very deliberately politically incorrect braggart, loosely attached, maybe even mockingly attached, to a halfhearted murder mystery and a social critique of Montreal’s hidebound francophone anti-Semitic society. Here's another novel driven by the voice – a grating narrator, more than a little misogynistic, who gains sympathy because there are things he cares deeply about, namely Miriam and the kids. And even though he cares deeply about Miriam and the kids, he is unable not to alienate them. Perhaps he cares most of all for the Montreal Canadiens. A lost world, peopled by lively unique characters, is recreated. Finally, the narrative has postmodern footnoting, by Barney’s son, who makes several corrections to small errors of fact.