Wednesday, April 27, 2011

All Hail Mordecai!


It's a cliché. "I laughed, I cried."

But I did.

I've just finished re-reading Barney's Version by the late, great Mordecai Richler for my mystery reading group at the local Barnes & Noble, and I'm wrecked.

Yeah, it was my choice. And damn it, it IS a mystery, after all. Or at least there's a murder that lies at the great, wild heart of it.
But I forgot how fucking good it is.

What I really want to say is that Barney's Version is by far the best book I've ever read. It's got everything in it. Tears. Laughter. Murder. Family. Children. Bars. Honour. Love. Montreal.

And real style. A real voice. Barney Panofsky has simply one of the most distinctive, memorable narrative voices in fiction; even more vivid than Philip Marlowe's.

And anyone reading this blog knows how I love my Chandler. He was great; one of the funniest, wittiest and most distinctive writers ever, not just in crime fiction but in literature. But Chandler never made me cry.

But Barney Panofsky did.

It's a clever premise: Barney, an aging, rich Canadian TV producer (mostly, he admits, of schlock), looks back on his life. His childhood growing up in Montreal, the son of a rough-and-tumble cop, his wild years in Paris poking around the edges of a circle of ex-pat writers and artists, his three marriages and, of course, the suspicion of that he murdered his best friend that has hung over him for over thirty years. Along the way, Barney rambles and digresses (and his son contradicts him in a series of nitpicking footnotes) and Richler gets to poke fun at his usual favourite targets with his usual take-no-prisoners wit. Suffice it to say that nationalists of all stripes, racists and the over-earnest and the pretentious do not come off well. In fact, if the reader doesn't squirm at least once in self-recognition, they're probably not paying attention. Although perhaps the biggest target of Barney's scorn is himself.

Along the way a lot of cigars are smoked and booze is swallowed. Opinions are expressed and stories are told. Hearts are broken, petty scores settled and inflated egos punctured. It's hard not to be drawn into Barney's world -- he's alternately nasty, noble, loyal, self-serving, shallow, faithful and a cad, but somehow, despite himself, always honest. And, as his faculties slowly desert him, it's difficult not to feel something for the poor son of a bitch. Or laugh at the blackly humourous bitch slap of an ending.

(Hell, I'd even call those last few paragraphs noir, if that meant anything anymore to anyone but a few malcontents and professional cynics cranking out torture porn pulp in their basements.)

They've recently made a movie of Barney's Version, starring Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman, Minnie Driver and Rosamund Pike. It was released in Canada and briefly, oh so briefly, in the States. I haven't seen it yet (I think it only played for a week in LA and New York) but no matter how good it might be, it could never be as effective as the novel, or touch what I'm feeling right now.

Shit. I need to get home to Montreal this year. Hug my kids. Walk Ste. Catherine. Have a medium fat at Schwarz's...

Labels: , , ,


Blogger Guillaume said...

I guess I will have to read him one day. I need to see Montreal too, miss it badly. My pilgrimage is different than yours: buy bagels at Saint-Viateur, drink a couple of Griffons rousses at the Barraca or in Le Boudoir, maybe stop at L'Amère à boire, eat at Aux Vivres (my wife is vegetarian), get some burgers at l'Anecdote and maybe stop at La Binerie, which I haven't done in six years I think. Oh, and spend some time in Olivieri, which I probably haven't done in nearly ten years too. And all the little bookshops on Mont-Royal and Saint-Denis. My memory of Montreal is the one of many Bleuets expats.

10:51 AM, April 27, 2011  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

Not all that dissimilar, I think. Bagels at St. Viateur of course and mostly the same things (food, books and beer), just in different locations, mostly to the south and west. Maclennan's two solitudes strike again.

But I'm surprised you'd never read Richler. Oh, Laurence, Davies, Atwood, Callaghan, Munro, the whole Toronto crowd of CanLit I could see you missing (I'm guessing the French schools barely mentioned them; they may not be taught in the English schools anymore either) but Richler was a Montrealer; one of our best known writers. His Montreal is different than yours and mine again, although his does at times overlap mine in choices of some watering holes and restaurants (although most of those I always considered "old guy" places). But he captures, in his Montreal books, some of the uniqueness and spirit of the city, and pokes at many of its pretensions without mercy. Yes, the separatists come in for a fair amount of drubbing, but so do Federalists, writers, Americans, Canadians in general, feminists, Jews, Christians, actors, writers, critics and almost everyone else under the sun. The only group that gets away relatively unscathed are Barney's beloved Montreal Canadiens.

Part of my love of Canadian lit (and I include Ross Macdonald in there) comes from a class I had in high school called North American Lit. Mrs. Ticehurst promptly dismissed most of the Continent immediately and focussed almost exclusively on Canadian works, particularly those by Montrealers: Richler, Roy, Gelinas, Fennario, Tremblay, Cohen, Layton, et al.

7:11 AM, April 28, 2011  
Blogger Guillaume said...

Well, to be fair I never read Yves Beauchemin and barely read Michel Tremblay, so not reading Richler is not quite a sign of my francophone identity, maybe more due to the fact that I grew up in Chicoutimi. I became a Montrealer as an adult, my experience of the place is the one of a Saguenay expat. We practically invaded the East back in the 90s! People still identify me as a guy from Saguenay when I go there, because of my accent. But Montreal is where I feel home.

10:15 AM, April 28, 2011  
Anonymous Detective said...

After your comment's I definitely have to read the book and go to Montreal some day...

10:59 PM, May 01, 2011  

Post a Comment

<< Home