The recent release of a film adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version, alongside the resurgence of interest in the novel and Richler’s writing life, position him at the pinnacle of the Canadian Jewish literary tradition.
A surprising outcome this, considering his comments in a London-based 1961 interview regarding the needlessness, not only of a Canadian writing life but of Canada itself. “Nobody’s quite sure what our culture is,” he told his CBC interviewer, “or indeed if we have a national culture.” It was time, in Richler’s view, to “join the United States and stop defying the logic of politics and geography.”
In retrospect, one can see that such provocative views attracted interest to Richler’s work throughout his career. This stance was his version of a countercultural view, since he tended to dismiss the broader counterculture. He was unmoved by the student movement, by Toronto’s Yorkville folk music scene, or by the rise of leftist anti-Americanism in response to the Vietnam War. Nor did he find common cause with the rise of feminism or post-structuralism in the 1970s and ’80s.
A decade after his death in 2001, Richter has come into his own as a national icon, a part of the mainstream cultural industry and pop culture that he lampooned in early novels like Cocksure and The Incomparable Atuk. When these books came out in the 1960s, Canadian national identity was feeling its oats and neither made much of an impact.
Ironically, Barney’s Version (Random House) returns to a similar kind of fun-making and eye-poking – mass culture and Canadian cultural authorities come in for repeated drubbing – but Canadian readers since the novel’s publication have been willing to take it on the chin and laugh.
Richler’s Barney Panofsky, before the edges were softened by cinema, is a tart curmudgeon who shares many of Richler’s own dislikes. Barney directs jibes at “mediocrity’s holy trinity: the Canada Council, the Ontario Arts Council, and the City of Toronto Arts Council.” Toronto is presented familiarly, as a tight-laced no-fun zone. Arriviste Westmount Jews, late in life, wear laquered hair, designer gear and talk like faux British lords and ladies. Student rebels are pampered, their mommas on the fringe of demonstrations with warm sweaters and cocoa. Westerners who write letters to CBC shows are boobs (Edmonton, Richter famously quipped, is the “boiler room” of the country) with vapid, sentimental memories.
In a book that depicts the enduring charms of family and street life in Montreal, Barney cannot resist a detailed description of the early ’40s, when a “merry throng… marched down the Main… smashing plate-glass windows in Jewish shops and chanting, ‘Kill them! Kill them!”
Like Richter over the course of his career, Barney returns repeatedly to Auden, Spender and Yeats for wisdom. As voices from a wiser and sadder time, these poets’ words support Barney’s characterization of the “young today” as historyless and privileged. Writers representative of youth culture in the postwar era, such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, are mere typers, howlers, lacking the weight and craft of their forebears.
This sort of nostalgic cultural critique haunts previous Richter novels, in particular St. Urbain’s Horseman, which is arguably a more satisfying read than Barney’s Version. But in the earlier book these ideals belong to a character – Jake Hersh – whose own insecurities make his views of the past haunting, linked as they are in complicated ways to World War II.
In Richler’s final novelistic take on these themes, readers have tended to take Barney’s musings as a ripe and wily cultural critique that stands on its own terms. In Italy, “Barneyano” – the spirit and form of Barney’s wit and politically incorrect views – has been celebrated by journalists as a position from which to lampoon contemporary foibles.
To make the movie adaptation of the novel travel, much of the narrative’s local colour had to be erased. Montreal itself is present, but the Quebec-related commentary is entirely gone to ensure an audience in the United States, where Quebec separatism is not a hot sell. And Paul Giamatti’s portrayal of Barney is less Falstaffian, less roguish than Richler’s character. In the movie, Barney is a generation younger, so his nostalgia is necessarily for a different time and place. The core of the novel, according to the film’s screenwriter, is a love story, and surely this is a key aspect of the book – Barney’s touchingly deep respect and care for his third wife, Miriam.
It is serendipitous for Richler’s legacy that his often acid satire is softened and transformed into a more generic story of love lost and then pined after. Richler’s career followed this route, as he stood out first as the country’s critic-in-chief, became a cultural icon before he died, after which he has been fondly remembered. The late-career creation, Barney Panofsky, fits the way many readers want to remember Richter himself.
Norman Ravvin’s new novel is The Joyful Child, from Gaspereau Press. He is chair of the Concordia Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies.