Barney’s Version, Mordecai Richler

Knopf, 1997, 355 pages, C$25.00 hc, ISBN 0-679-40418-X

Commonly-held wisdom is that movies ruin books, but that relationship usually proves true in only one direction, for readers of the original who then see the movie adaptation.  There is much less appreciation for the way the arrow runs in reverse: how movies can enhance books when viewers go on to read the original.

Seeing 2010’s Barney’s Version movie adaptation is an ideal way to prepare for reading Mordecai Richler’s 1997 novel, his last work of book-length fiction.  Given how Barney’s Version is a lengthy autobiographical ramble by a man who has had three wives, the opening pages of the story makes no attempt at nicely introducing the reader to the gallery of characters what have come to populate Barney Panovsky’s life.  What are those references to Bogie?  Who is “the second Ms. Panofvsky”?  How many wives has Barney had anyway?

The relationships aren’t one-to-one between novel and film: The events of the film version has been pushed fifteen years forward, ditch a Paris-set prologue for Rome, update details of Barney’s television-show production company, combine a few characters, streamline some scenes and abandon many of Barney’s crankier reflections on Montréal and Québec society as seen from the perspective of a Jewish English-Canadian.  Gone are the vicious attacks on separatism, dismissive thoughts on young activists and conscious rebellions against political correctness.

But all of those are in the book, and more.  The point of reading Barney’s Version is to understand more fully the characters surrounding Barney, and peek a little deeper in his mind.  Among other treats, we get to know what happens to a few characters abruptly evacuated from the film as soon as their plot points are accomplished –I particularly appreciated learning how the now-obese “second Ms. Panofvsky” kept hounding Barney throughout his life, or what happened to Cedric after Paris.  Barney is such a character that reading him about circa-1995 annoyances is good enough for a few smiles –and I’m voluntarily not trying to link Barney to Richler himself.  As a nod to Richler’s best-know work, Duddy Kravitz is even mentioned a few times as another elderly businessman who has never lost his touch for the subtle con.

Barney’s Version can feel like hard work at first, though: The blizzard of names, disconnected events, shorthand references and deliberate mistakes in the text is meant to reflect the way Barney is losing his mind to Alzheimer.  The first few pages don’t make for a friendly reading experience, though –and that’s with the help of the film in mapping the relationships between the characters.

One of the question that often comes in recommending that readers spoil themselves rotten with the movie adaptation before tackling the source novel is whether the reader can still be surprised, satisfied or otherwise caught up in a story whose twists and turns are already known.  Ignoring adaptations that use a premise before going in their own direction, or those who change key elements of the resolution, Barney’s Version proves that a sufficiently skilled storyteller can keep up the surprises even when you know all the tricks up his sleeve.  The framing device of the book itself (untranslatable in film) is remarkably effective and even if the final revelation to the book is the same as the movie, nothing can quite prepare the reader for the last page: even the last few “damn, damn, damn” of the novel give the extra emotional layer to the truths left unrevealed to some characters.

If you’ve seen the film and thought that maybe something was missing, do yourself a favour and get a little bit more of Barney Panofvsky’s cranky wisdom.  (It’s no exaggeration that the written Barney would have hated the film version of his life, restructured around a pat romantic drama.)  At the same time, you’ll understand why Mordecai Richler’s ghost still remains such a presence over the Canadian literary scene, even a decade after his death.

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