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The Lemon Table: Stories Hardcover – July 6, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
Polished and classically structured, the 11 exquisite stories in this collection are as stylish as any of Barnes's creations, while also possessed of a pleasing heft. Told from a dazzling array of viewpoints, each is underpinned with a familiar Barnes concern: death. In "The Revival," the Russian writer Turgenev ruminates on lost love at the end of his life (as Tolstoy looks on), while in "Hygiene" a WWII vet revisits more than just his old mates during an annual trip to London for his regimental dinner. The past is seen from the perspective of the barber's chair in "A Short History of Hairdressing," and from two entirely separate angles in "The Things You Know," about a pair of widows who mentally savage each other over the course of a polite breakfast. Fans of Barnes's conversational novels, such as Love, Etc. and Talking It Over, may be nonplussed by the Dinesen-like sonority of the prose in "The Story of Mats Israelson" ("When Havlar Berggren succumbed to akvavit, frivolity and atheism, and transferred ownership of the third stall to an itinerant knife-grinder, it was on Berggren, not the knife-grinder, that disapproval fell, and a more suitable appointment was made in exchange for a few riksdaler"), but readers willing to follow Barnes's imagination will not be disappointed. With the exception of the plodding last story, "The Silence" (in which the title phrase is explained: "Among the Chinese, the lemon is the symbol of death"), the author handles his dark subject matter with grace and humor. This is not a morbid trip. Instead, Barnes always has his eye on something unusual, and the reader is taken for a delightful ride.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
In a suite of 11 impeccable short stories as intricate and polished as lacquered Chinese boxes, Barnes examines the peculiarities of age: the baffling amalgam of memories sharp and vague, the recognition that one has clung to fantasies to cushion the rough ride of existence, the strength derived from finally accepting one's self versus the sorrow of watching one's allure and energy fade. Crisp pacing, keen dialogue, and sudden reversals render Barnes' stories playlike, while he finds just the right object, habit, or myth to embody the aging process and allude to death's encroachment. In nineteenth-century Sweden, a man woos a woman by telling her the legend about a young copper miner whose perfectly preserved body was found 49 years after his death. A Russian composer, as famous in his later years for his silence as he once was for his music, remembers that for the Chinese, "the lemon is the symbol of death." And a woman in an old-folks' home writes piquant letters to a writer named Julian Barnes. What Barnes' virtuoso dramas all slyly suggest is that in the final analysis, the stories we tell ourselves about our lives carry more weight than mere facts. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Top customer reviews
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.
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.
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.
Most recent customer reviews
stories by a true genius - the brilliant and
extraordinary Julian Barnes.