Synopses & Reviews
Ebullient and perverse, thrice married, Barney Panofsky has always clung to two cherished beliefs: life is absurd and nobody truly ever understands anybody else. But when his sworn enemy publicly states that Barney is a wife abuser, an intellectual fraud and probably a murderer, he is driven to write his own memoirs. Charged with comic energy and a wicked disregard for any pieties whatsoever, Barney's Version is a brilliant portrait of a man whom Mordecai Richler has made uniquely memorable for all time. It is also an unforgettable love story, a story about family and the riches of friendship.
About the Author
Mordecai Richler is the author of ten successful novels-including Barney's Version (1997), Solomon Gursky Was Here (1989), Cocksure (1968) and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959)-as well as numerous screenplays, essays, children's books and several works of non-fiction. His most recent book is On Snooker (July 28th, 2001). He is the recipient of dozens of literary awards, among them two Governor General's Awards, The Giller Prize and The Commonwealth Writers Prize. He was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 2001, only several months before his death on July 3rd, 2001.
Reading Group Guide
The discussion topics and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Mordecai Richler's Barney's Version
. An international bestseller, Barney's Version
won the 1997 Giller Prize, the 1998 Commonwealth Writer's Prize for Best Book, the QSPELL Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction, and the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour, as well as garnering extraordinary critical acclaim. We hope this guide will enrich your experience of this entertaining and deeply moving novel.
1. Barney's Version is sectioned by Barney's three marriages. However, the novel does not recount the story of these marriages chronologically. In fact, Richler uses a meandering structure for the novel, a structure which in important ways mimics the pattern of Barney's increasingly muddled recollections. How did this back-and-forth structure affect your reading experience? How were you drawn into Barney's drama with Boogie, his passion for Miriam, and his fate as a whole?
2. Early on, Barney sets himself in contrast to Terry, for whom life is a "responsibility, a trust." (p.91) Yet Barney is haunted by Terry's life of accomplishment. What role does regret play in Barney's life? Does he have other regrets?
3. On the first page of the novel, Barney states that he is about to write his memoirs as a "riposte to the scurrilous charges Terry McIver has made--about me." Yet, by the end of the novel, Barney's telling has taken on many purposes, ranging from a fiery indictment of Quebecóis nationalism to a passionate plea scribbled in hope that Miriam might return to him. How did you respond to these various revelations and changes?
4. In the first chapter, some of the same ground is covered both by excerpts from Terry's memoirs and by Barney's own recollections. The inconsistencies of their accounts cast doubt on Barney's reliability. Are we given permission to disbelieve Barney? Are we more prepared to believe Terry? Does the novel suggest that people are unable to recount one another's - or even their own - story with any accuracy or objectivity?
5. There is a skeptical subtext throughout the novel: people's lives are appropriated for the storyteller's ends; the past is used and manipulated. Is everything a version? Is Richler encouraging each reader to complete their own "version" of Barney's life? What is your version?
6. Memory and the loss thereof is a great philosophical problem for the aging Barney, who obsesses over instances when he has forgotten the simplest word, growing angry when corrected. Memory's fragility reminds us of the transience of life itself. Reflect on the moments in the novel in which Barney is stuck by the impermanence of his own memory. How do these realizations affect his sense of self?
7. Writing in the first person, Richler adopts Barney's voice to narrate the novel. Consider some of the key characteristics of Barney's voice and explore how they shape and tone and your enjoyment of the novel. Think, for example, of the frequently profane language and the often ungrammatical sentences that make up Barney's rants. If you know any of Richler's previous novels, compare their style to Barney's Version.
8. Sketches of Montreal abound in Barney's Version. These descriptions are filled with a nostalgic longing for a Montreal that is being lost. Name some of the predominant features of this old Montreal. What do you think this Montreal, and its transience, symbolize for Barney, and perhaps Richler, too?
9. Jewish identity finds many rich, varied expressions in Richler's characters, some of them filled with empathy, others with disdain. In Barney's Version, what ties and estrangements exist between Jews and WASPs in Montreal?
10. Richler's writing focuses on Montreal and Toronto, and, for the most part, provincial Canada is inconsequential. Terry notes with bitterness a comment in Scribner's rejection letter: "What if boy meets girl in Winnipeg? Who cares." But in Barney's intense urbanity, Montreal empties and Toronto is soulless: "Sometimes I think what inspires this city, its very mainspring, is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, is happy." (p.307-308) How do you see the conflicting portraits of urban life in Barney's Version and how they compare to your own experience with cities.
11. Barney openly disdains his company, Totally Unnecessary Productions, as he does earlier, shadier business interests. His highest self-praise is mere self-mockery: he "never handled arms, drugs or health foods." For all his complaints, as Miriam wisely observes, Barney loves and needs his work. What is the role of work in his life? Miriam's own work is very important to her, but it is also a source of tension in her marriage to Barney. Barney is captivated by Miriam's intelligence, yet he realizes his life as it was with Miriam the homemaker. Reflect on the conflicts in life that this reveals in them and in other characters, such as Terry and Michael. What does Richler appear to be saying about the ways we fashion our identities in our society?
12. Barney's tirades are often hilarious (indeed caustic wit is a trait apparent in many of Richler's previous protagonists). His misanthropic harangues include just about everybody. Find some of the most biting passages in the novel, and some of the passages where you laughed the most. As a satirist, Richler has been praised for his ability to challenge sacred cows. In your mind, which prevailing social trends does Richler ridicule most successfully?
13. In a review, John Updike writes that traditionally "novels are about mating, and the elderly need not apply." But he notes that as the population survives longer, geriatric survivors are now creating a literature of the aged. How does Barney's Version capture aging and its attendant range of emotions? Consider, for example, the recurring themes, so painful for Barney's, of the aging process of the body, and the change in sexual potency. Think also of Barney's reaction to Hymie's incapacitation after his stroke.
14. Richler's rendering of Barney's intellectual deterioration is sometimes funny, sometimes poignant. Did you find it believable? How did you respond to his struggle?
15. Barney's son, Michael, contributes footnotes and an afterword to Barney's story. What purpose do they serve? What do they reveal about the relationship between father and son, youth and age, memory and 'fact'?