I once read that novelists over 60 are invariably over the hill. Not so. Mordecai Richler, the Canadian novelist, who died on July 3 at age 70, is a case in point.
Richler’s superb last novel, Barney’s Version, is a 400-page, raging-at-the-dying-light rant in which a classically unreliable narrator, 68-year-old Barney Panofsky of Montreal, spews forth a staggering, splenetic version of a disorderly life that includes three lost wives, one possible homocide, and a vast panorama of the wasteland of human vanity.
Among its many virtues, Richler’s final installment in a multi-volume saga that began with the renowned Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz reminds the overserious cultural critic and anyone else committed to the importance of being earnest that it’s a good idea to take an occasional break from a too-steady gaze at the peccadillos and trivial triumphs of the official public world in favour of the longer perspective offered by the realm of dark fictive imaginings.
The unreliability of the narrator in Barney’s Version (Knopf Canada, 1998) is literal. Barney, a millionaire junk television producer, is in the incipient stages of Alzheimer’s. "Last night, sailing off to sleep at last," he reports, "I couldn’t remember the name of the thing you use to strain spaghetti. Imagine that. I’ve used it thousands of times. I could visualize it. But I couldn’t remember what the bloody thing was called. And I didn’t want to get out of bed to search through cookbooks Miriam had left behind, because it would only remind me that it was my fault she was gone, and…" And on it goes, a torrent of memories, blanks, digressions, and stories of better days, all laced with swigs of scotch, foul-smelling stogies, and politically-incorrect premonitions:
"Lying in the dark, fulminating, I recited aloud the number I was to call if I had a heart attack. ‘You have reached the Montreal General Hospital. If you have a touch-tone phone, and you know the extension you want, please press that number now. If not, press number 17 for service in the language of les maudits anglais, or number 12 for service en francais, the glorious language of our oppressed collectivity.’ Twenty-one for emergency ambulance service. ‘You have reached the emergency ambulance service. Please hold and an operator will come to your assistance as soon as our strip-poker game is over. Have a nice day.’ While I waited, the automatic tape would play Mozart’s Requiem." These days, much of life sounds like a telephone-system taped message we’re listening to in the middle of a heart attack.
If that gallows-humour grouchy voice sounds something like public affairs columnist Mordecai Richler grousing about Quebec separatism, the decline of hockey, and the dullness of CanLit, well, the resemblance isn’t entirely coincidental. But where Richler’s real-life grumpiness could be grating, Barney Panofsky’s relentless kvetching is strangely endearing. It satirizes both the object of contempt and the complainer himself. Somewhere in its loud excesses it also whispers, This is what life comes down to in the middle of the night, and we have only our self-destructive selves to blame–that, and anyone else we can pin it on, from real and imaginary enemies to the implacable forces of the cosmos.
Writing from the besieged redoubts of anglophone Montreal in the midst of the 1995 Quebec referendum (which provides countless opportunities for exercises in spleen), Barney organizes "this shambles that is the true story of my wasted life" around each of his wives.
First, there’s Clara. And with her ghost, come memories of Paris in the early 1950s and a circle of young, artsy, anglo-Montreal expatriates, full of doomed promise and ambition, from the priggish Terry McIver to wunderkind Boogie Moscovitch. Then there’s The Second Mrs. Panofsky–the only name by which we know her–who is Barney’s disastrous stab at middle-class Jewish respectability. Richler does a virtuoso turn reproducing the maddening monologues of this Jewish-Canadian Princess. Indeed, Richler is right up there in the pantheon of Insulting Jews: Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and Woody Allen. Like them, he knows that the comedic mode is the best way to render the madness of ethnicity in North America. Finally, there’s Miriam, Barney’s eternal muse, his much lamented "heart’s desire." After 30 years of marriage and three kids, she’s finally abandoned him–and he has only himself to blame.
Richler conjures up scene after funny scene of the human comedy and even throws in the hilarious mystery of whether or not Barney murdered his pal Boogie Moscovitch. His characters–the multiple Mrs. Panofskys, his Jewish police detective father, Izzy, the alcoholic hangers-on at Dink’s bar, and Barney’s three children–are completely believable, if hardly loveable.
What’s striking about Barney’s Version is its vibrancy in contrast to the decorous timidity of so much that is honoured as CanLit. Richler became an out-of-fashion throwback, I suppose. Barney is in a league with Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, another recent book by an author who’s done much of his best work after 60. As in Roth, Richler’s dying reprobate thrashes around wildly, and even though we don’t necessarily like either him or his opinions, we admire his zest.
"Now, I held the spaghetti thingamajig in my liver-spotted hand, wrinkled as a lizard’s back," Barney reports from the dark night of the soul. "Do you mean a colander?" asks his eldest son from the other end of the line.
"Of course I mean a colander," Barney snaps back. "It was on the tip of my tongue. I was just going to say it." How could anyone possibly think otherwise?