Books, Thoughts

Off the Shelf: Barney’s Version

Barney's Version (Vintage International)Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read Barney’s Version the novel because I loved the movie. Clearly, Richler’s story is far & away better than the adaptation, but I must say that the film is true to the spirit of the book & Paul Giamatti does make an excellent Barney.

From the opening lines of the story, Richler gives us a gruff, complicated yet sympathetic Barney Panofsky. Writing that comes off so effortlessly cadenced can only be an indication of a writer at the top of his game. Richler’s ear for dialogue & voice seems faultless. Whether it’s Barney mangling literary references, Duddy Kravitz sarcastically pitching a banquet dinner for Crohn’s disease or the Panofsky children persuading their parents to recount the story of how they fell in love, the language is distinct, moving & pure fun to enjoy.

Another writer (Flannery O’Connor, I think) once said that you must give even your most unfortunate characters depth so the reader can feel for them. In Barney’s Version, one of the most despised character is the Second Ms. Panofsky. Shallow, nameless, vindictive & every inch the cliche of a JAP, Richler is still able to make her a full character by showing her attempts to make her doomed marriage work. Even Barney, who is irreverent, vitriolic & self-loathing, never completely alienates the reader. This considered regard for all of his characters pays off in unexpected ways. As much as Barney mocks feminism & its attempts to “make a space for wimyn” in dominant culture, Richler’s characters are so detailed that his females almost feel like a quick study of feminist thought. (I say almost, because I don’t think Richler set out with that angle in mind & also it seems a little silly to say a book about a man who loses three wives through his misbehaviors is feminist.) Even Barney’s middle school teacher, who is his favorite masturbatory fantasy, is not limited to Barney’s narrow view of her. He sees her in the street, old but still active, protesting with other senior citizens for accessible facilities, concerned with her own life.

To be honest, I could go on. Barney’s Version is a great story about love, maturity & choice. There is a line in the movie that I didn’t come across in the text that goes, “Life is made up of little things: minutes, hours, naps, errands, routine. It has to be enough.” Barney’s Version, the novel, proves this to be true. Life is those small moments, those “fateful objects” that redeem us or break us. The missed message begging for reconciliation, the plane that passes over where you are, a package you deliver to a stranger, the funeral you attend even though the deceased hated you. We carry the consequences forward, struggling against them, capable of great regret & precious change.

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