Mordecai's mordant vision

The film of Barney's Version is bringing the satiric worldview of Canada's literary lion to a new audience, writes Norman Ravvin

February 10, 2011



Credit: Sony Pictures Classics
Star quality: the film of Barney's Version is winning over viewers and readers


The recent release of a film adaptation of Mordecai Richler's final novel Barney's Version, alongside a resurgence of interest in the book and Richler's writing, position him at the pinnacle of the Canadian literary tradition. A surprising outcome, this, considering his comments in 1961 regarding the needlessness not only of Canadian letters, but of Canada itself.

"Nobody's quite sure what our culture is," he told a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (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 the mid-1960s, Canadian Jewish literature was the source of some of the country's most prominent angry young men. Among them was poet Irving Layton, who devoted himself to provoking a Protestant elite he disliked, and Leonard Cohen, who was not so much angry as a wily con man, offering Beat-inspired howls in fiction, poetry and Dylanesque songs. Richler moved to London, returning to Montreal periodically to write mordant satires of his homeland for The Spectator. In 1972, he returned to Canada for good.

In retrospect, one can see that his provocative views drew attention to Richler's work throughout his career. His chosen stance was his version of a counter-cultural view, since he tended to dismiss the broader counter-culture. He was unmoved by the student movement, by the folk music scene centred on Toronto's Yorkville neighbourhood, and 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 1980s.

Still, his novels found a popular audience that did not wane, sparked largely by the status of classic attained by his 1959 breakthrough, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. That work, which also spawned a faithful film version, staked out Richler's career-long goal, as he often put it, to serve as an "honest witness to my time, my place".

His foray into political writing in the 1990s, spurred by his disdain for Quebec's independence movement, endeared him further to English-speaking Canada as a rebel with a timely cause.

A decade after his death in 2001, Richler 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 such as The Incomparable Atuk (1963) and Cocksure (1968). However, when those books were published, Canadian national identity was feeling its oats and neither one made much of an impact.

Barney's Version, published in 1997, 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. Critic and Richler biographer Joel Yanofsky noticed a shift in Richler's reception shortly after the release of the novel.

"Richler revisionism" was in the air, he felt, propelled by the nomination of Barney's Version for the prestigious Toronto-based Giller Prize and a willingness to "canonize" the author in late career as a "kind of disheveled cigarillo-smoking Anne Murray", a reference to the resolutely wholesome Canadian country singer popular in the 1960s and 1970s.

Richler's Barney Panofsky, before his edges were softened by cinema, is a tart curmudgeon who shares many of the author's dislikes. Barney snipes 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 strait-laced no-fun zone. Arriviste Jews in Montreal's patrician Westmount neighbourhood, late in life, wear lacquered hair, designer gear and talk like faux British lords and ladies. Student rebels are pampered, their mothers waiting on the fringes of demonstrations with woolly jumpers and cocoa. Western Canadians who write letters to CBC programmes are boobs (Edmonton, Richler famously quipped, is the country's "boiler room") with vapid, sentimental memories.

In a book that memorably depicts the enduring charms of family and street life in Montreal, Barney nevertheless cannot resist a detailed description of the dark days of the early 1940s, when a "merry throng...marched down the Main...smashing plate-glass windows in Jewish shops and chanting, 'Kill them! Kill them!'"

Like Richler over the course of his career, Barney returns repeatedly to W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender and W.B. Yeats for wisdom and inspiration. These poets serve as voices from a wiser and sadder time, and contribute to Barney's characterisation of the "young today" as historyless and privileged. Writers representative of youth culture in the post-war era, such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, are mere typists, he contends, and howlers lacking the weight and craft of their forebears.

This sort of nostalgic cultural critique haunts earlier Richler novels, in particular St. Urbain's Horseman (1971), 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 insecurities make his views of the past haunting, linked as they are in complicated ways to the Second World War.

In Richler's final novelistic take on these themes, readers have tended to see Barney Panofsky'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 ensure that the movie adaptation of the novel travelled well, much of the narrative's local colour was erased. Montreal itself is present, but the Quebec-related commentary has been excised in order not to alienate a US audience, where Quebec separatism is, to put it mildly, not a hot sell.

And Paul Giamatti's portrayal of Barney - which recently won him a Golden Globe - 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 has been softened and transformed into a more generic story of love lost and then pined over. Richler's career followed this route, as he stood out first as Canada's critic-in-chief, then as a cultural icon before he died, and now as a fondly remembered storyteller. His late-career creation, Barney Panofsky, fits the way that many readers want to remember Richler himself.

In his native province, a younger generation of writers and translators - literate and curious in both of the country's official languages - are taking a renewed look at Richler as a Quebec writer. New translations, with a better ear for the local colour of both French-speaking and English-speaking Montreal, are appearing.

Still, recent efforts to rename an intersection in an old Jewish neighbourhood Carré Richler had no shortage of detractors, including the Catholic, pro-francophone St-Jean-Baptiste Society and a number of city politicians. The corner of Fairmount Avenue and Clark Street, long a bagel and egg-cream haven, will likely keep its familiar street names for some time yet.

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