The Lemon Table Paperback – Apr 5 2005
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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.
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.
Top Customer Reviews
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 ›
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!
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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.
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.
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.