THE LEMON TABLE by Julian Barnes

Book Quote:

“The day was heavy with clouds, but for once the cranes were flying beneath them. As they approached, one broke from the flock and flew directly towards me. I raised my arms in acclamation as it made a slow circle around me, trumpeting its cry, then headed back to rejoin its flock for the long journey sourh. I watched until my eyes blurred. I listened until I could hear nothing more, and silence resumed.”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate В (MAY 6, 2011)

One of the things I most enjoy about Julian Barnes is his variety. Each of his books questions the conventional idea of a novel, and each does so in a different way. So I open this collection of eleven short stories expecting an intriguing range of subject and technique, united by a humanity that Barnes has never yet failed to provide. I was not disappointed. This book is as wonderfully written as it is pleasant to hold in the hand, in this beautiful Vintage paperback edition. The range of subjects is indeed large, with scenes of contemporary London alternating with historical stories set in France, Sweden, or Russia. Although all the stories are about twenty pages long, some take place in a single hour, others span a lifetime. They are linked by the common theme of aging, but this should not be a deterrent; few are sad, but rather wry, tender, surprising, or even hysterically funny. Barnes’ range of emotion is as great as his range of style.

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 В A History of the World in 10ВЅ Chapters or Flaubert’s Parrot will be exhilarated, not surprised; people who enjoy these stories wil
l 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 slow deterioration 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 actually 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, where heartbreak is only increased by the fact that nothing happens, distilling the 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.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 35 readers
PUBLISHER: Vintage (April 5, 2005)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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May 6, 2011 В· Judi Clark В· No Comments
Tags:  В· Posted in: Short Stories, y Award Winning Author

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