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The Lemon Table
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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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One of the things I most enjoy about Julian Barnes is his variety. Each of his books questions the conventional idea of a novel, and each does so in a different way. So I open this collection of eleven short stories expecting an intriguing range of subject and technique, united by a humanity that Barnes has never yet failed to provide. I was not disappointed. This book is as wonderfully written as it is pleasant to hold in the hand, in this beautiful Vintage paperback edition. The range of subjects is indeed large, with scenes of contemporary London alternating with historical stories set in France, Sweden, or Russia. Although all the stories are about twenty pages long, some take place in a single hour, others span a lifetime. They are linked by the common theme of aging, but this should not be a deterrent; few are sad, but rather wry, tender, surprising, or even hysterically funny. Barnes' range of emotion is as great as his range of style.

The stories are technically varied, too. In some, the narrator speaks entirely in the first person: "A Short History of Hairdressing," the first story, opens in the voice of a fearful young schoolboy; "Hygiene" replays the mental check-list of a retired soldier still locked in army lingo. Others seem written by a dispassionate historian -- or not so dispassionate, as when the biographer of Turgenev narrating "The Revival" starts re-examining conventional phrases of 19th-century courtesy in 21st-century four-letter terms. Or the objective and subjective can be mixed, as in "The Things You Know," where the conversation between two widows sharing a hotel breakfast is intercut with their very different thoughts. Another story, "Knowing French," is told entirely through correspondence. People who know Barnes from his extraordinary quasi-novels such as A HISTORY OF THE WORLD IN 10½ CHAPTERS or FLAUBERT'S PARROT will be exhilarated, not surprised; people who enjoy these stories will be encouraged to try the novels.

My favorite contemporary short-story writer up to now has been William Trevor -- at his best, I think, in AFTER RAIN. The wisdom with which he looks back on the wicked world as an older man has always had something profoundly consoling, and Barnes shares this quality. But the two writers approach their subjects from quite different angles. Trevor is the more straightforward, telling a story straight on in sequence. Barnes stalks his subjects from the side, often ostensibly writing about something quite different, striking his real target only tangentially. We see glimpses of a romantic life-history among the barbershop visits in "Hairdressing"; the old major's annual visit to a London prostitute in "Hygiene" reveals only his love for his wife; an older man's diatribe about concert behavior in "Vigilance" turns out to be about the dislocation of a gay relationship. Sidelong glances in retrospect.

Barnes' wonderful tangentiality is shown nowhere more clearly than in my favorite of these tales, "The Story of Mats Israelson." The irony is that the title story -- about a real copper miner in Falun, Sweden, killed in a accident in 1677, whose petrified body turned up 40 years later -- is never properly recounted at all. The non-telling of the story becomes only one of many things that do not take place between one upright citizen and the wife of another in a small town in 19th-century Sweden, whether through propriety, shyness, or circumstance. Yet for the rest of their lives, as they continue in their marriages, they each nurse the pain of the unconsummated attraction. Barnes, who loves Flaubert, here writes a beautiful antithesis to MADAME BOVARY -- one where the adultery does NOT take place, its poignant absence distilling a lingering essence of what might have been.

The collection ends with an elderly Scandinavian composer watching a flock of cranes disappear into the distance. "I watched until my eyes blurred; I listened until I could hear nothing more, and silence resumed." The full irony may be lost on readers who do not identify the composer as Jean Sibelius, whose own music had passed into silence some thirty years before. But it remains a touching image of that last transition.
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These eleven short stories by Julian Barnes all have one thing in common. They are peopled with characters near the end of their lives and facing death. Some are meek and mild; some do foolish things; others do not go gentle into that good night; one may be the victim of spousal abuse; one has dementia. Another has no qualms about committing adultery, having engaged in an out-of-town affair for twenty-three years although he can no longer "ring the gong three times" in one afternoon. One character keeps engaged in life by complaining about and to the noisemakers at classical concerts, but only after his partner stopped going to performances with him. One man and woman love each other for twenty-three years but, through misunderstanding and the inability to voice their feelings, sadly, their love is never consummated.

Barnes can get as much said about a character into twenty pages or so as any writer I have read. He is the master of beautiful concise description and phrases. One couple "had more time and they got less done." Another couple perhaps may grow old together and "rely, over time, on the hardening of the heart." One character's life can be summed up in "one long cowardly adventure." There are nuggets like these everywhere in every story. They so appeal to the intellect but also go straight to the heart.

One such story, which I read twice, is "Knowing French," as perfect a short story as I remember. The story unfolds through a series of letters written by Sylvia Winstanley to a writer named Julian Barnes. Sylvia, when the correspondence begins in 1986, is a new arrival at an "Old Folkery," her putdown for a retirement home inhabited by the "deaf" and the "mad." She ran across Barnes' name when she decided, in an effort to remain alive and alert, to read through all the fiction in the local library beginning with authors whose names start with "A" and discovered in the "B" fiction FLAUBERT'S PARROT. You will love Sylvia as she wraps herself around your heart. She moves into the retirement home by jumping before she was pushed and before she started scalding herself with Ovaltine. Visiting other like-establishments she is discouraged when she observes "obedient biddies sitting in cheap armchairs while the Box blares at them like Mussolini." Finally, having spent the last two years or so visiting a mother with dementia in a nursing home and all too aware of institutional food, I was undone by Sylvia's craving a croissant and dreaming of apricots. Suicide in her words is vulgar. The main reason for dying is that people expect it of people Sylvia's age. The main reason not to, she has never done what other people wanted her to do.

Now that's a woman you can tip your hat to, preposition or no preposition at the end of a sentence.
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"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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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 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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on April 25, 2018
Great Quality of Product and Fabulous Service
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on February 6, 2017
A fine yet unequal collection of short stories by Barnes. Fine writing and pertinent observation of old age psychology.
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on August 13, 2011
Very funny, very sad, biting, and of course, well written. Bought this because I like Barnes and like lemons. Took two stories to realize that the theme of the book is as others have described it--aging and the aged and where and how dirty-mindedness and defying death persists. Perhaps would be better not to read the stories back-to-back, but the lemon table of the title appears fittingly only in the last one.
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on July 16, 2016
It's a collection of wonderful short stories, each featuring a character who is facing the end of his or her life. My 82 year-old mother hated it, but I find it beautiful. There is no better read than a well-crafted short story.
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