This book was recommended to me by a friend. Let me somewhat amend that: it was not exactly recommended, but she mentioned that she had started reading it. Curious, I looked it up, perused reviews; I had heard of the movie version but not the book so, as I usually do, I wanted to know something about the book before I invested time in it. The overview seemed interesting enough, so I decided to give it a try.
It was hard to get into at first. Richler has a dense, detail-ridden style that can be confusing. In addition, the book is not told chronologically. Ostensibly it is, as there are three sections, each dealing with one of Barney Panofsky’s wives. But it is a first-person pseudo-memoir of a man who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and it is full of flashbacks, digressions, memory lapses, side stories. Once you get used to it it’s not so hard to navigate, but you have to get your sea legs under you before you can really follow. The three sections correspond to each of Panofsky’s three wives: Clara, the Second Mrs. Panofsky (she is never named), and Miriam. Clara he meets in Paris during his wild days with a gang of writers and artists; he marries her thinking she is pregnant with his child, though it turns out Clara has been sleeping around with an assortment of friends and strangers and the child is actually a black artist’s. Soon after its stillborn nativity Clara commits suicide. The Second Mrs. Panofsky is a mistake from the start, a Jewess from a staid, conservative family with whom Barney has little in common, and the highlight of their wedding is that Barney meets Miriam, the love of his life. He chases Miriam out of the reception and eventually marries her. They have three children and share a few decades of marital bliss. Thrown into the equation is the fact that Barney may or may not have shot his best friend.
Barney is a foulmouthed alcoholic who smokes foul-smelling stogies and has few endearing qualities. One wonders what any of his wives see in him. In its defense the book is very well-written and laugh-out-loud funny in spots. Once you get used to the wild, fluctuating, back-and-forth style it is manageable as well, and it’s possible to get quite connected with the story. The main problem is this: the book is cynical and depressing. I mean really depressing. It goes from bad to worse to still worse. In the end (sorry about the spoiler) Barney is reduced to vegetable state, and on the way down his personal life is one disaster after another, all of which he brings upon himself. This book affected me in a bad way. Sometimes tragedy can be cathartic, but in this case, for me at least, it was just a downer. To provide disclosure, this hasn’t been the best time in my personal life anyway, what with tearing up roots, moving to another country, leaving half my family behind, having to start fresh, being unemployed and unable to find work, keenly feeling the edge of poverty. This book didn’t help my mood any.
It made me think of another book which was also a tragedy, “American Pastoral” by Philip Roth. I wondered what makes me consider “American Pastoral”, despite its terribly negative ending, a masterpiece, and “Barney’s Version” not. I think the difference is that “American Pastoral” rises above the characters it uses to make its point into a critique and exposition of an entire class of society and the way its members see themselves, whereas “Barney’s Version” is just about Barney and his slow descent into hell.
All right, I admit that my own situation and state of mind affects my interpretation and appreciation of the book. But that’s the way it is, isn’t it? None of us are ever completely objective. All that said, I cannot recommend “Barney’s Version”. It’s just too damned depressing. If I had known how much it would bring me down I never would have read it. As it is, what’s done is done. Today I went to my son’s school because he had to get an inoculation and a parent’s presence was mandatory. Perhaps reading “Barney’s Version” was in the nature of an inoculation for me. I’ve been singing plenty of blues myself lately; reading this book helped me force myself to snap out of it.
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