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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)
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.