- Mordecai Richler (Author)
Barney's Version. Knopf Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Kerry McSweeney
If old age is a shipwreck, as Charles de Gaulle claimed, then Barney Panofsky, the sixty-seven year old narrator of Mordecai Richler’s latest novel, is already on the rocks. A successful producer of schlock (Canadian-financed films and Canadian television series), Barney’s mid-1990s life consists of too much single-malt scotch and too many cigars, bar talk, channel surfing, health worries, and sour reflections on his wife of thirty years having left him, on the decline of Montreal and its hockey team, on friends and enemies, and on himself. Although not a writer, he is prompted by the mendacious memoir of a contemporary to set down his "version" of his adult life. The result is a rambling and digressive narrative—at one point he even calls it a "shambles"—that
moves back and forth between past and present and is loosely divided into three parts, each named after one of his wives: the self-destructive poet Clara, one of Barney’s expatriate circle in Paris in the early 1950s, who died of an overdose; his second wife, "an exemplar ofthat much-maligned phenomenon, the Jewish- American Princess," who is much-maligned in Barney’s recollections; and the lovely Miriam, the mother of his three children.
Typologically, Barney’s Version is a memory monologue, a form of prose fiction that combines features of autobiographical monologue with the mnemonic a-chronology of memory narrative (see Dorrit Cohn’s Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction). The reason Barney gives for attempting to tell "the true story" of his life is not untypical of such works: "to retrieve some sense out of my life," "to impose sense on my incomprehensible past." These constructive intentions, however, are made recessive and ultimately factitious by two very different features of the novel.
One is the narrative embodiment of "two cherished beliefs" of Barney’s: "Life was absurd, and nobody ever truly understood anybody else." These demoralizing dicta receive powerful artistic expression in the concluding account of Barney’s succumbing to the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease and in Clara, the novel’s most compelling and memorable character. A compulsive liar, shoplifter and dirty talker, who despises other women, supplies outlandish ideas to a writer of pornographic books, and smears the sperm of a man she has just fellated onto her face saying it is good for her complexion, Clara is the principal channel through which the periodically erupting deconstructive energies at the nadir of Richler’s vision of human existence enter Barney’s narrative.
The other feature is that, for all practical purposes, Barney’s attempt to make sense of his life through telling his story is simply the pretext for a miscellaneous collection of skits, riffs, numbers, take-offs, character sketches, and entries in "Panofsky’s Ledger of Ironies," the embedded trope for all of which is Barney’s love of tap-dancing:
I rolled back my living-room carpet and pulled the curtain that hid my embarrassing but necessary full-length mirror. Next I donned my top-hat, tails, and trusty Capezio taps, and shoved Louis Armstrong’s rendition of "Bye Bye Blackbird" into my CD player. Remembering to tip my topper to the good folks in the balcony, resting my cane on my shoulder, I loosened up with a Round-the-Clock Shuffle, eased into a satisfying Brush, followed by a really swell Cahito, before I risked a Shim Sham and collapsed into the nearest chair, panting.
The skits et al. include the pseudonymous letters Barney writes to enemies and to his estranged wife, newspaper stories inserted into the text, anecdotes and self-contained episodes, and an abundance of character sketches, among them the hostess of the McGill student radio show called "Dykes on Mikes"; Irv Nussbaum, indefatigable fund-raiser for the United Jewish appeal, who opines that the "lasting problem with the Holocaust is that it made anti-Semitism unfashionable," which in turn made it harder to raise money for Israel from Canadian Jews; Shelley Katz, the new-age Hollywood producer who drives a souped-up 1979 Ford pick-up truck with creatively dented fenders; and even Duddy Kravitz, who makes two cameo appearances, in one of which he refills used liquor bottles with water and replaces them in his hotel-room mini-bar.
Duddy’s appearances are no less déjàvu than most of the other material, which was much more crisply deployed in earlier Richler novels. This falling off is repeatedly instanced in the soggy quality of the writing, including dialogue and descriptive detail, which used to be among Richler’s strong suits. A brief example is the following part of a sentence, which would be more àpoint with the omission of the words I have italicized: "O’Hearne, his residue of snowy white hair still parted down the middle or spine,stray strands slicked down either side like bleached salmon ribs .. ."
Like Barney in tap-dancing shoes, panting in front of the mirror, Richler in Barney’s Version seems pooped. His failure is precisely that of Hemingway in Across the River and into the Trees as diagnosed by Northrop Frye:
this kind of story [presupposes the] detachment of author from character which comes when sympathy and insight are informed by professional skill. This detachment has not been reached, and the book remains technically on the amateurish level in which the most articulate character sounds like a mouthpiece for the author. Hence all the self-pity and egotism [that should have been removed are present in the text] and the result is a continuous sense of embarrassment.
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MLA: McSweeney, Kerry . Endgame Tap-Dancing. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #159 (Winter 1998), Gay and Lesbian Writing in Canadian Literature. (pg. 188 - 190)
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