Winner of the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour, The 1998 Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Giller prize, I had some pretty high expectations for Barney’s Version – and I am happy to say they were met, if not exceeded. With his trademark acerbic wit, Richler has created an intolerant, cantankerous, curmudgeonly old man that is one of the most enjoyable characters I’ve ever read. Throw in the wicked delight of Richler skewering the arts in Canada, autobiographies, feminists, artists, nationalism, les Quebecois and numerous other things, sporting an amused grimace is pretty much unavoidable.
Following the publication of an old friend’s book in which he is not only ruthlessly skewered, but accused of murder, Barney Panofsky feels a need to clear his not-so-good name. Consequently, he sets out his life story (Barney’s Version), recounting his time among the intelligentsia of Paris in the 1950s (and his first marriage), his return to Montreal and success as a producer of terrible Canadian television (and his second marriage), and lastly, his discovery of his true love, Miriam (and his last marriage.)
But as Barney grows older and struggles to remember the names of the seven dwarfs or the name of a spaghetti strainer, the novel’s machismo and bravado starts to peel away, revealing a tender reflection on the nature of memory, identity, and above all, love. While it is ostensibly a story about truth, truth proves to be elusive, as Barney’s narrative oscillates between past and present and the lines between truth and fiction become fuzzy. Did Barney really kill his friend Boogie? It’s a question that Barney’s kids struggle with, as do the readers. But just as Barney has wooed three wives, he’s also charmed his readers, and you may be surprised to find you don’t care as much as you should. The novel itself implies that love trumps truth every time, the thing that makes “Miriam, Miriam, my heart’s desire” such an admirable character is that she never asks Barney, but loves him anyway.
I could go on, but I fear that my watery assertions do injustice to Richler’s tightly coiled prose. Suffice to say read it. Read it for its irresistable nastiness, its biting satire, and its surprising tenderness. Start to finish, Barney’s version is a celebration of storytelling that can’t be missed.