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The Lemon Table [Paperback]

Julian Barnes
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

April 5 2005
Master prose stylist Julian Barnes presents a collection of stories whose characters are growing old and facing the end of their lives -- some with bitterness, some with resignation and others with raging defiance.

“Life is just a premature reaction to death,” was what Viv’s husband used to say. Once her lover and friend, he is now Viv’s semi-helpless charge, who is daily sinking ever deeper into dementia. In “Appetite,” Viv has found a way to reach her husband: by reading aloud snippets of recipe books until he calls out indelible -- and sometimes unfortunate -- scenes locked away in his brain. In “The Things You Know,” two elderly friends enjoy their monthly breakfast meetings that neither would ever think of missing. Of course, all they really have in common is a fondness for flat suede shoes and a propensity for thinking spiteful, unspoken thoughts about one another’s dead husbands. “The Fruit Cage” is narrated by a middle-aged man whose seemingly orderly upbringing is harrowingly undone when he discovers that his parents’ old age is not necessarily a time of serenity but actually an age of aroused, perhaps violent, passions.

In these stories, Julian Barnes displays the erudition, wit and uncanny insight into the human mind that mark him as one of today’s great writers, one whose intellect and humour never obscure a genuine affection for his characters.


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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. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

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 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Cheer up! The end is near... April 30 2010
By Friederike Knabe TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
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.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Passing Sixty with Humor and Respect April 10 2012
By Donald Mitchell #1 HALL OF FAME TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
"And no one, having drunk old wine, immediately desires new; for he says, 'The old is better.'" -- Luke 5:39

So what's it like to be over sixty? This collection of stories captures more elements of that experience than any other that I've read. Perhaps because Julian Barnes was aged around that threshold, he can appreciate and capture the experience better than most. It's a labor of love for him. Reading the stories will be a joy for you.

The book opens with "A Short History of Hairdressing" that records the experiences of and reactions to being shorn over a lifetime. There's a self-mocking irony to it that will tickle you.

"The Story of Mats Israelson" beautifully captures the regrets and lost opportunities of failing to communicate what's in your heart.

"The Things You Know" delicately displays the contradictory elements that make for a good friendship . . . based on a self-justifying sense of superiority.

"Hygiene" is a painful search for emotional intimacy in a barren landscape.

"The Revival" explores the relationship between those of different generations from the perspective of the older.

"Vigilance" plays out the suppressed rage that many music fans have felt at those who make too much noise at concerts.

"Bark" is a stunning story of shifting obsessions . . . and how they control us.

"Knowing French" is a marvelous series of letters between a fan and the author.

"Appetite" brings new meaning to the term "food fantasies."

"The Fruit Cage" does an amazing job of exploring the subtleties of perception and self-justification.

"The Silence" explains life from a composer's perspective near the final rest.

The quality of the stories is uniformly high. I recommend them all. Enjoy!
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Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  40 reviews
44 of 45 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another elegant collection from Julian Barnes July 6 2004
By Debbie Lee Wesselmann - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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.
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Most Eloquent Collection of Stories About Life's Cycle Sept. 2 2004
By Grady Harp - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
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.
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars More reflections from a senior impersonator Sept. 18 2004
By Charles S. Houser - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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).
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars One Note Wonder May 14 2007
By A. Ross - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
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.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant but brace yourself Aug. 17 2006
By jt52 - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
"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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