By Mordecai Richler
Boy, am I glad I read this book before watching the movie, which was released last year, as the book was such a rich read. Also glad that I’d already read The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz because the titular character makes a few appearances in Barney’s Version, as well as Jerry Dingleman a.k.a. The Boy Wonder, night club owner and loan shark. Barney and Duddy inhabit the same fictional universe, yet are grounded in a very real Montreal of yesteryear that Richler knows intimately.
But it wouldn’t be a Richler book without its share of bitterness as well. Barney is a difficult, irascible individual who drinks a lot of 18 year old Macallan, and you betcha that there ain't more than a little Richler in the aging Barney Panofsky, who looks back at his life with much regret, speaks his mind and then some as he writes his memoirs.
Perhaps I should not have poked around on the internet before buckling down to post my thoughts about Richler's last novel (Barney’s Version was published in 1997 and Richler died in 2001), but this Yale review and this blog do a fairly damn good job and they also pretty much summed up how I felt.
What was also awesome was that I acquired this nice trade paperback copy of Barney’s Version from the giveaway bookshelf at work, as I would probably have read this much later, and probably after I had already watched the film, which is supposed to be ok. But I can imagine that the movie would gloss over many fine details. Film adaptations are fine when a novel has a good story yet sub-par writing. Part of the pleasure of reading is enjoying good writing, and Richler’s voice really comes through as Barney Panofsky. There are lots of criticism and poking fun of Quebec and Canadian culture, as well as self-indulgent artists and bourgeois Jews. Some samples:
We are dealing with a two-headed beast: our provincial premier, a.k.a. The Weasel, and his minions in Quebec City, and Dollard Redux, the fulminating leader of the Bloc Quebécous in Ottawa. Dollard Redux has lit a fire here. Soon the only English-speaking people left in Montreal will be the old, the infirm, and the poor. All that’s flourishing now are FOR SALE / À VENDRE signs, sprouting up every day like out-of-season daffodils on front lawns, and there are stores with TO LET / À LOUER signs everywhere on once fashionable streets. In the watering-hole I favour, on Crescent Street, there is a wake at least once a month for the latest regular who has had his fill of tribalism and is moving to Toronto or Vancouver. Or, God help them, Saskatoon, “a good place to bring up children.”
Self-satisfied Toronto is not a city I’ve ever warmed up to. It’s this country’s counting house. But plunging into the rush-hour din on Avenue Road that warm evening in early May, a spring in my step, I was in a forgiving happy-to-be-alive mood…. Such was my rapture that I guess I smiled too broadly at the young mother coming toward us, wheeling a toddler in a stroller, because in response she frowned and quickened her pace…
As for me, following my retreat from Paris and the artistic wankers I had wasted my time with there, I resolved to make a fresh start in life. What was it Clara had once said? “When you go home, it will be to make money, which is inevitable, given your character, and you’ll marry a nice Jewish girl, somebody who shops…” Well, I’ll satisfy her ghost, I thought. From now on, it was going to be the bourgeois life for Barney Panofsky. Country club. Cartoon scissored out of The New Yorker pasted up on my bathroom walls. Time magazine subscription. American Express card. Synagogue membership. Attaché case with combination lock. Et cetera et cetera.
Another pleasure derived as a Montrealer living in the same hood where Richler grew up is reading about Richler waxing remembrances of his old stomping grounds.
In those days Saul was no longer living at home, in the house I had acquired in Westmount after Michael was born, but was rooted in a commune, largely composed of middle-class Jewish kids, in a cold-water flat on St. Urbain Street, right in my old neighbourhood. I wander down there occasionally in unavailing quest of familiar faces and old landmarks. But, like me, the boys I grew up with moved on long ago: those who prospered to Westmount, or Hampstead, and the ones who are still struggling to the nondescript suburbs of Côte St-Luc, Snowdon, or Ville St-Laurent. These streets now teem with Italian, Greek, or Portuguese kids, their parents as out of breath as ours once were, juggling overdue household bills. Signs of the times. The shoeshine parlour where I used to take my father’s fedoras to be blocked has been displaced by a unisex hair stylist. The Regent Theatre, where I could once catch a double feature for thirty-five cents, and enjoy three hours of uninterrupted necking with the notorious Goldie Hirschorn, is boarded up. The lending library where I took out books (Forever Amber; Farewell, My Lovely; King’s Row; The Razor Edge) for three cents a day no longer exists. Mr. Katz’s Supreme Kosher Meat Mart has yielded to a video-rental outlet: ADULT MOVIES OUR SPECIALTY. My old neighbourhood now also boasts a New Age bookstore, a vegetarian restaurant, a shop that deals in holistic medicines, and Buddhist temple of sorts, all of which cater to the needs of Saul and his bunch and others like them.
What can I tell ya, except if you’re planning to watch the movie, do try to read the book first!