Saturday, July 14, 2018

Barney's Version by Mordecai Richler

In a nutshell, I am not unaware of my failings.  Neither am I a stranger to irony.  I realize that I -- who took the Second Mrs. Panofsky's rambling conversation to be an abomination -- have consumed hundreds of pages, piling digression upon digression, to avoid getting to that seminal weekend in the Laurentians that all but destroyed my life, rendering unto me my reputation as a murderer, which is believed by some to this day.  Enter Sergeant-Detective Sean O'Hearne.  And I'm willing to swear that what follows is the truth.  I am innocent.  Honestly.  So help me God, as they say.

Okay, let's stick with the Canadians for a bit.

Barney's Version was the last novel of Montreal writer Mordecai Richler, and it reads like the novel a man writes as he faces down his own obsolescence.  Barney Panofsky, a successful television producer, wants to write and publish a firsthand account of his own life.  When he has been in the public eye, it's always been as part of someone else's sordid account: his first wife, Clara, who committed suicide before her poetry and art could make her a feminist icon; the memoir of Canadian novelist Terry McIver, who knew and despised Barney during their youth in Paris; and especially the lurid newspaper accounts of Barney's trial for killing his best friend Boogie after finding him in bed with his wife.  What Barney wants to do is not so much "set the record straight"--there's a lot of admitted culpability here--but to provide the human context that makes every story seem a little bit more deserving of empathy.  Barney's tendency to forget basic facts and details in his advanced age tends to complicate this project.

The novel is a riot, in many senses: it's extremely funny; it's propelled along by a kind of manic energy; it manages to capture the spirit of the political tension in Quebec in the latter half of the twentieth century.  At times it reads like a much funnier Philip Roth novel, preoccupied as it is with the place of the aging male in the world of sex.  The cast of characters is immense, and borrows from several of other Richler books, which make a kind of Montreal Cinematic Universe (MCU).  I was particularly happy to see Duddy Kravitz, all grown up and having finally struck it rich, needling a doctor for an underheralded disease he might become a patron of, admitting him at last into high-toned Westmount society:

"Crohn's disease."

"Never heard of it.  Is it big?"

"Maybe two hundred thousand Canadians suffer from it."

"Good.  Now you're talking.  So tell me about it."

"It's also known as ileitis or ulcerative colitis."

"Explain it to me in laymen's terms, please."

"It leads to gas, diarrhoea, rectal bleeding, fever, weight loss.  You suffer from it you could have fifteen bowel movements a day."

"Oh, great!  Wonderful!  I phone Wayne Gretzky, I say, how would you like to be a patron for a charity for farters?  Mr. Trudeau, this is D.K. speaking, and I've got just the thing to improve your image.  How would you like to join the board of a charity my wife is organizing for people who shit day and night?  Hey there, everybody, you are invited to my wife's annual Diarrhoea Ball."

Juxtaposed against colorful characters like Duddy, Barney himself pales a little.  That's by design, I think: part of Barney's deal is that he has always been adjacent to famous and outsized personalities, writers and artists, without ever becoming one himself.  Even Boogie, on the fateful day when Barney did or did not murder him, cruelly accuses Barney of being a kind of sponge on the more talented.  But Barney has his talents, including a razor sharp wit, amplified by a hot temper.  He spends much of his life writing and sending fake letters designed to get people in trouble, a bit I'm confident is borrowed at least in part from that other Canadian Jew, Saul Bellow.

One thing that troubled me a little about Barney's Version is its depiction of feminists and other liberal activists.  Barney's involvement, and supposed cruelty toward, his first wife Clara sends feminist writers his way, talking about "penis-power."  At times Barney's version seems to paint him as the victim of a kind of liberal orthodoxy that echoes a lot of modern right-wing meme culture.  These tensions are inextricably tied up with liberal support for Quebecois independence and French language laws, which Richler saw as inseparable from Francophone anti-Semitism.  But even when you think you have Richler's politics pegged, he comes into undercut them, as when Clara's father, a Canadian Jew who has recently been tossed off the board of his daughter's foundation by two black women, admits that "These women forced me to take a good look at myself."  It's a relatively minor moment in the book, but the novel's whole ethos demands that kind of criticism.  If Barney deserves his own account of his life, doesn't Clara, who never got to tell her own?  Who is it in this world whose stories aren't being told?

Barney's Version exists on shifting ground.  Barney's incipient Alzheimer's makes every detail suspect, and his account is supplemented by a series of corrective footnotes by his son, Michael.  The effect is to make Barney seem more or less trustworthy, but to inject the slightest doubt into his narrative, and to emphasize the subjectivity of our own versions of ourselves.  What do we do with a man who can remember "Velazquez's portrait of that royal family" but not that it's called Las Meninas?  Barney talks about the moment where his friend Boogie disappears as that "seminal weekend in the Laurentians that all but destroyed my life," but that's not true.  The trial succeeds in alienating Barney from his wife, whom he hates, and allowing him to marry the true love of his life, Miriam.  (In a nice comic touch, they meet for the first time on the night of Barney's wedding to the woman he calls only "The Second Mrs. Panofsky.")  It's a smaller, tawdrier moment, a night of drunken cheating, that separates him from Miriam thirty years later and really marks the ruin of his life.  It lacks the high drama of the murder charge, but it is enough to make you wonder how much Barney really understands about himself.

Richler's not really a postmodernist.  The mystery of what happened to Boogie is resolved in a way that's as satisfying as any Agatha Christie novel.  But he understands, with a comic realist's eye, just how much of what we tell ourselves about own lives is fiction, or at least fictionalized.  He understands, too, the idea that Barney's Alzheimer's, diagnosed at the very end of the narrative, represents the loss of that fiction, and it's tragic: the loss of "Barney's Version" of himself, no less meaningful because it's not entirely true.

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