What disturbs me most about Mordecai Richler's 1997 novel, Barney's Version, now available in a new paperback edition as well as a major motion picture with Paul Giamatti, is that it took me almost 15 years to get around to reading it.
This is one hell of a masterful piece of fiction. It has everything you could want from a novel—humor and poignancy, complexity and passion, eloquence and a specific aesthetic point of view. Barney's Version is not only a great read, although it is that; Barney's Version is a work of art.
Now in his 60s and having trouble remembering the names of the Seven Dwarfs, Barney Panofsky sits down to tell the story of his life, ostensibly to defend himself against what he sees as a scurrilous attack in a book by a writer he once thought of as something of a friend back when they were young expatriates living imitation Bohemian lives in Paris. Barney, in spite of the fact that he tells his own story, doesn’t come across as a particularly nice fellow. He is loud and can behave obnoxiously, especially when dealing with poseurs and those he considers pompous. He is defensive about his roots, his religion and his feeling that he has sold out to the money grubbers, and his defensiveness more often than not takes the form of aggression.
Three marriages: his first wife dies and she is followed by two divorces—although he still carries the torch for his last wife. He has made a fortune producing schlock television shows for broadcast in Canada. Not particularly religious himself, Barney is tuned in to both the anti-Semitism he felt as a child in Montreal and still feels as he writes and his distaste for the pretentions of many of the Jews around him. He is an aggressive type-A personality who goes after what he wants without regard for the feelings of others. He is not afraid to flaunt his wealth and use his position to get what he wants, and if he needs to finagle a little, bend a law here and there, he is not above it. He can be foul mouthed and sarcastic when he likes you and a vindictive son of a bitch when he doesn't. Yet despite all this, he is a vibrant exciting character filled with a will to live life to the fullest.