Quill and Quire

Mordecai Richler

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Mordecai’s version

Ask Mordecai Richler a stupid question and you won’t get a stupid answer, you’ll get the look. The one that’s part bewilderment, part exasperation, and invariably accompanied by a long, disconcerting silence. It seems to say, “I have no idea what you’re talking about and, what s more, I’m pretty sure you don’t either.”

Mordecai RichlerThe question in question was, “Do you want to be liked?” and, sitting across from Richler at one of his favourite bars in downtown Montreal, I had what I thought was a good reason for asking it. I wanted to know if he was sensing a shift in critical and public reaction to him now that his new book Barney’s Version has been published. Barney’s Version is his 10th novel, his first since 1989’s Solomon Gursky Was Here, and while it is attracting Richler’s usual share of automatic fans and detractors, there also seems to be something else going on this time. Something like Richler revisionism.

It’s commonplace nowadays to discover that a celebrated writer is secretly a pervert or a fraud or a bad tipper; with Richler the opposite is happening. Canadian literature’s most famous curmudgeon is being outed as a nice guy – or at least nicer than everyone suspected. In a recent profile, Richler’s private persona is described by a friend of 50 years as “gentle and warm and generous.” In a review of Barney’s Version by another old friend, former Saturday Night editor John Fraser, Richler is portrayed as a lovable prankster. One reviewer, who made it clear how little he cared for Richler and his politics in the beginning of his review, even conceded that the new novel reveals another, softer, side of its author. During a CBC radio panel discussion, Richler was practically canonized, certainly praised as a national treasure, a kind of disheveled, cigarillo-smoking Anne Murray.

Which is why I wanted to know if the man who has, over the last 40 years, made a career out of poking fun, often nasty fun, at just about everyone in sight, including Anne Murray, no doubt, was concerned about acquiring a good reputation at long last.

“What do you mean do I want to be liked?” Richler finally replied. “I want my work to be well thought of. But myself? I never think of that one way or another. Look, I don’t take the temperature every day. I’ve also been very critical of a lot of things in the past and I continue to be critical, so I’m fair game. I don’t solicit affection.”

Not for himself, maybe, but he admitted that while he was writing Barney’s Version, he did worry about whether readers were going to find his protagonist, Barney Panofsky, likable. There are lots of reasons not to.

Barney Panofsky is, in his own words, “reeking of decay and dashed hopes… an impenitent rotter… a malevolent man.” When it comes to marriage, he’s a three-time loser. His first wife committed suicide, his second is putting on weight at an extraordinary pace, and his third, the true love of his life, left him after she learned that he’d been unfaithful to her.

Barney is also the alleged murderer of his best friend and even though he vehemently denies the charge, it’s anybody’s guess, as the narrative unfolds and Barney’s memory grows more and more unreliable, whether he is guilty of a crime of commission or just numerous crimes of omission. All things considered, he may be “a man more sinned against than sinning,” Richler’s version of King Lear, but, as with Lear, it’s a photo finish.

“No, he’s not automatically sympathetic,” Richler acknowledged, “so it’s up to your own cunning or craft as a writer to involve the reader with him because the novel wouldn’t work otherwise.”

Of course, it wouldn’t work if Barney was a pussycat either. Richler’s never met a scoundrel he didn’t like to write about. He even brings back his most famous one, Duddy Kravitz, for an encore in Barney’s Version, a cameo appearance that turns out to be one of the funniest scenes in the novel.

“Its true, I’ve always been attracted to characters who demonstrate, first and foremost, an appetite for life,” Richler said. “People who try to enjoy their life and who realize they are only making one trip…. I find it much easier to write about con men and I have for a long time. It’s much easier than writing about saints, who tend to be very boring.”

Besides, saints don’t fit into what has been, from the beginning, Richler’s uncompromising and essentially bleak vision of the way the universe keeps unfolding. Barney’s Version carries on the tradition and then some. It is, without question, his saddest novel.

There’s always been a tender side to Richler’s work. It showed itself first, as Richler himself admitted, in his children’s books, the Jacob Two-Two series, but it has been there, under the grouchy surface, in the novels and essays too, even in his polemic Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!, which is, for anyone reading between the lines, as much a father’s lament for the children who had to leave home as it is a political harangue. But in Barney’s Version, with its unflinching portrait of a man in decline, Richler seems less intent on hiding his sentiment behind the usual broad strokes – behind slapstick scenes or scathing one-liners.

Barney’s Version is also Richler’s most personal novel, though that’s arguable. Incidentally, it’s Richler who’s doing the arguing. This is his first time using a first person narrator – “it didn’t occur to me before” – and he seems a little uneasy about it. He wants to make sure no one confuses him with Barney. After the publication of Solomon Gursky Was Here, Richler was indignant whenever anyone made the inevitable parallels between the Gursky family and their real life model, the Bronfmans, adding that he would not have all his hard work reduced to gossip. This time he is trying to throw literal-minded readers off the trail by suggesting that “the novel of mine that comes closest to being personal is not this one, but St. Urbain’s Horseman, and it doesn’t come that close.”

But then Richler has always denied the autobiographical elements in his fiction and, of course, they’ve always been there just the same. It’s not surprising, for instance, that the protagonists in his fiction have always been about the same age as Richler and looking out the same window at the same disappointing view of human misconduct and miscalculation.

Like Richler, Barney is 66, Montreal is his home, he is devoted to his children, he has a healthy disregard for Quebec nationalism, political correctness, and health food, and expresses it every chance he gets. And while these may be minor details, Richler and Barney share something much more revealing and profound, the conviction that “life was absurd, and nobody truly ever understood anybody else.”

This is one Barneyism Richler doesn’t even try to deny. “I started off long ago with the premise that if God was dead we had to work out a system of values and that is what most of us try to do,” he said. “I’m a satirical novelist and most satirical novelists are very moral creatures.”

There are worse things than hypocrisy, but reading Richler’s fiction you wouldn’t guess it. Richler knows what Jonathan Swift knew: the first rule of satire is to offend everyone. That way no one is spared and no one is singled out. As satirists go, Swift was a true democrat (“I have ever hated all nations, professions, and communities,” he wrote to Alexander Pope); so is Richler.

The trouble is that satirical writers are frequently misunderstood – Swift was just kidding about eating babies after all – and that’s been especially true in this country. It’s a fact of life Richler has had to put up with from the beginning of his career: “Culture in Canada is supposed to be worthy, a lot like health food, so there isn’t as much appreciation for the comic novel [here] as there is in England or the U.S., where people are a lot less self-conscious about culture and where they realize how difficult it is to write a comic novel. Canadians still feel a bit guilty about something that makes them laugh.”

The positive reaction to Barney’s Version so far may be an indication that this attitude is being revised. The accolades for Richler, a spot at the top of the bestseller lists, and the nomination for the Giller Prize are the best evidence that, with his new book, he may have finally proven a point that should have been obvious long ago: he’s the Canadian master of that undervalued literary genre – the fat, funny novel.

Richler’s nomination for the Giller Prize also marks the first time since St. Urbain’s Horseman won the Governor General’s Award in 1971 that Richler has been in the running for a major Canadian literary award. Barney’s Version wasn’t even shorlisted for a G.G., and nor were his last two novells, Joshua Then and Now and Solomon Gursky Was Here.

The Giller nomination is gratifying for an DIANE DULUDE other reason. Richler was one of the people who helped get the prize off the ground four years ago. Old friend Jack Rabinovitch, the Toronto businessman who created and sponsors Canada’s richest fiction prize, first discussed the idea for the award with Richler and then asked him to be one of the judges. Richler agreed to do it for two years and has been “hands off” since then.

The glamour of the Giller just adds to the buzz that inevitably surrounds the appearance of a new Richler novel, an infrequent event in the last three decades. It was nine years between St. Urbain’s Horseman and Joshua Then and Now, another nine until Solomon Gursky Was Here, and eight more until Barney’s Version. But he’s been busy during this last interval, publishing a book of essays, the book about Quebec, another on Israel, and another children’s book. Now, the plan is to clean up some old work, finish the next Jacob Two-Two story, and start work on a new novel in four months.

Still, the long silences have often fuelled speculation that each new novel could be Richler’s last. It’s an odd expectation of a man who once wrote and who keeps repeating in one version or another that “I’m stuck with my original notion, which is to be an honest witness to my time, my place, and to write at least one novel that will last, that will make me remembered after death. So I’m compelled to keep trying.”

This also may explain why when I mentioned to Richler the rumours about Barney’s Version being his swan song, he gave a quick, dismissive answer, followed by a long pause. And that’s when I got it again – the look.