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Memory Loss

BARNEY'S VERSION. By Mordecai Richler . Alfred A. Knopf: 355 pp., $25

January 25, 1998|GENE LICHTENSTEIN | Gene Lichtenstein is the editor of the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles. From 1957 to 1962, he was a fiction editor at Esquire

When Mordecai Richler burst on the literary scene in 1960 with his novel "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz," there were cheers and hosannas from critics who had "discovered" him. No less a figure than Alfred Kazin pronounced: "It comes off brilliantly."

Actually "Duddy Kravitz" was Richler's fourth novel, but the unknown Jewish writer from Montreal was still under 30. His occasional excesses--character spinning into caricature, farcical set pieces turning into digression--tended to be forgiven or ignored. The point was that he was funny in the biting, subversive manner of Joseph Heller and Philip Roth.

His outrageous comedic talent was directed primarily at middle-class and establishment Jews, perhaps not surprising given his own Jewish working-class background in Montreal. However, this created an extra-literary problem for some Jewish readers. In 1960, many North American Jews still felt the immediacy of the Holocaust. Their sense of guilt at having had it so easy, while European Jewry was savaged and destroyed, made satire at their expense unacceptable.

Not for Richler. Such novels as "Cocksure" (1968), "St. Urbain's Horseman" (1971), "Joshua Then and Now" (1980) were hilarious and irreverent and aimed directly at his fellow Jews. Some Jewish readers reacted angrily and referred to him as self-loathing. What they failed to see was the affection that stood behind the humor.

Now with the publication of "Barney's Version," his 10th novel, Richler is back again with all his old exuberance--and all his old excesses. On this occasion, he laces the humor with a sense of melancholy and loss: loss of love, of family and friends, of memory itself.

The novel is cast in the form of a memoir, which provides a loose kind of form and structure. It permits the story to swing back and forth in time and in the process enfolds the author's digressions so that some of them at least seem more central to the plot.

Barney (a.k.a. Bernard Panofsky) is in his late 60s, and the memoir is his attempt to tell his story, to set matters straight for everyone but mostly for himself. His life has been filled with excess, a certain crassness and more than his fair share of stumbling. But he is unapologetic. What complicates matters in this sifting for the "truth" of his life is that Barney has Alzheimer's disease, albeit in an early stage. His memory plays tricks with him. Who knows, the author seems to ask, if there is even validity to those things we call truth and facts.

Richler divides his story into three parts, each more or less self-contained, and each centered on life with one of his three wives. The opening segment sets the tone: ebullient, manic, over the top. It is centered in Paris, 1950 to 1952, where we are introduced to the young, untutored, unsure Barney living the bohemian life.

He is attracted to Clara, a young artist-poet who is by turns neurotic, unstable, capricious. She is essentially a fabricator who passes herself off as the embittered daughter of a wealthy New England WASP family. We witness their marriage, her suicide and the discovery that in reality she is the daughter of a poor, working-class Jewish family from the Midwest, not too dissimilar from Barney's roots in Montreal. Her poems are published posthumously and, to everyone's surprise, she quickly becomes a runaway feminist icon (not unlike Sylvia Plath). Barney is uncovered as the monstrous male figure, the husband in her poems and journal. We are treated to sendups of Jewish self-loathing, feminist cant and self-inflated artists.

A promising first act, to be sure, but it is marred by the author's shortcomings. Caricature dominates, and comic performances (by Richler) lead to a plot that begins to blur. The second section, which carries the novel forward to 1960, is equally hilarious--and flimsy. We encounter Barney as a young adult, a successful TV entrepreneur in Montreal, heading up his Totally Unnecessary Productions company. He meets the Second Mrs. Panofsky (she never is given a name), the spoiled daughter of a wealthy Jewish family. Barney marries her partly because he loathes her parents and relatives. The scenes with her family--rich, vulgar establishment Jews--are madcap Zero Mostel but, alas, also overplayed. Sadly, what was fresh and astonishing 35 years ago seems tired and stale today. Richler's targets remain the same--Jewish vulgarity, pop culture's fraudulence and feminism--but the humorous situations have turned into familiar cliches.

Here is the Second Mrs. Panofsky on her honeymoon making her daily phone calls to her mother.

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