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Richler's Paradise Lost
by Scott Disher

".a growing body of first-rate writing about sports: one thinks immediately of Norman Mailer on the fights, Updike and Mark Harris-nevertheless.I can't help feeling guilty.. An earlier generation of American writers had to test themselves not against Bart Starr and Archie Moore, but the Spanish Civil War and the Moscow trials. In Europe, Isaac Babel, looking for a change, rode with the Red Cavalry. George Orwell went to Wigan Pier and then Catalonia. Koestler came out of Spain with his Spanish Testament. This is not meant to be an attack on Plimpton, but on all of us, Plimpton's generation and mine. One day, I fear, we will be put down as a trivial, peripheral bunch. Crazy about bad old movies, nostalgic for comic books. Our gods don't fail. At worst, they grow infirm. They suffer pinched nerves, like Paul Hornung. Or arthritic arms, like Sandy Koufax."-Mordecai Richler, Hunting Tigers under Glass (1968)

"I've never known a writer or painter anywhere who wasn't a self-promoter, a braggart, and a paid liar of a coward, driven by avarice and desperate for fame."-Barney Panofsky in Barney's Version

Even without the attendant media blare, faux controversy, and marketing hoopla, the release of a new Richler opus is a noteworthy publishing event eagerly awaited by detractors and fans alike.
More so this time around, because the eight-year interval since the publication of his last novel, Solomon Gursky was Here, has been filled with Richler's pessimism and journalistic kvetching, at home and abroad, over Canada's parlous prospects as a nation. His notorious 1991 New Yorker article, which preceded his 1992 book Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!: Requiem for a Divided Country, invited an unprecedented obloquy from diverse quarters.
Variously attacked as an ungrateful misanthrope, overpaid Canada-basher, and anti-Francophone bigot, Richler has earned the enmity of a nasty mosaic of Quebec nationalists and their apologists, plus a resentful horde of bizarre bedmates. The anti-Richler brigades stretch from garden-variety anti-Semites and zealots (including Zionists) leftwards across the trendoid spectrum: feministas (and their appeasers), English-Canadian cultural nationalists and their of late less vocal allies, the economic nationalists, anti-Americans, et al. As occupant of one of Canada's premier pulpits-a "sundry ruminations" column in the reconstructed Saturday Night -Richler has courted the ire of assorted envious hacks, talking heads, CanLit crits, disheartened socialists, prudes, environmentalists, homophiles, Toronto boosters, bureaucrats and politicians of all persuasions, anti-smoking-cholesterol-alcohol types, and other covens of correctitude.
His creative powers undiminished, Richler has survived the indignities of time and controversy. He is unquestionably this country's most celebrated male novelist. Neither his stature abroad, however, nor his literary seniority here will shield him from a predictable rash of indignant and venomous responses to a novel that revels in provocation. Barney's Version is a personal paean that delights in skewering and roasting the self-righteous advocates of postmodern moral relativism. If it turns out to be a sort of swan song, Richler and his admirers can take satisfaction in knowing that his tenth novel at last provides its ambitious author entrée into an august literary coterie. Delivered as a fin-de-siècle peroration, Barney's Version is embroidered with the savage mischief and gleeful scorn of Waugh and the downward spiralling grotesquerie of Bellow's self-destructive anti-heroes.
Now that he is sixty-six, Richler's curmudgeonly impulses might be expected to have mellowed somewhat. In recent years, my infrequent encounters with him led me to believe the opposite: that behind his taciturn, occasionally tetchy demeanour a brooding temperament was brewing his most richly iconoclastic work.
Over the last three decades, the frequency of Richler novels has been exceeded by the number of outstanding vintage-year ports. At forty, in 1971, he published what was then his most ambitious novel, St. Urbain's Horseman, which can be viewed as the first panel of a triptych: sophisticated experiments in form and style, expansive, self-absorbed journeys through time and place. The first two-the second being Joshua Then & Now (1980)-switch between Montreal and its surrounds to England, Europe, and Hollywood, from fame and gathering fortune to sudden reversals, reversions, and gloriously gritty ignominy.
Both books contain a mature mastery of comic timing, finely turned dialogue, and the combined vulgarissimo and verve that are cherished Richler hallmarks. The unchecked profanity, ribaldry, and antic épateur urges of the two previous fantastic romps, Cocksure and The Incomparable Atuk, had been reduced risotto-like in a newly restrained, quasi-realistic narrative framework.
A nine-year hiatus ensued after Joshua. Novel No. 9, Solomon Gursky was Here, featured another variation of the not-quite-Richler-himself protagonist, Moses Berger, in a sweeping, satirical exploration of racial identity, history, transcendent myths, and popular legends. Acclaimed internationally as a virtuoso feat of astonishing technical brilliance, in Canada its release was overshadowed by sideshows and roman-à-clef gossip. (Would the Bronfmans or their meticulously lampooned minion-in the book he is the Heepishly menacing Gursky "consigliere" Harvey Schwartz-sue their insufferably delighted tormentor?)
Once again, Richler had studiously offended, trod on taboos (in this case, miscegenation), and perpetrated another unsportingly incongruous prank-borrowed from the annals of the Franklin expedition-the eternal wandering Jew's bastard Eskimo descendants! Although Canadian critics were quick to pick up on his "voguish" embrace of magic realism, most were blind to Richler's ironic use of this idiom.
The reviewing classes leapt at the chance to chide the mock-epic's creator for the unoriginal sin of half-hearted genre-appropriation, instead of appreciating its wry overtones and transparent motifs. White, urban, Jewish, first-world, "name" novelist chucks rationalist belief systems and succumbs, tongue-in-cheek, to the hocus-pocus of primitive, shamanistic superstitions. (Hello!) Richler's malicious juxtaposition of aboriginal rituals with equally irrational Judaeo-Christian customs was lost on reviewers incapable of recognizing parody.
These and other distractions obscured a further achievement: the painstakingly woven Gursky saga's narration and its classic detective-fiction addict's adherence to that lesser genre's rigid rules-requiring careful readers to refer back to a previous conversational gambit or clue when characters reappear. I remember laying down Gursky with a sense of mental fatigue and new-found admiration for Richler's consummate craftsmanship.
In 1996, the omens for another work of genius from Richler hardly seemed propitious. Besieged and beleaguered, trundling towards the millennium and eligible to collect his old age pension (with a penchant for cigars, single malts, fine cognac, dissolute bar-room buddies, and journalistic divertissements), Richler was an unlikely contender, even amongst the slender pickings of the comic novel division.
Notwithstanding the inevitable interruptions, such as the 1995 referendum, and the self-inflicted ones-such as the contretemps over Richler's caustic inauguration of the Impure Wool Society's annual Jacques Parizeau medal and cash award for a literary work penned by a non-Francophone (i.e., non-pure-laine) Quebecker-the word at Winnie's Bar on Québanglo Montreal's frayed Crescent Street strip was that Richler's new novel was going to be a humdinger. The perennially pickled newspaper columnist and gadabout, Nick Auf der Maur, was telling all who cared to listen he was in it, or at least a character based on him; and so was his disreputable pal, Richard Holden, lawyer and shameless opportunist, whose sodden peccadilloes as Westmount's infamous one-term member of the Quebec National Assembly regularly adorned the rogues' gallery round-up in Frank magazine.
One afternoon a year or so ago in Montreal, I was reminded of other disappointments upon meeting writers whose work had enthralled me. Richler was taking a breather from his work-in-progress. As I settled into the desultory banter at the bar, seated beside Richler and Auf der Maur (Maître Holden was engaged elsewhere), it was as if I'd absented myself from a state of suspended animation for more than a year and then returned to find I hadn't missed a beat; the conversation seemed to pick up effortlessly in a continuum of vacuous gabble and puerile jokes, a reminder of why I had long ceased frequenting saloons.
This banal aside is offered by way of admonition: Do not confuse the writer's quotidian habits with the writing itself. Last year, a smug Montreal Gazette hack in a spiteful profile denigrated Richler as a washed-up barfly whose once prodigious talents had been dulled by indolence and booze. Richler's witty written reply allowed that while the three novels he had published over the previous twenty-five years did not entitle him to claim to be prolific, his nonetheless respectable output should be put into perspective: somewhere between Joyce Carol Oates and J. D. Salinger.

* Barney's Version purports to be the addled memoirs of one Barney Panofsky, a tantrum-prone, thrice-married, shady operator with a Midas touch, a nostalgia buff and tap-dancing aficionado, loyal friend, inveterate prankster, habitual drunkard, sporadically doting father deserted by his one true love, occasional bully and perpetual lech, diehard Canadiens fan, insolent baiter of separatists and homosexuals, male chauvinist, TV schlockmeister, whistler of Tin Pan Alley tunes, old movie addict and failed screenwriter.
This vaguely Richler-like narrator is a "superannuated, St. Urbain Street scamp" (my phrase about Richler, which he has adopted and shortened to "scamp"), whose adolescence was frittered away in billiard parlours, burlesque theatres, and picture palaces within the sentimental territory of the great artery that runs through most of the Richler oeuvre, the Main, a.k.a. St. Lawrence Boulevard, which bifurcates Montreal's Jewish and immigrant working-class neighbourhood.
Panofsky's biliously engaging confessions of a globe-trotting rotter, the boy from the 'hood made good, is Richler's bittersweet, slapstick take on encroaching senility and lifelong regrets. It also marks a circular return in the Richler cycle to hallowed themes and laments, old stalking-grounds, and some repeat-engagement cameos from the darkly perverse, idiosyncratically upbeat Richler repertoire. The Book of Barney is not only the senescent, first-time literary effort of a "littra-chur" groupie of catholic reading tastes, Rabelaisian appetites, and vaudevillian leanings, it is also a departure of sorts for Richler: his first attempt in a novel at first-person narration-by a character who is his most fully realized comic protagonist: Barney Panofsky, high-minded Mordy's unabashed, rascally Id.
To measure the accomplishments of Barney's Version, one might compare it with other recent works by prominent novelists pursuing similar themes: John Updike's finale of Harry Angstrom's life, Rabbit at Rest, Martin Amis's The Information, and Richard Ford's second look at the sportswriter manqué Frank Bascombe in Independence Day.
One of the raps against Richler has been that his often demented characters seem to live in a capricious, twisted, middle draft of an unfinished screenplay based on a jumbled pastiche culled from Isaac Bashevis Singer, Dostoyevsky, detective thrillers, pulp fiction, true crime clippings, Playboy jokes, the sports pages, a soupçon of Peyton Place as interpreted by John Cheever, comic books, eccentricity grâce à Evelyn Waugh, masculine hangups and drinking habits courtesy of Hem and Irwin Shaw, plus large dollops of Wasp-goy envy and the crass pursuit of wealth found in, say, a Harold Robbins potboiler.
While not your average law-abiding citizen, Barney Panofsky starts with certain advantages not handed to Messrs. Angstrom and Bascombe by their creators. First, he has led a more varied existence, seems to have more money, has had three fabulously different wives, enjoyed a world-class bohemian youth in Paris and elsewhere, can manipulate others with flair, has access to art and film world movers-and-shakers, and is intermittently faithful to friends, family, associates, and antagonists-many of whom are larger-than-life "characters" or criminals, especially his outlandishly perfect, retired-cop father, Izzy, who says things like "Somebody gives you trouble, you tell me, and I'll fucken air-condition him."
Whereas Barney seems never to have made a concerted effort to complete a serious piece of writing before (cruelly, he doesn't get to finish this one either), his inimitable, amateurish conversational style is part of a consciously literary endeavour. Though perhaps out-of-date, the choice of having a narrator commit himself to print provides an authenticity-what the French call robustesse-lacking in Updike's and Ford's use of high realism's gauzy transcript, which always begs questions: Who is the narrator and why? And should the reader have to suffer the boredom-verisimilitude is a poor rationale-of being trapped, from beginning to end, in the stasis of formless, floating thought-balloons?
Unlike Rabbit Angstrom, Barney is truly literate; as for Bascombe, he is a frustrated, self-hating prose man, with an attitude towards the fraudulism of literary academia.
In this novel, Richler's gaudy inventiveness and exuberance have been suffused into a seamless but muscular narrative voice, minus the languid (self-indulgent) meanderings that Updike and Ford lay off on their protagonists as naturalistic narration, a stylistic choice that often prompts us to skim and skip. Richler's resolutely old-fashioned formulae, faultless mimicry, and screenwriter's attention-deficit radar infuse Barney's chaotically related tale with a rollicking textual interplay, enhanced by clever authorial devices.
Foremost among these is Richler's wickedly subversive deployment of that prosaic necessity, the footnote, a bane to all who despise pedantry and pedants. While aping with deadpan delight the inflexible literalism of the fact-checker's dismal métier, Richler has conceived and executed one of the great comic subtexts in modern literature. The unwitting butt of all this fun is Barney's steadier son and designated literary executor. Michael Panofsky's unenviable filial lot, faithfully and unimaginatively pursued (as his egotistical father cynically intended), is to edit Barney's chronologically faulty, error-plagued manuscript, and write the footnotes and an afterword, which serves to resolve the plot and furnish the dénouement.
Punctuating and puncturing Barney's text with hilariously disconcerting regularity, the footnotes are presented with magisterial skill and deliver multiple points-of-view and further comic relief. They also meet other needs, sometimes separately, at other times simultaneously: as contrapuntal riffs; pithy asides; to bolster, decipher, and deconstruct Barney's deteriorating intellect; as aids in character development; and droll one-liners. Many of the entries are at once perfidious and informative. Richler's inspired narrational innovation will spawn a raft of emulators.
N.B. Richler's New York editors may wish in future editions to correct some goofs, inexplicably flubbed by the earnest fact-checker "Michael Panofsky", such as these:
1. I am reliably informed, by an erstwhile junkie and childhood friend from my days at Selwyn House in Montreal, that when Barney's friend Boogie disappeared, methadone was not yet prescribed for heroin addicts; it was originally marketed for other therapeutic uses and only came to be recognized as a palliative substitute following clinical trials in 1965.
2. When Detective Sean O'Hearne arrested Barney, the name of the Quebec Provincial Police had not yet been changed to the Sûreté du Québec.
Among the more piquant fictive tools created by Richler are the selected excerpts from Of Time & Fevers, the mean-spirited published journals of Barney's friend and nemesis, the talent-free drone Terry McIver, a Canadian gothic composite whose truculent mediocrity and pathetic dullness evoked, in this reader's mind, sly intimations of certain aspects of the lives and works of Morley Callaghan and Timothy Findley, among others. The remorselessly unsympathetic portrayal of McIver (and his tireless efforts at character assassination) fills a crucial role as this novel's raison-d'être: by spurring Barney to publish his own countervailing accounts and purge the air of McIver's lies.
Another means of vengeance is a sprinkling of delicious prank letters. Aside from performing minor plot functions, these lowbrow epistolary sallies stand on their own as farcical gems.
Spliced into the bedlam of Barney's manuscript-divided into three sections, one named for each wife-are miscellaneous scraps and retrouvailles, including strange snippets from his friend Boogie's truncated writing career; short quotes from admired authors (Auden, Yeats, Dr. Johnson); a couple of poignant scrawls from his swashbuckling screenwriting mentor, Hymie Mintzbaum, who has suffered a stroke and splutters unintelligibly (preparing us and Barney for his own descent into Alzheimer's); and a few lines from his posthumously famous first wife Clara's poems in The Virago's Verse Book:

he peeled my orange and more often me,
my keeper.

Two items from Barney's potpourri are also characteristic: one, a mock quiz from wet-dream reveries of his high school teacher, Mrs. Ogilvy:
Q. CANADA IS: a.) a dictatorship b.) a post-colonial democracy of limited culture c.) a theocracy;
and from a park sign in Toronto:
Compared to Updike's Rabbit at Rest and Ford's Independence Day, Barney's interior monologues seem more vivid and are certainly less prolix. My judgement is that Barney's Version contains technically superior writing, which resorts to a richly eclectic, hybrid menu of screenwriting techniques (jump cuts, fast fades, etc.) and tried-and-true literary conventions-sustaining what amounts to a theatrical interest in the lives and trajectories of the characters. In so doing, Richler, as parodist and Waugh acolyte, builds an atmosphere and contexts that allow him the freedom to exploit the reassuring presence of conventional devices. By respecting readers' expectations for plot tensions and a whiff of melodrama, he heightens the effects of his craft's slight accommodations to the mundane, all the while pressing his absurdist instincts.
A delectable instance of his artistic abandonment in bucking and blending structural clichés arises from the central "mystery" of whether Barney did or did not kill his best friend, Boogie the drug fiend, after catching him in flagrante delicto with The Second Mrs. Panofsky, who is Richler's best female comic creation.
Displaying exceptional range, and more facility in conjuring and then casually undermining stylistic forms than the famously impudent Squire Waugh ever managed, Richler's Barney Chronicles contain genuine mimetic exercises, some more successful than others. The overall impression on most readers, with whom these tricks are designed to register subliminally, produces great satisfaction. Apart from mere mimicry, which is plentiful here, Richler patiently presents his readers with convincingly wrought, novelistic alloys: the psychological novel; low farce; what one might call the anti-policier; and the sentimental novel.
Richler's gifts have become such that when he permits his picaresque story to lapse into parody, his credibility never falters. A nice example of his command over his anarchic tendencies is this book's deus ex machina plot resolution. It's cheap, it's subtle, and it works like a charm-by leaving our belief in Barney's emotions intact.
In contrast, Amis's The Information has distanced narrative overviews beyond Barney's scope-and outside the scope of first-person narrative. But the principals there, the criminally obsessed Richard Tull and his narcissistic nemesis Gwyn Barry, are amoral and immoral. Barney's humanity triumphs over his many faults. Responding to his lovelorn vulnerability and often honourable impulses, most readers will conclude that his jealousy and envy are circumstantial and psychological, rather than pathological.
So many tendrils and characters are left dangling in this book that perhaps the sure-thing sirens will beckon, and beget a sequel. It could be written by Saul, Barney's second son, an ideologically ricocheting writer and chip-off-the-old-block. Overexcited readers may hitch their own suppressed satirical longings to some of these oversized caricatures. Who could resist another dose:
Corpulent, vulpine The Second Mrs. Panofsky and Sean O'Hearne, ex-Sûreté thug, plot revenge as B.P. lingers on in the King David Nursing Home. Maybe Barney will undergo experimental drug treatment and will be looked after by a dishy night nurse. Orotund e-mail messages might appear-signed John Henry Ritblat, Baron de Bromptonwold (a Labour peer)-fanning the beatific virtues of the ghoulishly anti-Semitic Sister Octavia, whose nephew, Cardinal Sylvain-Gaston Savard, has been touted by conclave cognoscenti as the first French Canadian Pope.
Others would not want to miss a five-ring funeral (wake chez Dink); the quisling Québanglo J. H.-M.-Renault, double-hyphened après noces to Barney's long-suffering mistress and legatee, the suddenly flush Solange) might be named by the Preem, Dollard Redux, to La Commission policière de la langue du Québec; shocking revelations could emerge from B.P.'s insidious correspondence with the debunked abstract art panjandrum Leo Bishinsky; Yankel Schneider's retaliatory forensic sleuthing uncovers Barney's tax scams; the zaftig Zionist Irv Nussbaum switches allegiances to raise funds for the Quebec partition movement; Barney's old partner in crooked commerce, Yossel Pinsky, runs a Mossad sting in Moscow paying for French lessons to Jews recruited by the local mafia to emigrate to Montreal; the "whorror" flix producer (Dykes 'n Drag) Ms. Morgan's dental dam breaks; the Gursky pitbull Senator Schwartz heads hearings on a draconian anti-drinking bill; bigamous Boogie's work-in-progress and "widows" surface; Barney's long-lost half-brother Avram, Izzy's brothel bastard.
Parody is easily parodied, particularly when its originator re-introduces characters from previous books-for comic and commercial motives. Duddy Kravitz, whose coming-of-age tale first vaulted Richler to fame (the New Canadian Library paperback is in most of this country's bookstores), seems to have been kept on retainer: as movable metaphor, authorial trademark, and meal-ticket talisman. In Barney's Version, he pops up in person three times, and also conversationally after Duddy is charged with insider trading-a sign of the hustler's progress from outsider status.
Richler treats these cameos somewhat casually. In Barney's Version, there are glimpses of Duddy putting his moves on a New York art dealer to purchase wholesale some paintings he wants for his Upper Westmount home; and of him emerging from his Jaguar in downtown Montreal, wife impatiently summoning him by beeping the horn, trying to buy respectability from the charity circuit through sponsorship of some undersubscribed but not too disgusting disease. (Crohn's? No Diarrhoea Ball for Duddy's better half!) Though Barney runs into him once at the Toronto airport, Richler does not try to square Duddy's upscale Forest Hill days-described in St. Urbain's Horseman-with his otherwise seeming continuous scrabble up the hill in Westmount.
Going home may be problematic for Southern boys who escape the heartland only to return. But some urban North American, immigrant-culture writers seem unable to leave the confines of a Depression-Wartime childhood or postwar adolescence: E.L. Doctorow, Philip Roth, Joseph Heller, and Don DeLillo live in a Bronx-Brooklyn-NYC mindscape, heavily influenced by baseball, the movies, pervasive mafia presences, distant wars, sexual guilt, fabled littérateurs, and the golden days of radio and newspapers.
It was Richler's birthright and good luck to be born into one of the continent's most colourful metropolises, a city seething with resentments, in circumstances not unlike his New York literary brethren's. For most of his early years, the mayor of Montreal was Camillien Houde, whose capers and unruly behaviour dwarfed the shenanigans of his counterparts in other North American cities. Montreal was rife with poverty, a wide-open, mob-encrusted, religion-ridden, ghettoized agglomeration run capriciously by corrupt, mostly French Canadian politicians, who usually kowtowed to its Anglo mercantile elite.
Despite its multicultural richness and dual cultural heritage, Montreal stood alone, a cité unique, as a place of contrasting morals and manners, ebullient and repressed, vibrantly cosmopolitan yet chillingly parochial. All of Richler's work, his themes and imagery, harks back to his indelible beginnings. Throughout his career, Richler and his characters constantly calibrate their progress against the experiences and transformations of peers, real and imagined. The joys and pitfalls of defining and measuring success while striving for its favours are Richler's dominant preoccupation.
His novels, particularly The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Joshua Then & Now, reveal a city riven by several solitudes. To Duddy and Richler, the seeming impenetrable monolith was Fortress Westmount with its stockbroker-Tudor, suburban stone "castles" high atop the hard-scrabble city. In St. Urbain's Horseman, which can be read as a companion novel to Duddy, the unattainable prize for Jake Hersh, a pal of Kravitz, is status and security-if not fame and fortune-in the dicey business of films. The two friends support and stake each other at various junctures in their attempts to become players. Duddy, whose role model was the legendary Jerry Dingleman, "The Boy Wonder" (his fortune began with a trade in streetcar transfers at three cents apiece), first strikes it lucky as publisher of the sardonically nicknamed Jew's Who. Both Jake and Duddy know that it will take a lot of luck and perseverance for them to wind up in the castles of their dreams.
Richler admits that Hersh is the protagonist who is closest to his own personality and outlook. Jake's plaintive incantation is for a "place" for himself and his friends on life's crowded carousel, a spot on the roster in the major leagues of his chosen profession, film directing. He assesses his own talent with a cold eye and realizes that others have greater gifts or were granted more advantages along the way, particularly a well-born Wasp friend.
Until the late-in-life appearance of that guilt-tinged master memoirist and discerning vulgarian Barney Panofsky, the protagonist whose proclivities and past seemed most in sync with Richler's was Joshua Shapiro, a malignantly maladjusted Westmount interloper. Afflicted into adulthood by his close ties to his lovingly portrayed, heroically improbable father Reuben, an ex-boxer, mob enforcer, thief, and booze runner for the Gursky clan during Prohibition, Joshua is also troubled by painful memories of his defiantly unconventional, insufficiently maternal Esther, from whom he is permanently estranged-much like Richler, who was not fond of his by-all-accounts difficult mom. Joshua has attained celebrity status through journalism and television, lives in Westmount, and weekends at a fashionably situated lakeside cottage in the Eastern Townships. Like Jake Hersh, he is burdened with a propensity for shiksas. Married to an emotionally troubled Wasp divorcée, he is resentfully enmeshed in the contemptible psychodramas of Jewish and Anglo Westmount's tennis-club, wine-cellar, psychiatrist's-couch, and private-school set.
In Joshua Then & Now, Shapiro's journalism has long been focused on the Republican volunteers who fought and died in the Spanish Civil War, a subject that has also engrossed Richler. Joshua is on the brink of self-destruction, brought to the breaking-point by feelings of helplessness, suppressed childhood traumas, and an intractable ambivalence towards his wife's milieu. Instead of acting decisively to alleviate his problems or countering dangerous behaviour-his own and that of friends, family, and in-laws-he dips daily into an adult-comic parallel world, wherein fantasy and reality commingle winsomely.
Joshua's escapist interludes are like the wanderlust reveries of Jake Hersh. In St. Urbain's Horseman, Jake's long-lost cousin and alter ego, Joey, becomes a comic-book-style avenging superhero, The Horseman, who, among other adventures, pursues in Paraguay Dr. Mengele, the butcher of Auschwitz. Aside from Joshua's reality-based fantasies, Richler imposes on him an unwieldy, unconvincing, fantasy-based reality: recurring memories of humiliating past confrontations with a dangerous, shadowy Nazi on-the-run. But the tedious passages devoted to Josh's jejune pseudo-adventures and turgescent romantic entanglement in predictably glamorous Ibiza detract from the brilliantly realized, quirkily plotted sections that are set in Canada.
In his middle years (and throughout my childhood and adolescence), the sarcasms of Richler's commentary and journalism were anathema in haut-bourgeois Montreal-in Jewish, Wasp, and Francophone homes alike. Starting with a series of journalistic sojourns in Montreal in the early 1960s; continuing with his Expo-year appointment as writer-in-residence at Sir George Williams (now Concordia University); and building upon his resettlement in Montreal circa 1972 after a dozen years in England, Richler has forged a unique role for himself in Canadian letters. Over the last twenty-five years, he and Mavis Gallant have been the only major Canadian literary figures to successfully integrate noteworthy journalism-in Canada and internationally-with the steady production of distinguished works of fiction. For many years, Richler was also employed lucratively as a screenwriter and script doctor.
He had to support a wife and five children. And unlike many novelists, he has not had the security of an academic post. He has churned out a considerable body of lively journalistic observations about Quebec, much of which is still quite readable years later; gradually, he assumed the role of leading interpreter of the local scene-first for English Canada and then for Americans. Making fun of all possible groups, Richler has always been an equal opportunity critic. But Montrealers are provincials at heart, quick to take offence, especially when one of our own encourages the disapproval of our American neighbours.
Richler's former outsider status in Quebec's English community has been reversed; with his virtual satanization among Francophones, he has won cult-hero status among Québanglos, many of whom had previously dismissed him as a rude, disagreeable Jew. In his 1984 essay collection, Home Sweet Home: My Canadian Album, he wrote about the cultural divide of Montreal's past:
"Even though I was born and brought up there, my experience of the French was a pathetically limited and distorted one. During the war years St. Urbain St. families used to club together to rent clapboard cottages from the French Canadians in the Laurentian mountains. Then, suddenly, things went sour between us. One day we fished and stole apples together and the next there were signs painted on the highway, A bas les juifs.and on a sleazy beach outside Montreal, French Canadians and Jews fought with clubs..
"Moi aussi, je me souviens. Raised during the Duplessis years, I cherish the memories of the era, among the time one of his acolytes handed me, on the eve of an election, a pamphlet warning the people against the perfidy of Jewish financiers. It showed a bearded Jew with a bulbous nose, actually drooling as he gathered bags of gold unto himself.. Looking back, I can see that the real trouble was that there was no dialogue between us.we went to one set of schools and the French Canadians to another..
"On my side, I was convinced all French Canadians were abysmally stupid. We fought them stereotype for stereotype. If the French Canadians were convinced the Jews were running the black market, then my typical pea-soup wore his greasy black hair parted down the middle and also affected an eyebrow mustache.. He was a dolt who held you up endlessly at the liquor commission while he tried unsuccessfully to add three figures.. I believed Montreal was the second-biggest French city in the world, but only because my geography books said so. Aside from boyhood street fights and what I read in the sports pages, all I knew of French Canadians was that they were clearly hilarious.."
And being in the hilarity business, Richler recreates these prejudices in the thoughts of his characters. As characters, their job is to reveal a lot about themselves in their dialogue. How they say things is usually a good deal more important than what they say. So it is hardly surprising that those who wilfully pore over the fiction for un-Gandhi-like statements will emerge with evidence in hand. To wit, a passage from Jake Hersh's sorrowful visit home from London to bury his father:
"They mourned the passing of Issy Hersh for a week, the truculent rabbis surging in nightly to be followed by prayers and more guests. The sweetest time for Jake was the early afternoon, when, riding a leaden lunch, the drooping Hershes wrestled sleep by reminiscing about their shared childhood and schools, their first jobs, all on a French Canadian street.
" `They're so dumb,' Aunt Malka said, shaking her head with wonder. `There's one I used to tell a joke to on Friday and on Sunday in the middle of church service she would finally get it and begin to laugh.'
"What about the Separatists?
"For them, birth control would be a better policy. They breed like rabbits."
Later, Jake's Uncle Abe tells it like it was in the good, bad old days:
"You have no idea how close we were to a race riot here. Those days weren't these days.the young men were hiding in the woods, they weren't going to fight in the Jews' war. We could all be shovelled into a furnace, as far as they were concerned. And now, they have the chutzpah to say how much they admire the Zionists. The Separatists say they are no more than Zionists in their own country and the Jews should support them. Over my dead body, Yankel. They get their independence today and tomorrow there's a run on the banks. Why? Because of the Jews; and it will be hot for us here again.
".it's a lot better today than it was when I was a youngster. I rejoice, I celebrate it, but I remember. And I'm on guard. Your zeyda, my father, came here steerage to be a peddler. He couldn't speak English and trod in fear of the goyim. I was an exception, one of the first of my generation to go to McGill, and it was no pleasure to be a Jew-boy on campus in my time.. In my time we were afraid too, you know. We couldn't buy property in the town of Mount Royal, we smelled bad. Hotels were restricted, country clubs, and there were quotas on Jews at the universities."
In Richler's Canada-cosmology, yesterday's Quebec nationalists, fascists, and anti-Semites deserve outright condemnation-and so do their progeny: the latter-day intelligentsia who continue to revere the memory of that appalling little fascist cleric, the Abbé Lionel Groulx, author of L'Appel de la race, the meta-text of xenophobic Quebec nationalism.
Though Richler insists he does not write "political novels" and that the attitudes evoked in Barney's Version are integral to the novel's characterizations-what aging English-speaking Montreal Jew doesn't curse the separatists and bitterly lament the city's palpable decline?-it is difficult to separate Richler's pessimism from his aesthetics. At the peak of their powers, the great satirical novelists-with Barney's Version, Richler qualifies-manage to bend and shape their material to achieve a unity of purpose.
The jibes directed at Jacques Parizeau (the Weasel) and Lucien Bouchard (Dollard Redux) work on obvious and superficial levels, as do the farcically inspired portrayals of venal French Canadian judges, lawyers, Bishop Savard, etc. Certain readers may take the epithets and insults at face value, as logical extensions of an habitual impulse to ridicule the Francophone Québécois.
But what are we to make of Richler's powerful and quizzical image of a body symbolically "buried" high atop Mont Groulx? Is it an elaborate hoax posed as metaphor, a mere flash, a fleeting sarcasm, another sprinkle-with-a-wrinkle in this big confection's messy mix? Or is there an essence to be taken from Boogie's drowning and eventual disposal, linked inextricably to Barney's Laurentian cottage "paradise" and his own fate of a living death?
At the very end of the afterword, Michael Panofsky realizes something about that corpse, and pulls his car to the side of the road, echoing his father's favourite expletive: "Damn damn damn." Are we supposed to stop too, and consider the consequences of forging ahead, increasingly forgetful-of history's certainties-unable or unwilling to completely confront the corrosive lies-of Richler's tormentors-that turn paradise-Montreal-into Abbé Groulx's boneyard? Richler is a comic novelist with complex patterns of intent and opaque designs.
Within the realm of the personal, Barney makes accommodations to nostalgia: after MacIver's death, he forgives his old enemy and eulogizes him-for which Barney is ridiculed as a hypocrite.
There remains the matter of Richler's ambivalent ethnocentrism, and the stereotypical qualities of his few French Canadian fictional characters. Can we read symbolic or psychological meanings into Barney's sexual and other relations with the two Renault women, mother and daughter, who seem to represent different generational faces of le fédéralisme rentable?
We should resist the temptation to simple-mindedly accuse Richler of writing the same book over and over again-a trite ploy often used insultingly of his two great role models, Bellow and Waugh. Instead, readers should see the novels as a process of accretion and exploration. Though arguably another in an assembly-line of maybe-Mordy protagonists, Barney Panofsky is also strikingly similar to Josh Shapiro's sexually irrepressible, alcoholic mother, Esther. And Joshua's ruthlessly parodic private Jewboy's club, the immortal Mackenzie King Memorial Society, is a recombinant satirical mirror of the many threads of Richler's obsession with Canada's shamefully (and fatally) hypocritical ambivalence towards the Jews. Similarly, Richler's thematic injection of game scores and sports heroes into his narrative fabrics is an unpretentious extended metaphor for the common man's fascination with ephemera and corresponding need to make sense of events in an emotionally uncomplicated, moral certain, systematic fashion.
Many readers have come to regard Richler's work as one of life's guilty pleasures. The tawdriness of his tableaux, his maudlin tendencies, and the puerilities of his protagonists raise doubts about his artistry and his imaginative powers. Bellow, he ain't. "Write what you know," the Hem chestnut, has been his maxim. In the early pages of Barney's Version, during the book's Paris salad days with its coterie of expatriate "roistering provincials" of the early 1950s (a setting that matches Richler's own post-adolescent path into the world of fiction writing), Barney's friend Boogie frets:
"I've got all the faults of Tolstoy, Dostoevski, and Hemingway rolled into one. I will fuck just about any peasant girl who will have me. I'm an obsessive gambler. A drunk. Hey.I'm even an anti-Semite, but maybe that doesn't count in my case as I'm Jewish myself. So far, all that's lacking in the equation is my very own Yasnaya Polyana, a recognition of my own talent."
The reference to Tolstoy's country estate, a mythical latifundium of the soul-a message Barney adopts and assimilates, finally attaching his lakeside Laurentian cottage to his own crude efforts at "mimeticism" (Barney's mimicry of McIveresque phraseology)-is an apt one. Richler's Yasnaya Polyana has turned out to be more ethereal and eternal: the voices and places and faces of his impoverished childhood and feckless adolescence, in a neighbourhood his readers have come to adopt as an unforgettable corner of the imaginary urban landscape.
His determined cosmopolitanism and his calculated efforts in finding an international readership have assured him a permanent spot on the roster of twentieth-century trailblazers. Other writers may now follow with entirely different sensibilities, subjects, and themes, but with the assurance that a story set in a Canadian urban neighbourhood or urban pastoral can attract an audience that transcends the boundaries and strictures of a regional or national literature-with or without footnotes. Barney's Version encapsulates its creator's selfconscious journeys away from home truths and his lengthy return mission to remould our understanding of postwar Canada and of our identity. Once again, readers are treated to a rogue's-eye, periscopic projection of Richler's often bleakly deterministic judgements, visceral impressions, and jaunty enthusiasms for life's passing spectacles and myriad secret motives.
Re-reading many of Richler's essays and novels, I was reminded of the consistency of his convictions and the concentrated bursts of subjective eloquence one finds buried in these books, which now span four decades. In St. Urbain's Horseman, he delivered a finely drawn portrait of the young Canadian literary exile abroad. By the time he finished the novel in 1971, the humiliating institutional racism against Jews in Montreal had finally receded, leaving him the freedom to choose to live at home again. Perhaps he was looking ahead to such a move when he wrote this overview of Jake's London years:
"It was then that the two friends, seemingly inseparable partners, came unstuck through a variant of an affliction that was peculiar to Canadian artists of their generation: a suspension of belief in each other's real rather than national trading stamp value. They had emerged, pace Auden, from tiefste Provinz, a place that had produced no art and had exalted self-deprecation above all. They were the progeny of a twice rejected land. From the beginning, Canada's two founding races.had outbid each other in scornfully disinheriting them..
"Jake.and others of their generation were reared to believe in the cultural thinness of their own blood. Anemia was their heritage.. [They] shielded themselves from ridicule by anticipating with derisive tales of their own. Their only certitude was that all indigenous cultural standards they had been raised on were a shared joke. No national culture could be bandied abroad without apology. Adrift in a cosmopolitan sea of conflicting mythologies, only they had none. Moving among discontented Commonwealth types in London, they were inclined to envy them their real grievances.. What they failed to grasp was the ironic truth in Sir Wilfrid Laurier's boast that the twentieth century would belong to Canada. For amid so many exiles from nineteenth-century tyranny, heirs to injustices that could actually be set right politically, thereby lending themselves to constructive angers, only the Canadians, surprisingly, were true children of their times. Only they had packed their bags and left home to escape the hell of boredom. And find it everywhere."
In discussing his own work, Richler tends to be self-deprecating. During an interview occasioned by the release of Barney's Version, I heard him admit that his limited imaginative capacities had restricted his output over the last three decades. This novel and its predecessor, Solomon Gursky was Here, are haunted by an exemplary ghost to whom Richler pays rare homage in subtle and overt ways. In both, the brooding presence of Saul Bellow's Moses Herzog wafts and lingers. In Gursky, Richler has created his own Moses, whose reveries and research are not philosophical, but ancestral and biographical. The mythological Arctic tales are a tributary expansion of a minor intellectual diversion from Herzog. Barney and one of his spiritual predecessors, Jake Hersh, both hold up works by Bellow (Henderson the Rain King and Herzog) when upbraiding writer-friends. And in Barney's Version, other hidden accolades can be detected. Herzog's undoing in his muddled skirmishes with his crafty soon-to-be-ex-wife comes as a result of being nabbed (by benevolent cops) while in possession of his father's old revolver, a detail Richler uses for his own purposes and plot in Barney. Herzog's decline seems to be a result of his having been cuckolded by a close family friend, a circumstance that parallels a betrayal in Bellow's life. Barney's wastrel friend Boogie would appear to have some of the attributes of the man who caused Bellow that grief, a writer and contemporary of Richler's, who, many years ago, was spoken of as having as much talent and promise as Richler.
Writers of genius, and I put Richler in that flawed company, always defy and overwhelm the fastidious categories constructed by critics and academics. Richler is Richler. He does not have the grand intellectual sweep of Bellow, or the spiritual depth. Where Waugh was mystically wrapped in his religious convictions and insane in his rejection of modernity, Richler is determinedly atheistic and very much of his own era with its enthusiasms. His descriptive abilities lack what Updike has called Bellow's "gift for the actual.he is one of the rare writers who when we read them feel to be taking mimesis a layer or two deeper than it has gone before." Instead, Richler has followed his own startlingly original path and compelling themes. In so doing he has created characters-mostly variations of himself-whose authenticity we recognize. In a documentary film last year, his longtime editor Robert Gottlieb concluded that in Barney's Version Richler had engaged "in a kind of ruthless self-examination and in nostalgia that I don't think he's done before."< br> Of late, Richler, who is almost comically bad at explaining his motivations and methods, has been repeating a sort of mantra on the book-chat circuit: "Like every writer, you hope you've done something that will last-and once you've done that, it's time to quit. I don't think I've done that yet." It's difficult not to view the Book of Barney as a profane testament to a wasted life devoted to trivial pursuits. Certainly, part of this book's sly point-of-view is self-satirical: a send-up of Richler's own tendencies to indulge in ritualistic rants. But I hope that plethora of abuse hurled at all writers and artists in Barney's sclerotic, envious apologia for himself is not a reflection of the author's own innermost insecurities about the ultimate value of his literary efforts and journalistic diversions. Though it is a theme that has become quite trendy-Richard Ford and Martin Amis undermine writerly pretensions and Updike's Rabbit cycle does so inferentially-the bitterness of these attacks in Barney's Version is really without precedent. Once again, Richler has gone on the offensive in surprising fashion, armed with a distinctive voice that disturbs in such a way (as Henry Miller described his damn self during the Paris expat years) that it reminds listeners of nothing so much as "the pisspot under the bed". 

Scott Disher was born in Montreal and educated in Westmount, England, the U.S., and Ontario. He lives in the country near Montreal and is at work on a novel set in Montreal, Britain, and Indonesia.


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