My newest read now is Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler. My husband & I saw the movie when it came out in theaters & adored it, causing all manner of gooshy statements of love to one another for a good month or so. (Kurt: “I never really understood how important it was for you to do your own thing until now. I never want to hold you back!” Me: “I always want us to sleep in the same bed. I love you!”)
Given how moved we were by the movie, I really didn’t want to read the book. I mean, sure, I thought I’d get around to it eventually, but I was content with Paul Giamatti’s gruff performance & the heart-breaking story about love & maturity that the movie had given me. But I couldn’t totally curb my curiosity when my husband recently bought a copy of the book. I snuck a look at the first three pages. What happened next was a bit of verbal magic.
Terry’s the spur. The splinter under my fingernail. To come clean, I’m starting on this shambles that is the true story of my wasted life (violating a solemn pledge, scribbling a book at my advanced age), as a riposte to the scurrilous charges Terry McIver has made in his forthcoming autobiography: about me, my three wives, a.k.a. Barney Panofsky’s troika, the nature of my friendship with Boogie, and, of course, the scandal I will carry to my grave like a humpback. Terry’s sound of two hands clapping, Of Time and Fevers, will shortly be launched by The Group (sorry, the group), a government-subsidized small press, rooted in Toronto, that also publishes a monthly journal, the good earth, printed on recycled paper, you bet your life.
Kurt has written before about the “first line test.” When he first mentioned the idea to me, I thought it was quirky, mainly because I had never considered reading a book based on the first line. My approach is more like wine connoisseur: you have to flip through the pages, you have to soak in the words & let it breathe a bit before you decide to quit or commit. But this first paragraph knocked me over with such a distinct style that I fell in love all over again with Barney Panofsky.
But the turn of phrase that really makes me crow with delight is “Terry’s sound of two hands clapping.” Mr. Panofsky will tell you in a heartbeat that he is not a well-read, intellectual guy. But those words are a perfect little verbal dagger aimed right for the guts. If you’ve read a bit of Eastern philosophy or even some Salinger, you’re probably familiar with the Zen koan “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” (Salinger uses this as the epigraph for Nine Stories.)
Profound almost to the point of boarding on goofy, the phrase seems to wend its way through some of the post-modern fiction I’ve read, the most contemporary example being Lady Lazarus by Andrew Foster Altschul. At which point the effect had worn off for me. But to see Richler invert in one economical phrase, to point out the obvious, self-indulgent nature of McIver’s book makes me happy the way only language can make a book dork happy. Because you know you have read books like that & struggled to come up with just the right description/put down for your friends that ask how you liked it. Richler’s turn of phrase is perfect, especially for a narrator who visibly struggles to tell his story as it slips away from him.
Needless to say, with that kind of word-play & distinct voice, I’m really looking forward to Barney’s Version the book, celluloid adaptation be damned.