One day I stumbled on Barney’s Version at a book sale at my local bank for $1, and because I had heard the name Mordecai Richler before I thought, sure. It was 2008 or so. I had just finished doing a literature degree at Dal and thought I knew something about books.
But this one was just so funny, so honest, and seemed in all conceivable senses to be designed for me personally. This is not the place to analyze the novel or discuss anything inside it. I just want to tell a story that has a middle and ending that you won’t see coming, because I certainly didn’t!
Barney’s Version made me want to become a writer. So I started writing, and soon went on to read all Richler’s other books (except, on the written advice of Mordecai himself, his first three novels). Currently on my shelf are 27 Mordy books.
I read his non-fiction, secondary criticisms, the wonderful Foran bio, and even found for $2 a signed hardcover copy of Don’t Stick Your Neck Out. The Incomparable Atuk was released in the US under this alternate title. What I’m saying is, I got big into him!
In 2014 I was writing arts stuff for a TO website with a small but noble readership when I learned Noah Richler was curating the Luminato literary fest. I emailed him some questions, and we went back and forth a bit.
We met at the event, and soon after he graciously and very surprisingly invited me to “his local” to chat more over beer. I was excited! Noah has worked for decades as a journalist around the world, and is a great writer in his own right.
We talked about literature. He asked if I had ever read any of his father’s work, and I responded, “yes.” He asked me if I write fiction and I said “yes” again. He asked what my novel was called, I said it didn’t have a name yet. He asked what it was about. “Love and advertising.” He said that would make a perfect title, and he was right, so I called it that. (This novel is currently unpublished.)
Anyway, in about a year’s time I moved to New Delhi to help launch an international news station, World Is One News. I worked on the web desk, and my editor at WION has since become a dear, dear friend of mine. Tathagata Bhattacharya has reported from four continents, and has an astounding depth of knowledg on topics ranging from dog breeds, world history, military armaments, finance, to Dead/Band/Dylan. He also knows literature in his bones.
His grandmother, who died in 2016, was Mahasweta Devi, one of India’s most revered authors and social activists, and I understand was a runner up for the Noble Prize in literature, having published over 80 works. T’s father, who died in 2014, was Nabarun Bhattacharya, a radical Bengali novelist who transformed that language’s literature.
T leant me a copy of Vasily Grossman’s epic Life and Fate, inscribed by his father Nabarun. “Dear Bao, For a Brave Life & a Bravely Faced Fate.” I loved that novel, and it was good to get my head out of news for a bit and back into literature.
After a visit home to Toronto, I gifted to him an inscribed copy of Barney’s Version. He read and really liked it, saying it was funny and so readable, but its weave and structure was deceptively complex. Precisely.
Anyway, witnessing Tathagata proudly handle his father and grandmother’s legacy–ie corresponding with publishers, fans, news agencies, posting pictures and anecdotes on Facebook–inspired me to contact Noah again. Why not just be straight up and share a story he’d probably like, rather than be self conscious and do nothing?
I emailed Noah, reminded him who I was, and told him that I didn’t want to be a Fan Boy back when we met, but actually I had read all his father’s books. I told him that BV is what made me want to write, and how I gifted BV to Tathagata and he enjoyed it, and I explained who Tathagata was and that seeing him honour Mahasweta and Nabarun’s works is what made me want to reach out to him. I also sent him a picture of a copy of Barney’s Version sold in India, with a cover I had never seen before.
I got back a very long and warm email! And to my total amazement, actually, Noah had interviewed Mahasweta Devi for the BBC. Jewish Montreal, Toronto, Calcutta, London — small little world! Noah’s email was extremely gracious and friendly. In it he politely asked if I could do a favour and buy and ship to him a copy of Barney’s Version with the cover he had never seen before either for his mother’s archive (the Florence, ie Mordecai’s wife, the model of Miriam in BV no doubt). He’d reimburse me, of course.
Back in Toronto we met and had a very nice talk. After our initial meeting but before I had gone to India, he had been a high-profile federal candidate for the NDP, and had written a fun, candid and very well received book about the experience, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.
I gave him the copy of Barney’s Version with the Indian cover, and of course refused his money—I was very honoured and frankly tickled to contribute my favourite novel to Florence Richler’s own archive.
Over the years I’ve bought probably 10-15 copies of that novel for people. I left 3 or 4 in India. In addition to my reading copy I have the Uncorrected Proofs too, still with the handwritten notes from the reviewer and a letter from Knopf Canada outlining/boosting the novel, and advertising Mordecai’s availability for interviews.
I’m only telling this story because the other day on Twitter I saw someone with the handle “Barney Panofsky’s Best Intentions,” and told him that I followed him solely on the basis of his most excellent name. I couldn’t tweet this story to him, too long, so I wrote this. Why didn’t I tell this story earlier? Maybe I’m uncomfortable name-dropping and it’s impossible to tell this story without doing that. But really, who gives a shit.
I’m happy to celebrate Mordecai! My darling Mordecai! I say that while there are “Greater” novels, BV remains my comfort food, my bagel lox and cream cheese, and my death-bed meal.
And actually a documentary came out literally just two days ago entitled “Nabarun,” about the literature of Nabarun Bhattacharya. I had heard so much about him from T, and praise for his writing from other Bengalis, but until watching this documentary I had never seen him on video or heard him speak, either in Bengali or in English. The raw footage of him was excellent, and very inspiring even! Plus my dear bud Tathagata is in the documentary too, and I haven’t seen him since 2017. Pranati Bhattacharya, Nabarun’s wife and T’s mom, is also in it, a force to be reckoned with who I met briefly shortly before she died.
Looking back, that $1 I spent for my original copy of Barney’s Version was my best investment ever…I wish I could stretch every buck this far!