Customer Reviews: The Lemon Table
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The eleven stories that comprise THE LEMON TABLE share two things: the theme of growing old and Julian Barnes' trademark wit. These mostly traditional tales explore characters as they age, or come to terms with approaching death, or look back from old age to a younger, more confusing time. In the marvelous "A Short History of Hairdressing," a trilogy of numbered sections lets the reader in on the haircutting sessions Gregory has experienced during three distinct stages of his life, from youthful helplessness to adult insolence to elderly obstinacy. "The Story of Mats Israelson," with its Old World feel, tells of unrequited love and its ultimate disappointment. "Knowing French" is perhaps the most clever and playful of the stories, as an elderly woman in a nursing home, Sylvia, writes to "Julian Barnes" after discovering his book FLAUBERT'S PARROT in the B section of the library. Told only through Sylvia's words, the reader can only guess at the "author's" end of the correspondence, and the result is a fond, often hilarious, exchange that grows in meaning. Likewise "The Silence" has its laugh-out-loud moments in the flash scenes and comments revealed by the aging composer Sibelius: "A French Critic, seeking to loathe my Third symphony, quoted Gounod: 'Only God composes in C major.' Precisely." The only story in this collection that I found lacking was "The Things You Know" where two catty widows try to jockey for mental advantage over the other by what they know. Here, the characters are less distinct and the execution of the premise not as controlled as in the rest of the stories. Despite this lag, this collection shows Barnes at top form.
Barnes' voice is decidedly British, with sentences that harbor both formality and sly wit. "Droll" is an adjective often used to describe Barnes' work, and it is an appropriate one for many of these stories. American readers especially will get a kick out of the British/Barnes colloquialisms in "Hygiene" where there's "no excuse for playing argy-bargy with the kerb."
Lovely, mannered, astute - these stories will not disappoint.
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Julian Barnes is an elegant, profound, humorous, sensitive, intelligent, and incredibly gifted writer! THE LEMON TABLE is a collection of eleven short stories that probe the concept of aging and death in an endlessly inventive fashion. Each of these well-crafted stories is unique: rarely have the concerns of the elderly been verbalized with such insight. The way these characters who populate this variety of tales embody mental deterioration, illness, frustration of waning body functions, coping with changes imposed by the cycle of friends and loved ones dying - these are the insights that in Barnes capable hands are never cloying but revelatory. In 'Knowing French' an eighty something lady in a 'Old Folkery' corresponds with the author: "Main reasons for dying: it's what others expect when you reach my age; impending decrepitude and senility; waste of money - using up inheritance - keeping together brain-dead incontinent bad of old bones; decreased interest in The News, famines, wars, etc.; fear of falling under total power of Sgt. Major; desire to Find Out about Afterwards (or not?)." Yet a later letter: "I suppose, if you are Mad, and you die, & there is an Explanation waiting, they have to make you unmad first before you can understand it. Or do you think being Mad is just another veil of consciousness around our present world which has nothing to do with any other one?" Or in another story 'The Fruit Cage' a son is trying to understand the problems his aging parents face when after fifty years of marriage the husband wants to live with another woman; "Why make the assumption that the heart shuts down alongside the genitals? Because we want - need - to see old age as a time of serenity? I now think this is one of the great conspiracies of youth. Not just of youth, but of middle age too, of every single year until that moment when we admit to being ourselves. And it's a wider conspiracy because the old collude in our belief."

Even though Barnes' subject of age and death may seem a morbid topic, these beautifully written stories have a wealth of humor and warmth and dreamy substance. The final story relates a composer's inability to finish his 8th symphony (?Sibelius?) and uses symbols of death (the lemon, flying cranes) in a most poetic way. This is one of the finest collections of short stories I've read this year. Highly recommended on every level.
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on September 18, 2004
As in FLAUBERT'S PARROT, the stories in this collection are Barnes's speculations on what someone at the end of his (or her) life might think or do. In "The Things You Know" he presents a pair of rival widows who continue their friendship in spite of what they know and resent about each other. In "The Revival" Barnes speculates on the late-life thoughts of the accomplished novelist, but failed playwright, Ivan Turgenev. In "Vigilance" he slowly reveals the key to the deep remorse (rage?) of a curmudgeony gay man with a personal mission to suppress (or evict) coughers at concert recitals. The scenarios in these eleven stories are diverse, and the characters' dilemmas and their responses to those dilemmas are plausible. It is uncanny that Barnes (who presumably wrote these stories in his early and mid fifties) can project himself so easily forward into old age. Unlike some other reviewers, I don't find these reflections morbid. I find each of his aged characters to have some sort of enobling characteristic. Often, they seem to have an amazing ability to continue to negotiate with life, as when the wife in "Appetite" discovers that she can get some spark of life from her senile (Alzheimer stricken?) husband by reading to him from cook books, in spite of his failing mental abilities and his propensity to break out in obscene ramblings.

Perhaps my personal favorite in the collection is "Knowing French," which consists of putative correspondence to the author from Sylvia Winstanley, an inmate in an "old folkery." It would be easy to enjoy this story for its surface charm, the vanity of an old woman trying to impress a published author, who tosses off French phrases while misspelling simple English words. But the fact that this is one-sided communication gives their progression an eerie quality. It makes one wonder (in an existential sort of way), if our own understanding of our life is enough. Can a life's meaning be discerned by one person's version? The story concludes with two letters to the author from the old folkery's warden, in which he twice calls her "the life and soul of the party," a far cry from her self-perception as a misunderstood and under-appreciated trouble-maker. It is in touches and turns like this that make Barnes's stories so rich and worth reading (and re-reading).
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This collection brings together eleven stories written over a span of roughly ten years, six of which were originally published in The New Yorker, and the remainder in venues such as Granta and the TLS. Originally titled "Rage and Age" (per the Dylan Thomas poem), the collection is thematically focused on aging and death and Barnes has said that the stories were intended to counter the notion that life calms down or gets serene in old age. While the collection certainly counters that myth, the thematic concentration results in a certain repetitiveness when the stories are read back to back.

The fairly forgettable "A Short History of Hairdressing" tells the story of a man's life through the framework of three visits to the barber, one as a child, one as a adult, and one as an old man. Set in 19th-century Sweden, "The Story of Mats Israelson" ponders the unconsummated love between a sawmill manager and the wife of the town pharmacist. As is so many period pieces, the two are locked into their social roles unable to express their feelings to each other, leading the a lifetime of yearning for what might have been. Thankfully, this ennui is dispelled in "The Things You Know," in which two widows meet for breakfast. Each is determined to sugarcoat their memories of married life, but each also knows certain nasty truths to the other's marriage, making the entire story very spiky and harsh.

In "Hygiene", a WWII veteran makes his way to London for the annual banquet of his old regiment. This affords him the chance for a yearly meeting with the same prostitute, a tryst which is his sole way of demonstrating his existence to himself. The Russian writer Ivan Turgenev is the protagonist of "The Revival", which reflects upon a brief period of happiness in his later years, spurred by his platonic love for an actress. "Vigilance" is easily the best story of the collection, dwelling on a middle-aged gay Londoner whose anger and frustration with his relationship is sublimated, only to emerge with venom at concert-goers who fail to be suitably quiet. It's both quite funny and sad at the same time. Much less successful is the French-set "Bark," which revolves around a scheme to finance the building of public baths by which twenty or so investors put up the initial funds, and the last living one inherits the proceeds.

"Knowing French" is built on a clever conceit, that an elderly woman reading her way through the library's fiction in alphabetical order, has come to Barnes' much lauded novel "Flaubert's Parrot." She then initiates a correspondence with him, of which we are only privy to her side. It's an effective evocation of the "problem" of elder homes, for which not all elderly people are suited. In "Appetite", a woman reads recipes to her Alzheimers-stricken husband, whose only responses are barks of indignation at vague recipe directions or lewd outbursts. "The Fruit Cage" tackles the confusion of a middle-aged man whose 80-year-old parents suddenly separate. The final story is, "The Silence", in which a fictional version of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius jots down fragmentary reflections on his life and career.

Ultimately, the stories are a clear warning to the reader that one's old age is not likely to be dominated by grandchildren and warm fires, but rather by nostalgia and brooding over mistakes of the past, words left unsaid, deeds left undone. In that sense, the stories are quiet affecting. However, they are perhaps best read one a month or so, as the same note tends to get struck -- albeit by very different characters in very different settings.
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This is a collection of 11 short stories published in 2004 by the English author, Julian Barnes. As he makes clear in his last story, the lemon is a symbol for death in China... and as the economic power of that country increasingly dominants the lives of those who live in the West... it is more than suitable that we should understand, and perhaps even adopt some of their symbols and metaphors (and as an increasing number of our youth are doing, learning the language won't hurt either.) The common theme throughout these stories is a view of life at the "end of the cycle." Barnes is now, ah, an appropriate age for summations; wistful backward glances at what might have been; and how to play the last few hands. Though there is a common theme, there is also a truly astonishing variety and range to these stories: one is set in 19th century Russia, also in the same century, another is set in Sweden. Sometimes they involve famous people, like Turgenev, and thanks to another reviewer, I now know that another concerns the composer, Jean Sibelius. But most involve people like you and me... those that have reached a certain age, reminisce, and/or stay focused on how many more hands will be dealt.

I don't know how "holy" they are, but I was also astonished that a trinity of fellow Amazon reviewers of serious books, Freiderike Knabe, Harold Schneider and Roger Bruyante have all reviewed this book - back-to-back - so the real challenge is: Is there anything new to say? First, of the three, I found myself most in agreement with Bruyante: "Barnes range of emotion is as great as his range of style." I didn't find a single weak story; so, it is a matter of individual "hot buttons" that were pushed that will determine which ones are long remembered; and there will be several.

"The Things You Know" is my favorite. Barnes paints this wonderful portrait of two widows who routinely get together for tea. One is most particular about how her tea should be served. Both project positive images of their former spouses, but, in terms of the "things you know," each knows some devastatingly negative aspects of the other spouse's lives, which they sum up, only to themselves, in the roughest "locker room" language. A brilliant contrast with the tea ceremony. "Vigilance" has a laugh out loud quality to it - which I did on several occasions. It concerns the coughers and noise makers at concerts, and how they should be dealt with. As the author states: "As I say, it was a normal audience. Eighty per cent on day release from the city's hospitals, with pulmonary wards and ear-nose-and-throat departments getting ticket priority." Also, as a bike rider, there was a good passage about how to deal with cars that cut you off. "Knowing French" is also excellent. It concerns the only "sane" person in an "old folk's home," and is done in the format of letters that she writes to the author. And how many people have been in this situation: they are middle-aged, stable, have their own family concerns, and are confronted with their parents "getting really eccentric, to going crazy" in their old age? Affairs for 80 year olds; one parent abusing the other? And so the child must become the parent to the parents. Such are the themes in the aptly named "Fruit Cage." Barnes also managed to bring back a flood of long forgotten memories of when I was a child and went to the barber shop; the routine that the barbers used with their not ideal clients: kids. It is all in "A Short History of Hairdressing."

It's been an accidental discovery of recent vintage: how many real excellent short stories there are; written by Alice Munro, Richard Ford, and now I also include Julian Barnes, in what should be a most "holy" trinity. 5-stars plus.
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on June 30, 2011
The British roundabout, bane of American motorists who have been known to beome entrapped in one and not know how to get out again, provides an appropriate metaphor for discussing the stories in this book. For the Brits in these stories, it's not the roadway traffic circle that has them buffaloed. Sex is the troublesome roundabout, as hard for some to enter as for others to exit. Still, as Julian Barnes' collection in "The Lemon Table" (2004) makes ever so clear, from adolescence to senescence (which many of the characters in these stories are approaching), they are nearly always ready for a go. The sex drive, a motivating impulse in all but one of these stories, unifies them and, pardon the pun, makes them ever so appealing.

Here are samples from five of the stories:

"Marriage is the only adventure open to the cowardly." A Short History of Hairdressing.

"Other men would at least wait until the steamer was out of sight of the jetty before starting their canoodling." The Story of Mats Israelson.

"We, now, would like it to be neat then, but it is rarely neat; whether the heart drags in sex, or sex drags in the heart." The Revival.

"...those composers . . .tried to write tunes of such commanding beauty that even a lustful upcountry baronet would for a moment stop tampering with the exposed flesh of the apothecary's wife." Vigilance.

"Instead he chased after women all his life..." Knowing French.

The veiled reference to "Madame Bovary" in the quotation from Vigilance is a tip of the hat from Barnes to Gustave Flaubert, his favorite author. There is, in short, little if anything not to like in this collection.

End note. Six of these stories first appeared in The New Yorker. That's very good news for those of us who look forward to each new story from this distinguished writer. Indeed the July 4th 2011 issue of the magazine now on the newsstands contains his latest, Homage to Hemingway, about a professor examining his own life and teaching Hemingway to various groups of students in different classes.
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on August 17, 2006
"The Lemon Table" is a strong -- no, very strong -- set of tales in which the theme is unified but the styles are varied. Barnes has succeeded in what is a virtuoso examination of the theme of aging and impending death through a variety of (stylistic) lenses. The prospective reader should be warned, though, that the stories are depressing, which is what one would expect given the subject matter. Old age is given only a few of its positive attributes; loss and futility dominate.

In particular, I want to single out "The Story of Mats Israelson" as particularly successful. It made me almost cry; very, very powerful and beautifully written. By itself, it makes the volume worth reading. The first story, about going to a barbershop, is a miniature version of Barnes' terrific first novel, "Metroland." As a big fan of Sibelius, I also want to praise Barnes for getting so many details right in the fragmentary final story, "The Silence", which is about the composer's long final 30+ years when he had abandoned composing.

If this book could get 6 stars, I'd probably give it that. Superb.
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on May 6, 2005
Like the previous reviewer, I read these engaging stories in one sitting. Combined, they are like a circle of fascinating and amusing friends. Each is independent and unique. As a college professor about to retire, I was searching for a profound and "real" book dealing with some of the issues of aging. The Lemon Table met my need. To be able to emphathize and laugh out loud--what more can we ask? Highly recommended.
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VINE VOICEon April 26, 2010
In this collection of short stories, age, aging and departing are considered from different angles, centred on individuals of a certain, mature, age, healthy or coping with physical or mental illness, and set against a wide range of geographical and cultural backgrounds. Creating expressive mini-portraits of his characters and their "dearest and nearest", Julian Barnes explores the deep and sometimes conflicting emotions of regret and defiance, love and nostalgia, past and present happiness, new, rekindled or now only in the mind of the central figure. Exquisitely crafted, and most of them sprinkled with a good portion of irony and humour, the stories will capture the readers attention, and very likely, given their diversity, one or the other will speak especially strongly.

Among the eleven stories, three were my definite favourites. "The Story of Mats Indridason", set in a different era in a remote part of Sweden, touches on the long standing romantic feelings of two individuals who each were waiting for the other to declare themselves. Eventually, reality will force a less than happy resolution. Another, also a very gentle story of long lasting love, is "Revival", set in Russia. It has all the ingredients of a deeply romantic Russian novel in miniature. "Vigilance" on the other hand is one of the highly ironic stories that captures a man who, after many years of sharing the pleasures of listening to live concerts with his partner, now has to be by himself. Annoyed, he becomes increasingly irritated by the distracting noise by others around him and reacts with force... Barnes captures the character and the atmosphere with great skill and a large dose of irony. The last story, "Silence" has a very different touch and stands apart for me. A composer has stopped writing - seeing the ultimate aim of music to become silence. While being constantly pestered by his colleagues and admirers to complete his eighth symphony, he withdraws to watching the cranes fly by... This is a much more reflective, philosophical story that touches on aging in a much different way from most of the other stories.

Other than in two, the weakest stories in my estimation, the central characters are male and the women mostly play a supporting or nagging role (the wives) or are the object of desires past or that have remained in the emotional present. Barnes lightens up the mood by adding ironic twists or the odd comeuppances to the psychological ups and downs he evokes in his aging characters, all affected with the symptoms of a nearing end. Several stories have been inspired by historical figures, such as Turgenev or Sibelius. The references are subtle and not necessary to enjoy these particular stories.

And what about the title? According to one of the stories, a lemon represents death in Chinese and often a lemon was placed in the hand of a recently departed. [Friederike Knabe]
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on March 31, 2010
I have read a few Barnes books in the past. I remember that I enjoyed them, but I can't remember anything else about them. Is that a verdict? I think so. It appears to me that the man writes clever, literary, thoughtful things about the world and about life and after you have consumed them you forget them. Like a good desert. A pleasant phase, but not the main thing. Advantage Barnes: he is not fattening! (Of course I also know people who eat the main course only to acquire the right to a desert...)

This short story collection is mainly about aging, about time passing, about our approach to time. It is a typical Barnes. Enjoyable and unsubstantial. Are we as young as we feel or as old as we look? Barnes is in his mid 60s, so the main theme of this book must be dear to him.

We get a story about the `history' of hairdressing: 3 stages in a male career from a barber's client as a child (afraid of it), to a hairdresser's as a student (despising the `dresser'), to a hair salon's as a husband and father (despised by the stylist). Nice. So what?

We get a bigger one, built on the `true story' of the corpse in the mine of Falun, Sweden, which showed up as a well maintained young man's mummy 50 years after the man disappeared, and was viewed and identified by his bride of old, who had been faithfully waiting for him. (Sebald readers may be familiar with a German writer Johann Peter Hebel, who wrote masterful short prose in the 19th century, and who told the mummy story already; I am sure there must also be versions in Swedish and elsewhere. There is also a tale by E.T.A.Hoffmann, but he just uses the main motive for decoration of something else. ) The tale serves as a vehicle for a story about delayed and failed love in Sweden in the 19th century.

We get 2 old ladies in Seattle, meeting regularly and hating each other, reminiscing over and lying about their husbands.
We get a retired army man in England making his annual trip to town for the regimental dinner and his visit to the professional `girl' friend.
We get the end of the friendship of 2 old geezers in France in the 18th century when one has an affair with the illegitimate daughter of the other.
We get an aging gay music lover who becomes a concert noise vigilante after his partner stops having sex with him.
We get a nurse who reads to her husband and former boss, who is afflicted with Alzheimer. She reads him cookbooks and sometimes he has joyful reactions. Most of the time his reactions are mean and vulgar and hurtful.
We get a strong story about a breaking up of a couple in their 80s.
We get a Swedish composer who loses the battle against age and doesn't talk to his wife any more. (He wrote a piece for bassoon once, but there were only 2 bassoonists in the country.)

We get an aging Turgenev in a platonic (?) love affair with a young actress. (We see things, partly, through the `old' man's - he is 60! - eyes; what to make then of this thought: should he suggest to her that she take the railway equivalent of the red-eye? In 1880! That kind of sloppy writing is actually annoying.) `As in his life, so in his writing love did not work.' Need to check if that is a proper summary on Turgenev. (Is he worth revisiting?)

There is only one story in this collection of 11 that I love unconditionally. It consists of the letters of a woman in her 80s, written during the 1980s, to a novelist called Barnes, about his book Flaubert's Parrot and other subjects. She considers herself the only non deaf and non mad inmate in her old age home.
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