Winner of the 1997 Giller Prize
Winner of the 1998 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour
Winner of the 1998 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book (Canada & Caribbean region)
Winner of the 1998 QSpell Award
Winner of the 1998 Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Award
Shortlisted for 1997 Roger’s Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize
Selected for Canada Reads 2004
Well, here it is, my first review on the new Blog! It has been at least 8 months since I had sat down to read a “real” book. I stood looking at my book case and decided that it was time to rekindle my love of CanLit. I had read recently that a film adaptation of Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler staring Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman was due to be released this summer; so remembering this, then after reading the inside flap, and seeing the original “1997 Winner: The Giller Prize” sticker on the cover of my first edition copy I decided to crack this volume open and get sucked into the lives of another one of Richler’s anti-epics.
Sitting my computer right now I feel I would not be doing this book justice unless I was sipping on a snifter of cognac while putting down my thoughts. One of this first things that struck me about this book was that it is written in the first person, Richler’s first novel to use this point-of-view. Barney Panofsky is a hot tempered, wickedly witted, alcoholic, caring, shrewdly intelligent, and complicated wretch of an old man. It is very hard to avoid seeing autobiographical elements in fiction, especially first-person fiction, and even more so in the writings of Mr. Richler, and of course this book is no different. Barney, like Richler himself, is nearing the end of his life (Richler died 4 years after the publication of this, his last, novel), his health is failing, he has a love of Montecristo cigars and Macallan Scotch, and internally struggles with what it means to be a post-Holocaust Jew, if anything.
Barney’s Version, in the way it is written and in the themes that emerge, is very similar to Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel (I actually re-watched the film adaptation just to reaffirm my opinion). The story is told through flashbacks and interconnected vignettes. The book is written as though it is Barney Panofsky’s memoirs with his son Mike adding footnotes and penning an afterword to wrap the story up. There are multiple climaxes in the story, 4 in my opinion, one at the end of each marriage and then one at the end of the book. Barney really is a pathetic man but he has his redeeming qualities. The 417 pages contained in this novel take you on a roller coaster of feelings towards him, one minute you will despise this drunk wife-beater but 20 pages later you adore his dry wicked charm as he woos his next wife. Barney’s Version is about memory; and what happens to a man when his memories outweigh his future and then what that man becomes when those memories fade.
In the final chapter with one sentence Mike Panofsky describes his father with pinpoint accuracy; “Before his brain began to shrink, Barney Panofsky clung to two cherished beliefs: Life was absurd, and nobody ever truly understood anybody else” (417). I think that anyone would be very hard pressed to convince me that either of these two ideas are false. Through his incredible satire Richler has once again crafted a masterpiece on the human condition. When Barney is being tested by a psychiatrist for Alzheimer’s disease he gets agitated and lets him know that the great writers of world better understand what it means to be human than any doctor could. I agree. Richler’s final novel is a great and fitting end to a Canadian literary legend.