Barney’s Version – The Life of a Trice Married Canadian

Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler is an autobiography written by Barney Panofsky, a Jewish Canadian living in Montreal. He separates his story into three sections, one for each of his ex-wives. His first section on his ex-wife Clara spans from 1950-1952, from the day they meet to her suicide. He then goes moves onto his second wife, who is only known as the second Mrs. Panofsky. He is only married to his second wife for two years of his life from 1958-1960 as she is found to be cheating on him with his best friend. Barney is later accused of murdering this best friend, Boogie. His third and final wife is married to him for almost 30 years. Miriam still holds his heart despite their divorce.

When first looking at the three parts of the novel I thought that the story would be told chronologically (the dates he is married to each wife is stated at the beginning of each part, so one might assume that those would be the dates that the), but Barney tells his story in a very non-linear way weaving in and out of his stories, pausing half way through one story to tell another that he finds more interesting. When I first started reading it, I found it to be confusing and slightly annoying, but as I became accustomed to his storytelling technique I began to enjoy it. His odd sense of story telling reminded me of my first impression of GGRW, where I was constantly confused in the beginning, but as I got to the end, the change in perspectives, just was another part of the story, not a burden when reading.

As Barney goes through the novel his memory of certain events begins to diminish as he is suffering from Alzheimer’s. He is an unreliable narrator. But I feel that this unreliability makes him more human and realistic. I mean who really remembers every second of their life well enough to present it reliably enough in an autobiography without making some mistakes?

I’m excited to start looking for Canadian-ness allusions. There are a lot of obvious allusions to Canadian-ness (i.e. Barney is stereotypically obsessed with hockey even going so far as listening to the game on his wedding night), but I look forward to looking for those not-so-obvious allusions.

The Mistakes That We Make

As I flip through my copy of Green Grass Running Water every few pages there seems to be a post-it note.  I am not too familiar with historical figures and writers, so each time a new name came up in the novel, I took a note of it and tried to look it up online. I found it like doing a search and find. I was given the name of the allusion and had to go look for what it was alluding to and why that person was important to Canada. It is a game that I am thoroughly enjoying.

As I first began to read this novel I was slightly confused with the way that the story was being told. I found it odd to have so many little stories lines that skipped around from not only person to person, but through different periods of time. It sort of reminded me of the movie ‘Valentine’s Day’ where there are multiple story lines that seem to be separate from each other but later show that there are aspects of each that connect them together.

As I was reading I noticed that there seemed to be an emphasis on mistakes and regrets throughout this novel. Lionel feels that he has made three mistakes that greatly altered his life, starting with his ill-conceived plot to get attention by having his tonsils out. His “one little slip” led to a chain reaction that causes him problem after problem. Lionel is a character that shows that the smallest things can change your life forever.

Norma says that it is best not to make mistakes with carpet (8) and Ishmael says it is best not to make mistakes with stories (14). This repetition leads me to believe that King finds mistakes to be an important aspect of not only the novel, but life in general. Even having Lionel admit that he has made mistakes has some importance. He could have said that he had some unfortunate event occur in his life, or that he has had bad luck, but instead he chooses to say ‘mistakes’.   Lionel views his life as a list of mistakes that he has made rather than just a series of events that has led to the life he has today.

In the Bible Eve makes a ‘mistake’ that leads God to banish Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.  King changes this story. Instead being banished from the Garden of Eden, it is First Woman and Ahdamn who leave the garden on their own accord. Eating that apple was not a mistake to First Woman, but something that allowed to her realize that God is a “stingy person” (69) and showed her that she should leave. Both stories have a similar outcome*, Adam and Eve leaving the Garden, yet they are so different.

As I begin to reread Green Grass Running Water I begin to question the definition of mistake. Is a mistake something that you have done wrong as or is it something that you have done that causes you bad luck?

*Note: In link two the Satire of Adam and Eve I am referring to Act 1.

Where is Canada?

Canada to me is also a country that seems to be hidden in the shadows of others. Whether Canada is being controlled by Great Britain or hidden under (well actually above) the USA as a ‘little brother‘. It takes a lot for Canada to get notice, whether it is something good like the 2010 Winter Olympics or the embarrassing riots of 2011. Even in film Canada is hidden. There are quite a few movies and tv shows that are filmed in the Canada, but instead of these shows being based here they are pretending that they are in the USA.

As a shy person I relate to Canada in the sense that I sometimes feel as though I am hidden behind people who are much louder and involved than me.

My Canada is also mixture of the city and nature. It is a place where you can spend half your day in the mall and  the other walking through the woods or on the beach.  It is also a place of multiculturalism. Sometimes I watch movies or read books where people are bullied because of their nationality and I am proud that this is not something that happens in my Canada. Maybe I have just gone to good schools or am in the right generation for multiculturalism, but when I look around everyone is different and no one seems to care that we are all so different, but rather embraces it. I am not ignorant enough to think this is the case everywhere in Canada’s history  (turning down the MS St. Louis and the Komagata Maru, just to name a few of Canada’s not-so-nice incidents in history), but today, in the Canada I live in, seeing so many different cultures all rolled into one country is something I am proud of.

Before I reach my word limit I better talk about my favourite authors ‘in Canada’. When I got to this  in the criteria  I was slightly stumped. Have I read anything by authors ‘in Canada’? Again I came to the conclusion that Canada is hidden behind the vast history and legacy of other nation’s literature so that our literature is hidden in the background.

Because of this I have read very little Canadian literature and what little I have read has been children literature (when I read it I was a child… so does that just count as literature then? Haha!) As a young child my absolute favourite author was Robert Munsch, but I also loved Mordecai Richler and his Jacob Two-Two series. I have yet to read any of Richler’s adult literature, but hope to read something of his soon. I also enjoyed reading Kenneth Oppel and Farley Mowat (who are both fantastic at describing landscapes and Canadian scenery), but again only their young-adult fiction.

As a student I studied Margaret Atwood multiple times but the focus was usually only on her poem ‘Disembarking on Quebec’. I have read her novel ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ for a class book club, which I found to be interesting. I am also very familiar with John McCrae’s ‘In Flanders Field’, but isn’t every Canadian?  Every Remembrance Day this poem can be heard all across Canada. You can even read a quotation of it on the ten dollar! It is such a wonderful poem! In school I also studied Robert Service and ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’ which I thoroughly enjoyed.  If you don’t feel like reading Johnny Cash has done all the reading for you here . The video even comes with paintings by Ted Harrison! As I read ‘Green Grass Running Water’, Thomas King is quickly becoming an author that I may add to my favourites list.

That’s all for now!

Jessica