September 1, 1998
What a brilliant read. Our hero (or anti-hero) Barney Panofsky really only believes two things: life is absurd and nobody truly ever understands anybody else. Oh, and that his third wife, Miriam, is the love of his life. So, three things. Barney always wanted to be a writer, but found it too pretentious (arguably because he wasn’t very good at it), so instead he makes bad movies and cheesy Canadian television shows like McIver of the RCMP, rather obviously and hilariously based on Due South. He is quite clear about having no interest in making anything with artistic or cultural merit.
When his old-friend-turned-enemy publishes his memoirs in which he calls Barney a wife abuser, intellectual fraud and murderer, Barney decides it is finally time for him to write. And so, he sets about to write his own memoirs, his Version, if you will. What follows is a confused, erroneous, but ultimately endearing collection of memories. You will fall in love with Barney Panofsky, despite it being painfully clear that he’s a schmuck. A schmuck with a heart of gold, of course, who is always willing to help a friend, loan/gift money, give any down-and-out actor friend a job, promote the inept into a harmless position rather than fire a loyal colleague, etc. How these actions don’t ruin him is beyond me.
Set mostly in Montreal, with stops in London, Paris, Toronto, Los Angeles and elsewhere, Barney’s Version is a hilarious tale of not only Barney’s Life, but the evolution of Canadian culture and all our related insecurities. With the 1995 referendum in the backdrop, it is also scathingly critical of Quebec’s separatist movement and language laws.
This book has been on my list for years. I have no idea why it took me this long to read it. I finally found the motivation I needed when I saw a trailer for the new movie, and realised someone would soon ruin the story on me. So despite already being half way through two other books, I started it.
Barney’s Version is one of those books all Canadians should read. I don’t say this lightly. It is the kind of book Canada Reads was designed for. (It was debated, in 2004, but lost to another fabulous novel: The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhague.) I highly recommend it. And please, while I encourage you to check out the film, starring Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman & Minnie Driver, please, please, please read the book first. I love movies, but they do have a way of ruining good books.