In addition to Pale Fire, this summer I also got around to reading a modern classic of Montreal fiction that I’ve been meaning to enjoy for some time: Barney’s Version, by Mordecai Richler (who else). I bought a generic paperback copy a few years back in a Mile End secondhand bookshop (seems fitting), and it’s been nagging at me from its bookshelf ever since.
It turns out Barney’s Version is quite the ride. I wanted to read it mainly for three reasons: narrative voice (the book is written as a rambling confession), footnotes (included in the fiction are footnotes by Barney Panofksy’s son, who edits his father’s manuscripts after his death and corrects his father’s failing memory), and vivid descriptions of Montreal. I found all of that, but also a romping read through post-World War France and Montreal, with a focus on a character who is in turn the most detestable and the most charming narrator I’ve ever encountered. When he picks up a bottle of Macallan and starts getting angry, you think, over and over again, that man really is on a path to destroy everything he has an alienate himself from everyone who might love him. And, like Barney, I think I too fell in love with his third wife, Miriam Greenberg—maybe helped by the fact that she’s played by the heavenly Rosamund Pike in the film adaptation.
It’s true that the book did get on my nerves, at times. Barney’s endless digressions and obvious pleasure in portraying people he dislikes as caricatures can get on the reader’s nerves, like when we get a four-page excerpt of his second wife’s phone conversation with his mother. Twice. We get the point, Barney. Or Mordecai, whoever’s choice that was. Although I’m sure Barney’s exuberant frustration was hard to keep under control, I wonder if the novel could’ve benefited from a slight trim. But then, maybe we would’ve lost all the space Barney needs to really get going.
My own problem is that, a little like Barney when he’s going on about the past, I can’t really talk about Mordecai Richler without going off on a variety of subjects. So instead of offering a tightly structured review of Richler’s last, prize-winning novel, I’m going to offer you a few tangents…
Tangent 1: I’m always interested in author’s tics when it comes to titles. Like this new fad of having these long titles that are effectively strings of unremarkable words—No One Belongs Here More than You, There but for the, May We Be Forgiven—or authors who are obsessed with one-word titles: Solar, Atonement, Amsterdam, Saturday (Ian McEwan); Sula, Home, Mercy, Beloved, Jazz (Toni Morrison). But I digress. What fascinates me about Mordecai Richler’s book titles is his obsession with using his character names in them (John Irving has had the same tic in the past). You’d think one would suffice, like for that one book when you nail a really memorable character. But Richler did it four times, and, notice, always framing the character name within a phrase to give it more life: The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Joshua Then and Now, Solomon Gursky Was Here, and, of course, Barney’s Version.
Tangent 2: Barney’s Version was the only book originally in English defended in the French version of Canada Reads, back in 2008 (for those who don’t know, Canada Reads is a kind the literary Dancing with the Stars of Canadian Radio, where 5 personalities who may know nothing about literature each defend a book of their choosing during a week, with a book getting eliminated every day until there’s only one left standing). Richler’s book was defended by Anne Lagacé Dowson, a lovely person if there ever was one (and, now that I think of it, not so unlike Miriam Panofksy, née Greenberg, who is also a radio host for the CBC in the book), and was shot down by former (pro-independence) prime minister Bernard Landry. Neither here nor there. I don’t know what to say, except that apparently the French translation of the novel is pretty bad (I believe it was translated in France, and therefore loses its Canadian flavour) and that it’s sometimes important to remember our New Critical friends and make sure we don’t confuse authors and their works.
Tangent 3: Diana Athill, one of my favourite people in the world, was Mordecai Richler’s UK editor. She reveals something about a change of ideology in publishing in her editor’s memoir Stet when she explains that André Deutsch took on Richler’s first books, written in the 50s, which were apparently quite bad, as a kind of investment in the future of the author. They were right, of course; Richler’s breakthrough book was his fourth, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and he went on to sell well and win many prizes thereafter. My point is that, nowadays, publishers don’t take risks like that. We get the impression, rather, that publishers now see first novels as an opportunity to introduce new names and get people talking. A first novel has become a marketing opportunity, a fresh new product. Except that means that if a first book doesn’t create immediate buzz, it’s not worth publishing it, no matter how much potential the author has and how successful he or she may become in the future. We’re lucky Richler didn’t have that problem.
Tangent 4: Speaking of Richler’s backlog, some of his older novels now bear among the worst covers in Canadian publishing (and that’s saying a lot because Canada has its fair share of book design atrocities). The worst certainly has to be Cocksure, with its unfortunate depiction of steampunk penis privilege and inexcusable use of the playful font from hell: Comic Sans!!
That’s all, folks! Next up: John LeCarré.