Barney’s Version — Mordecai Richler

Barney’s Version isn’t always clear or pretty, whether he’s portraying himself, his friends, his quasi-loves—whether Barney genuinely loved anyone aside from himself is uncertain, with claims otherwise of dubious merit—and his enemies. These categories blend into one another with alarming and realistic regularity. The novel is also seriously fun rather than funnily serious, in the tradition of excessive, bombastic, narcissistic personalities too eccentric for politics but otherwise cut out for that field, like the narrators of Martin Amis’ Money and many of Saul Bellow’s novels, but most notable Seize the Day and Herzog.

Social impropriety binds those characters together and is abundant in Barney’s Version. In a rare moment, Barney Charnofsky is “Bingeing on respectability, I was not determined to prove to Clara’s ghost that I could play the nice middle-class Jewish boy better than she had ever dreamed.” He fails, and trying to prove anything to a ghost is ridiculous, but I love the inversion of the typical mode of bingeing as negative, recalling Richard Feynman’s comment, “So I have developed a very powerful sense of social irresponsibility […] It’s made me a very happy man ever since.”

One character says to Barney, “Now will you please be quiet and stop making an exhibition of yourself.” He doesn’t, of course, since he’s spent his entire life making an exhibition of himself, perhaps explaining the irritation verging on envy that he feels toward a successful acquittance. Barney says of him, “But, after all these years as a flunk, my old friend and latter-day nemesis has acquired a small but vociferous following, CanLit apparatchiks to the fore.” I wonder what he would think of me becoming such an apparatchik by way of coming to Barney’s Version through the 2nd Canadian Book Challenge, Eh?. Nonetheless, publicity, however minor, on my part gives Barney more of a chance to make an exhibit of himself.

He doesn’t do so in a simple manner, either. Chapter four begins by saying, “What follows appears to be yet another digression.” The whole novel is a digression—this post mimics its structure—which makes a certain amount of sense because most people’s entire lives are one long digression, or a series of them, and the narrative cohesion usually given to them by biography and the like is more an effort to impose order on chaos, like selecting a line to fit to a series of data points regardless of whether the line has any meaning.* For such a novel to work, it must nonetheless tell a story with some kind of beginning, middle, and end, even if those elements aren’t in their usual order, and Barney’s Version succeeds as a novel despite and because of its narrator’s protestations.

We’re also not sure when to trust Barney, especially because a would-be editor keeps inserting footnotes. Elsewhere, Miriam, the perhaps love of Barney’s life, says “I believe you,” when Barney denies killing his somewhat friend who might’ve slept with his second wife and might’ve been set-up to do so by Barney himself as a way of getting Barney a divorce (got all that?). He says, ” ‘I’ll be out of here in a week,’ […] hoping that saying it aloud would render it true.” Many of his hopes are improbably rendered true, and his belief in his own belief is somewhat perplexing. As for Miriam, believing a liar might also not be a great idea, but then Miriam might not know Barney’s a liar, or she merely expressing optimism to a man she doubts. It’s not clear what. A lot of Barney’s Version is humorously unclear. In other words, you get a lot of narrative play and epistemological complexity among your laughs. If there’s a better way to get said fiber, I’m not sure of it, and I like mine with sugar much more than vinegar. Life, after all, is pretty funny, and seeing that reflected in books is a relief. Mild offense sometimes blends into hilarious social commentary, as when lawyers are “[…] perhaps mollified because parents of the accused had promised to endow a chair of visible-minority social studies at the college.” That could be a line from Francine Prose’s Blue Angel. Later, we find in Barney’s Version:

I don’t hold with shamans, witch doctors, or psychiatrists. Shakespeare, Tolstoy, or even Dickens understood more about the human condition than ever occurred to any of you.

Usually the third in that opening series isn’t placed with the other two, but the structure is an effective way to express Barney’s low opinion of someone trying to help him. Fortunately, the psychiatrist doesn’t take much offense, as Barney has low opinions of many people, places, and professions, as well as, at times, himself. He also demonstrates obvious allusions in a novel filled with them, some subtle and some not, and his ability to go from hockey to Shakespeare and back impresses. Speaking of hockey, at one point a long-winded girlfriend causes him to start reading about sport in lieu of her, a feeling I remember well, as when I found myself in such a similar low-signal-to-noise-ratio circumstance, the New Yorker was my outlet of preference, causing a roommate to remark once, “I could tell you were on the phone with her because normally I hear you talking.”

I’m tempted to go on about Barney’s Version—there’s a murder plot, an unreliably unreliable narrator, jokes from fading memory, an intrusive editor, family squabbles, drinking problems/solutions, none of which have been fully discussed in this sketch of a sketch—and the more I consider it, the more I realize its easily missed depth and the more I’m inclined to recommend it, given its paradoxical ability to be both light and heavy at the same time, like a character who’s finally reconciled The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Barney’s Version has the magic of a novel that wiggles out of description with such finesse that I barely realize what’s happened, and I’m not reading about the world, but Barney’s version of it.


* Alain de Botton’s fabulous Kiss & Tell is the most successful mockery of biography I’ve read. It also comes with the sanction of the American lit apparatchiks, who put it on my senior year AP English test.

The Portrait of a Lady — Henry James

In the preface to the second edition of The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James preempts the criticism around which I would otherwise base this review: ” ‘To arrive at these things is to arrive at my “story,” ‘ [Ivan Turgenieff] said, ‘and that’s the way I look for it. The result is that I’m often accused of not having “story” enough.’ ”

I agree with those unnamed critics.

James may have subconsciously addressed this issue as he wrote or revised the novel; in the fifth chapter of volume I, a guy wanting to impress Isabel—the “Lady” of the title—and his mother worry about their respective impressions on her. Ralph says, “That sounds rather dry—even allowing her the choice of the two countries.” A few paragraphs later, his mother says, “Do you mean by that that I’m a bore. I don’t think she finds me one. Some girls might, I know; but Isabel’s too clever for that. I think I greatly amuse her.” If you’re concerned about being dry or boring, there’s a reasonably high chance that you are, and Ralph’s mother, in defending herself from charges of being boring, could also be implicitly be defending the novel itself from charges of being boring. Alas: if it isn’t boring, I’m not clever enough to realize it.

To the extent The Portrait of a Lady has a plot, it turns on marriage, and though I appreciate that institution’s importance to James’ time, I wrote about its contemporary problems as a driver of modern fiction in the third paragraph of this post on Francine Prose’s Blue Angel. It’s hard to get as excited about it as the characters in The Portrait of a Lady do. Furthermore, I’m sure the novel was relatively progressive and frank for its time, but now it seems reserved and euphemistic. The painful thing about describing its macro flaws is how spectacular and virtuosic many descriptions are. One in particular stood out: “Isabel perhaps took a small opportunity because she would not have availed herself of a great one.” Note the word “perhaps:” James is a master at depicting ambiguity, perhaps explaining why The Turn of the Screw is so exquisite in its depiction of the maybe ghosts, giving such creeping horror and power that I was compelled to keep reading it as if I were the one at the whip of an apparition—or insane. The Portrait of a Lady, however, is too still and reserved, too much like a portrait and containing too little narrative force to keep me attached, despite how often perfect turns of phrase appear in the context of characters who have not done enough to deserve them. There are enough aphorisms for months of daily quotes, but not enough sinew holding them together.

On the other hand, it may be that nineteenth century fiction demands the acceptance or acknowledgement of a set of conventions and writing practices, and I haven’t cultivated the skill to read it. Of pre-1900 writers, Melville is the only novelist who really chiseled a place in my imagination. The others I tend to read only if I have to, and The Portrait of a Lady didn’t change my outlook. It’s also possible that, as William Blake said according to the unreliable source Barney’s Version, “… that What is Grand is necessarily obscure to Weak Men […] That which can be made Explicit to the Idiot is not worth my care.”

Life: Barney's Version

“Count your blessings. Readers don’t have to wait until the end volume three before I’m even born. Something else. It doesn’t take me six pages to cross a field, as it would if this had been written by Thomas Hardy. I rein in my metaphors, unlike John Updike. I am admirably succinct when it comes to descriptive passages, unlike P. D. James, a writer I happen to admire. A P. D. James character can enter a room with dynamite news, but it is not to be revealed until we have learned the color and material of the drapes, the pedigree of the carpet, the shade of the wallpaper, the quality and content of the pictures, the number and design of the chairs, whether the side tables are bona fide antiques, acquired in Pimlico, or copycat from Heal’s. P. D. James is not only gifted, but obviously a real baleboosteh, or châtelaine. She is also endearing, which is not my problem, and brings me to yet another digression. Or character flaw acknowledged.”

Mordecai Richler, Barney’s Version

Life: Barney’s Version

“Count your blessings. Readers don’t have to wait until the end volume three before I’m even born. Something else. It doesn’t take me six pages to cross a field, as it would if this had been written by Thomas Hardy. I rein in my metaphors, unlike John Updike. I am admirably succinct when it comes to descriptive passages, unlike P. D. James, a writer I happen to admire. A P. D. James character can enter a room with dynamite news, but it is not to be revealed until we have learned the color and material of the drapes, the pedigree of the carpet, the shade of the wallpaper, the quality and content of the pictures, the number and design of the chairs, whether the side tables are bona fide antiques, acquired in Pimlico, or copycat from Heal’s. P. D. James is not only gifted, but obviously a real baleboosteh, or châtelaine. She is also endearing, which is not my problem, and brings me to yet another digression. Or character flaw acknowledged.”

Mordecai Richler, Barney’s Version

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