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Literature / Barney's Version

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A 1997 novel by Canadian author Mordecai Richler, which turned out to be his final work of fiction before his death in 2001. Later made into a 2010 film directed by Richard Lewis.

The novel is the life story of one Barney Panofsky, a rather grumpy Montreal Jew (just like the protagonist of every other Mordecai Richler novel) who is famous for having three wives and for having been accused of murdering his close friend Boogie circa 1960, for which he was acquitted at trial but judged guilty in the court of public opinion. A producer of crappy TV shows that have made him rich, Barney writes his memoirs to refute what he sees as scurilous charges made by Terry McIver, a well-regarded novelist who he knew in Paris in the early 1950s. Thus we learn the story of Barney's life, including his relationships with Clara (wife #1), The Second Mrs. Panofsky, Miriam (wife #3), his parents, his three children, and his friends — most notably Boogie.

The film version, which differs slightly from the novel in a few ways, stars Paul Giamatti as Barney, Rachelle LeFevre as Clara, Minnie Driver as The Second Mrs. Panofsky, Rosamund Pike as Miriam, and Dustin Hoffman as Barney's father Izzy.

The book and film contain examples of:

  • Adaptation Name Change: For the movie, Miriam's maiden name is changed from Greenberg to the less Jewish-sounding Grant.
  • Adapted Out: Terry McIver does not feature in the movie, in which O'Hearne (the police detective who investigated Boogie's death) is the character who writes an autobiography in which Barney is accused of having murdered Boogie.
  • The Alcoholic: Barney.
  • Ambiguous Situation: The fate of Boogie. Barney, who is widely believed to have murdered him, appears to be sincere in his belief that he's still alive. It's only towards the end that we get an idea of exactly how he died, although nothing can be conclusively proved. His remains are eventually found in a forest that overlooks the lake on which Barney's cottage is located, with the damage to his bones being consistent with the effects of a fall from a great height. The circumstantial evidence points to him having gone swimming while he was very drunk, following which he got picked up by a water-bomber and dropped over the forest; whether he was killed by the latter or already dead before the water-bomber picked him up is not known. This, though, is only made clear right at the end of the story, when Michael figures it out after actually seeing a water-bomber in action and putting two and two together. Sadly, Barney has by this time sunk deep into a state of dementia, and so he never knows what actually happened to his friend.
  • Amoral Attorney: John Hughes-McNoughton, Barney's lawyer who defended him when he was charged with murdering Boogie (and got him off, in part by bribing a bishop to act as a character witness, which helped to sway the exclusively Roman Catholic jury) even though he probably suspected that he was guilty.
  • Artifact Title: Barney's Version refers to the manuscript that the book consists of, written by Barney as an answer to a book written by the detective who wrote an autobiography in which he accused Barney of murder (in the film at least — in the book, it's Terry McIver, who's a novelist). The movie focuses more on Barney's relationship with his three wives and lacks the book's autobiographical structure.
  • Canon Welding: In the same universe as several of Richler's previous novels, including The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz; Duddy himself, evidently an old acquaintance of Barney's, puts in a few cameo appearances.
  • Casting Gag: In the movie, the actor who plays the Mountie in Barney's crappy TV soap is played by Paul Gross, best known for playing a Mountie in Due South.
  • Chekhov's Gun: There is a handgun (Izzy's old police-issue revolver, which features prominently in the movie poster) and it does get fired. Whether or not it is used by Barney to kill Boogie is ambiguous at best, although it's eventually revealed that Boogie's death was accidental.
    • We also have the water-bomber, which is mentioned a couple of times early on in the novel and which proves crucial at the end in terms of helping Michael to work out what really happened to Boogie.
  • Chocolate Baby: Clara's stillborn son.
  • Cigar Chomper: Barney is frequently seen puffing on one.
  • Clear My Name: The reason why Barney decides to write his memoirs.
  • Creator Provincialism: As with all of Richler's novels, the protagonist is a member of Montreal's Anglophone Jewish community.
  • Cuckold: Barney, in his first two marriages. He is only unfaithful once, in his third marriage, but that's enough to torpedo it.
  • Daddy's Girl: Barney's daughter Kate is the most supportive of his three children (to the point where she's one of very few people who genuinely believes that he did't kill Boogie). He himself professes to be confused by this, since he wasn't really that involved in her childhood compared to Miriam.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Clara's upbringing was one of these, and probably led to her telling Barney multiple lies about her past, notably claiming not to be Jewish. The one thing she was probably telling the truth about was being abused by her therapist when she was 12, although her parents never believed her. Barney is so disgusted by what her father tells him that he comes close to beating the man up.
  • Dating What Daddy Hates: This is how Mr. Mock Wasp, father of The Second Mrs. Panofsky, sees Barney — who, while Jewish, is clearly of a lower social class, drinks too much and is engaged in the vulgar business of TV production. He makes it clear to Barney that he tolerates the relationship for fear of otherwise losing his daughter, asking only that Barney refrain from swearing at the dinner table. Barney, for his part, doesn't like the man, but he respects him for this.
  • Determinator: Sergeant O'Hearne is convinced that Barney murdered Boogie (despite the fact that he was acquitted at the trial thanks to the rather inconvenient lack of evidence in the form of Boogie's body, along with a couple of dubious character witnesses) and never lets it go. Even after he retires.
  • Dirty Cop: Flat-out defied by Barney's father Izzy, seemingly one of few honest cops on the Montreal force. The fact that he is also one of very few Jewish cops has a lot to do with this, as he set out to be an honest cop because he didn't want to give his (mostly Irish and French-Canadian) colleagues any ammunition against him.
  • Dirty Old Man: Barney grows up to be one.
  • Draft Dodging: The reason why Blair, an American, ends up living and working in Canada.
  • Driven to Suicide: Clara commits suicide after Barney fails to turn up at a reconciliation dinner she planned for them ... one he didn't know about because the note inviting him to it was not passed onto him.
  • Exotic Backdrop Setting: Played with. Both Montreal and Bromont (where Barney's cabin is) are overwhelmingly Francophone, but you'd never know it from the movie. At the same time, Montreal has a sizeable Anglophone population that rarely gets highlighted in media set in the city. Largely played straight with the scenes in Rome (changed from Paris in the novel).
  • Female Misogynist: Clara is said to have intensely disliked other women, probably because she didn't like the competition. Ironically, she becomes a posthumous feminist icon.
  • Footnote Fever: Barney's manuscript is littered with mistaken allusions to film, literature, and then-current events, which his son Michael notes and corrects with footnotes. At least some of the mistakes are later said to have been intentional on Barney's part to make Michael, who he thinks to be insufficiently literate, read all those books. This was actually unnecessary, as Michael had in fact already done so.
  • Germans Love David Hasselhoff: In-Universe. Solange, an actress in the soap opera Barney produces, is frequently mentioned in Bulgarian tabloid newspapers. At least she thinks she is; in reality, Barney pays someone to create them and fax them to her from Bulgaria so she feels she is still popular. A book-only example comes when Barney mentions that said crappy soap is popular in Britain, which (given that the lead character is a Mountie) could be construed as a reference to Due South, which had a cult following in that country.
  • Gold Digger: The Second Mrs. Panofsky's father thinks that Barney is this, seemingly not realising how much Barney earns through his TV production business. Ironically, Barney ends up financially supporting The Second Mrs. Panofsky via a very generous divorce settlement.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Plenty.
  • Jerkass: Many people, including Barney himself.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Barney sometimes displays shades of this, most notably in his treatment of Solange, the leading lady in his crappy soap opera who he refuses to fire even though everyone thinks she's past it. He even goes to the trouble of faking positive news stories about her in the Bulgarian press in order to make her think she's popular there.
  • Jewish American Princess: Or, Jewish Canadian Princess in the case of The Second Mrs. Panofsky.
  • Jewish Mother: Averted. Barney notes that unlike this stereotype, his Jewish mother was generally uninterested in how he was doing at school and spent most of her time listening to the radio. This is Richler's Take That! at his own mother, whom he hated.
  • Just Train Wrong: The train to New York Miriam boards at Central Station is a Canadian VIA Rail train hastily made up to look American by replacing a Canadian flag decal on one coach with an American flag. (VIA Rail did also not yet exist in 1976, when the scene takes place). A train branded as "Amtrak" on another track is actually local commuter coaches with Amtrak branding added, making it look as if two US-bound trains were at the station at the same time - a situation that could only happen between 1986 (when Amtrak's Adirondack was moved from Windsor Station to Central) and 1995 (when the overnight Montrealer was discontinued).
    • It's different in the book, in which Miriam is catching the overnight train to Toronto. Even then, Michael questions how the events that transpired, which played a key role in his parents' courtship, could have taken place in the time frame presented (going by the timetable, the train would've left Montreal before the Stanley Cup game finished, which contradicts what both Barney and Miriam say happened). He concludes that the train must have been delayed on that particular night, and even tries (unsuccessfully) to get official confirmation of whether this was indeed the case.
  • It Will Never Catch On: Barney thinks this of Clara's poetry, blithely signing away any claim he may have to the royalties shortly after her death. Her cousin Norman also thinks this, but nevertheless sets up a charitable foundation in her name which is intended to be the sole beneficiary of said royalties. A couple of decades later, Clara is regarded as a feminist icon, with her single volume of poetry becoming a best-seller — with the foundation benefitting hugely, and Norman (who selflessly devoted several years to trying to get the poetry published) not at all. Even Clara's artwork becomes sought-after, to the point where Barney is offered $250,000 for one of her doodles that he kept; out of a combination of sentimentality and bloody-mindedness, he refuses to sell it.
  • Karma Houdini: Barney sees his second wife as this, as she benefits from a very generous divorce settlement despite her adultery.
  • Malicious Slander: How Barney sees Terry McIver's description of him in print as "a wife-abuser, an intellectual fraud, a purveyor of pap, a drunk with a penchant for violence and probably a murderer". His first instinct is to sue for libel, although his lawyer thinks that Terry has summed Barney up pretty accurately.
  • Motor Mouth: The Second Mrs. Panofsky, more so in the book (in which several pages are given over to her inane monologues).
  • Mrs. Robinson: Barney's teacher, Mrs. Ogilvy, who forms the basis for most of his sexual fantasies in later life.
  • Nice Guy: Clara's cousin Norman is probably the nicest person in the whole book — not that he's up against much by way of competition, and not that it benefits him in any way. After Clara's death, he selflessly spent a lot of time hawking her poetry to various publishers even though he didn't stand to benefit from this at all, as he signed all of the royalties over to a foundation in her name. The feminists who ultimately benefit hugely from this (thanks to being on the board of the foundation) are in no way grateful to him.
  • No Name Given: Barney's second wife, always referred to as The Second Mrs. Panofsky.
  • Nostalgia Filter: At play whenever Barney gets onto the subject of his beloved Montreal Canadiens.
  • N-Word Privileges: As with many of Richler's other novels, the portrayal of most Jewish characters would probably have raised some objections had Richler not been Jewish himself.
  • Out with a Bang: Barney's dad dies "of a heart attack on the table of a massage parlour in Montreal's North End, immediately after ejaculating."
  • Prank Call: Not only does Barney make a few of these, he also writes prank letters to Miriam's radio show and sends prank faxes to Blair's university department. Miriam gets wise to the former, but still reads the letters out on air.
  • Rabid Cop: In the movie, Sean O'Hearne is this rather than the stereotypical Officer O'Hara type of Irish cop.
  • Race Fetish: According to her father, Clara always had a thing for black men. He is therefore not particularly surprised by the fact that she had a Chocolate Baby, although he is somewhat surprised that she married Barney, who's Jewish, given that she hated her own (Jewish) family.
  • Ridiculous Procrastinator: Barney, if his memoirs are anything to go by; he constantly diverts from telling his story, and does not get to the event that defined his life (the weekend on which Boogie disappeared) until around two-thirds into the novel. By that point, even Mrs. Ogilvy, who for the most part exists merely in his sexual fantasies, is shouting at him to get on with it.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: At one point, O'Hearne compares Barney to O. J. Simpson, who was (in)famously acquitted of murder two years before the novel was published. The (then) present-day events of the novel can be further pinpointed to 1995 by the frequent references to the Quebec independence referendum (which eventually resulted in a narrow victory for the 'No' campaign).
  • Sarcastic Confession: Barney tries one with O'Hearne. Naturally, it's quoted at his trial.
  • Shout-Out: Many songs and novels are quoted and referenced, sometimes inaccurately. Barney is particularly fond of Samuel Johnson, to the extent of always travelling with a copy of Boswell's Life of Johnson — although he admits that he does this partly in order to give the impression that, should he die suddenly, people would assume that this was what he was reading at the time of his death.
  • Sitcom Arch-Nemesis: Terry McIver. In the novel at least, as he's not in the movie. Several of the more dislikeable characters in his novels are clearly based on Barney, who responds by giving the title character in his crappy soap Terry's surname. Terry claims he's not fussed by this, although the mere fact that he's brought it up suggests otherwise.
  • Soap Within a Show: Barney is the producer of a sleazy, cliched and long-running soap opera. It's called O'Malley of the North in the film, and McIver of the RCMP in the book; the name was likely changed due to Terry McIver being Adapted Out of the former. The show only survives for as long as it does due to the Canadian government providing funding for Canadian-made television programmes. Which is Truth in Television as there are organisations that fund Canadian productions as a means of preventing Canadian TV from being overrun by American content.
  • Sophisticated as Hell: Barney, who for all his vulgarity has evidently forgotten more classic and twentieth-century literature than most people have ever bothered to read in the first place.
  • Stay in the Kitchen: Miriam does so when the kids are young, but as they get older she becomes keen to get back to work. Barney doesn't much care for her doing so, but she does anyway.
  • Trademark Favourite Drink: For Barney, single malt Scotch whisky. Various brands are name-checked. His dad Izzy prefers Canadian rye whisky, specifically Crown Royal.
  • Troll: Barney. Especially towards Blair. And Terry McIver; the title character of Barney's crappy TV soap, which is called McIver of the RCMP in the novel, is obviously named after him. Terry returns the favour by obviously basing some of the more unsavoury characters in his novels on Barney.
  • A True Story in My Universe: The novel is Barney Panofsky's autobiography, edited and footnoted by his son Michael.
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: The film stars Paul Giamatti as Barney, with his three wives played by Rachelle LeFevre, Minnie Driver, and Rosamund Pike; there's a noticeable attractiveness gap. It's best exemplified by the scene in which an almost-naked Barney jumps into bed with an almost-naked Miriam. In the book, Barney explicitly notes that this caused the downfall of his marriage to Miriam, as Barney was so dazzled by the idea that someone as beautiful and intelligent as her could love him that he became obsessed with warding off any possible threat, alienating her in the process.
  • Ultimate Job Security: Quite a few of Barney's employees benefit from this. The most prominent example is Solange, the actress who Barney can't bring himself to fire from his crappy soap opera even though her daughter thinks she's no longer up to it.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Barney, the story's narrator-protagonist, openly admits to taking potshots at various people he doesn't like, but he does try to remember things as best he can, despite his failing memory. Michael's footnotes point out when and where he's been remembering incorrectly. A remark by Kate at the end quite possibly subverts this, though, as she claims that Barney deliberately mis-quoted various authors in an attempt to get Michael to actually read the authors in question, although Michael says that this was unnecessary as he had already done so.
    • Terry McIver is a more straightforward example of one of these. His diary entries that Barney quotes completely contradict what Barney remembers of the same events, in addition to which they are also subject to Michael's corrective footnotes which suggest that Terry heavily re-edited his diaries years after the events he described.
  • Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist: Barney, in more than a few episodes of his life.
  • Women Are Wiser: Miriam (wife #3) is this; however, Clara (wife #1) is a decided aversion.

Alternative Title(s): Barneys Version