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The Roundabout of Sex
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.