Brook Bakay's Reviews > Barney's Version

Barney's Version by Mordecai Richler
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's review
Jan 14, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: 2011
Read from December 22, 2011 to February 03, 2012 — I own a copy

A fantastic book -- my first by Richler.

It's a virtuoso performance - the best "faulty narrator" story I've read. It's told as the memoirs of Barney Panofsky who thinks he's quite self-aware and frequently catches himself telling little lies and getting his facts wrong. But even having done that, characters in the book still correct him all the time and he doesn't put up much of a fuss - he figures they must be right. On top of that, the book is footnoted by his son who delights in pointing out the errors his dad makes.

The book is so "meta" - I delighted at one point when I noticed that there is very little description in his style; it's mostly dialogue and plot events. Shortly after I noticed that, Barney devotes a few pages to his writing style:
Count your blessings. Readers don't have to wait until the end of 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 colour 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.

Isn't that fantastic? Not only is it a great rant against overly descriptive writing -- full of flair and humour while showing off how well-read he is -- but did you notice how much description there was in his rant against description? Brilliant.

This in the nature of Barney's Version, which as the title will tell you is about the nature of truth, self-knowledge and faulty memory.

And it's full of great characters. So much so, in fact, that I thought they must be based on real people. I wonder how many people read this book, saw themselves in it and said "You bastard." I don't know my Montreal history well enough to say for sure, but they do seem vivid.

The most interesting character is Barney himself, who is boorish and rude, self-centered and egotistical. But all the while hating himself for it. I really came to like the him, forgave him his faults and identified with his regrets. There were several times in the book that he brought me to tears.

But above all, the book is a comedy, and it is funny. There's a story in which Barney tries to emulate Duddy Kravitz in a business deal that made me laugh out loud on the metro.

Read this book. It can be difficult, and took me a while to get into. It jumps all over the place and it can be difficult to keep all the characters and events straight (which of course is by design). But persevere and you will be rewarded. It's excellent.
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Reading Progress

01/05/2012 page 40
02/01/2012 page 180
63.0% "300"
05/12/2016 marked as: read
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