Excerpt from a talk on Barney’s Version at McGill University, October 2013.
“What you dare to dream, dare to do.” That’s a line from one of Mordecai Richler’s early works, The Incomparable Atuk. For me, it’s a line that encapsulates the way Richler wrote. He dreamt big, he plunged into the abyss, and he came out triumphant. It’s what great writers do. Like explorers, they go into the unknown and bring back some part of the mysterious with them. Literature is not meant to be safe.
Most well-written novels neatly unfold themselves. Like carefully constructed maps, they unravel before your eyes and lead you to a deeper meaning or truth. Not in Mordecai Richler’s case. His novels did not unfold. They were unleashed. Like wild beasts, he unleashed them upon the reader. He makes you wrestle with them. He makes you uncomfortable.
Sometimes people have asked me, “How do you define literary fiction?” In other words, “What makes one novel literature, and the other, not?”
The Mexican writer Carmen Boullosa describes literature as “that inexplicably beautiful bomb that goes off and as it destroys, rebuilds.”
But why compare literature to a bomb? What does it destroy? Our assumptions, our beliefs. It shatters them. It questions what we know and exposes us to what we don’t, and in doing so, disturbs us. That’s what Richler did so beautifully—he presented the raw open wounds of human beings with honesty, passion, and irreverence; he made us lose our balance. There is a lot of turbulence in his writing.
In my life so far, there have been certain novels that have inspired me: Hunger by Hamsun, The Stranger by Camus, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, and Lolita by Nabokov, to name a few. I put Barney’s Version right up there with the rest of them.
What I love about Mordecai Richler’s work is that it is so alive, it has a pulse, and it is throbbing with ambition. And when we read him, we always lose our equilibrium. We are terribly moved, but always imbalanced. And that is his gift.
As the critic Edwin Bjorkman said about Hamsun: His was a “violent, defiant deviation from everything average and ordinary.” He might as well have been talking about Mordecai Richler.