Barney's Version: A Novel
When a sixty-seven-year-old Canadian rascal named Bernard Panofsky decides to write “the true story of my wasted life.” the result is Barney’s Version, Mordecai Richler’s wickedly funny blend of satire, social commentary, and brilliant introspection on the state of contemporary life.
Hoping to rebut the charges about him made in a rival’s autobiography Barney feels compelled to pen his account of events. From his bohemian misadventures during the 1950s in Paris to the fortune he amassed through his trashy TV company Totally Unnecessary Productions and the three women he married, he quickly proves that his memory may be slipping, but his bile isn’t. He skewers feminists, politicians, the bourgeoisie, fads, social movements, and most of all himself. And when it comes to being charged with the murder of his own best friend—caught in bed with the second Mrs. Panofsky—Barney’s version is as contradictory and slippery as real life right up to its astonishing end.
Wildly vulgar, superbly ironic, and brilliantly manic, Barney’s Version is Mordecai Richler’s comic masterpiece, the great work of a satirist at the top of his game.
Barney Panofsky smokes too many cigars, drinks too much whiskey, and is obsessed with two things: the Montreal Canadiens hockey team and his ex-wife Miriam. An acquaintance from his youthful years in Paris, Terry McIver, is about to publish his autobiography. In its pages he accuses Barney of an assortment of sins, including murder. It’s time, Barney decides, to present the world with his own version of events. Barney’s Version is his memoir, a rambling, digressive rant, full of revisions and factual errors (corrected in footnotes written by his son) and enough insults for everyone, particularly vegetarians and Quebec separatists.
But Barney does get around to telling his life story, a desperately funny but sad series of bungled relationships. His first wife, an artist and poet, commits suicide and becomes—à la Sylvia Plath—a feminist icon, and Barney is widely reviled for goading her toward death, if not actually murdering her. He marries the second Mrs. Panofsky, whom he calls a “Jewish-Canadian Princess,” as an antidote to the first; it turns out to be a horrible mistake. The third, “Miriam, my heart’s desire,” is quite possibly his soul mate, but Barney botches this one, too. It’s painful to watch him ruin everything, and even more painful to bear witness to his deteriorating memory. The mystery at the heart of Barney’s story—did he or did he not kill his friend Boogie?—provides enough forward momentum to propel the reader through endless digressions, all three wives, and every one of Barney’s nearly heartbreaking episodes of forgetfulness. Barney’s Version, winner of Canada’s 1997 Giller Prize, is Richler’s 10th novel, and a dense, energetic, and ultimately poignant read. —R. Ellis