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.Read more ›
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"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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44 of 45 people found the following review helpful
Another elegant collection from Julian BarnesJuly 6 2004
Debbie Lee Wesselmann
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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.
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
A Most Eloquent Collection of Stories About Life's CycleSept. 2 2004
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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.
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
More reflections from a senior impersonatorSept. 18 2004
Charles S. Houser
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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
One Note WonderMay 14 2007
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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.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Brilliant!May 6 2005
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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.