A review of The Lemon Table by Julian Barnes

Minutely detailed, beautifully paced, and often wryly fun, each of the stories in The Lemon Table can be read on its own. Together however, the book becomes a rich and varied exploration through the pain, frustration, and vanities of aging, of what it means to be alive.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Lemon Table
By Julian Barnes
Jonathan Cape
Hardcover, March 2004. 224pp. ISBN: 022407198X

Julian Barnes has made an art form of pulling together short stories that add up to a collective meaning greater than the sum of its parts. In his seminal work, A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, the book of short stories which Barnes insists is actually a novel, the stories work together, themes repeat, ideas get strengthened as the book progresses, and by the time you’ve finished, a single overriding theme around life and love comes into focus. A similar tension occurs in Cross Channel, where the individual pieces move around a central core of things French, but ultimately adds up to a whole that once again illuminates what it means to be a human being. Barnes has stated that the origin of each book’s he’s done was in the previous one. Since he is so prolific, and since his writing takes on a wide variety of genres, from farce to drama to literary criticism to food writing to very literary fiction indeed, one could probably find the origins for this one in his last book of grouped stories, Cross Channel, in his character “The Elderly Englishman” of “Tunnel” who returns home to create “the stories you have just read.” As with A History and Cross Channel, the stories in The Lemon Table, while able to function separately, add up to a single picture, a totality of expression which has more meaning than any of the stories on their own. You need to stand back to get the full density of the work.

The key theme of The Lemon Table is old age, and some critics have stated that it seems odd that Barnes would write such an epitaph type of work so early in his life, but Barnes has always stated that his work, and all novels, start with life. There is no better way to illuminate life than to take the reader to the end of it. There are eleven stories, each with a different focus or structure. The first, “A Short History of Hairdressing” tells the story of a character through his haircut appointments. You could probably do this kind of perspective taking any recurring event in a person’s life, but it is the combination of mundane and regimented – of meditative and vanity ridden – the image in the mirror a tangible reminder of the aging process accelerated at each visit – which makes a haircutting session so appropriate. We watch Gregory, from his first terrified trip to the barber on his own: “Boys didn’t tip. Perhaps that was why barners hated boys. They paid less and they didn’t tip. They also didn’t keep still. Or at least, their mothers told them to keep still, they kept still, but this didn’t stop the barber bashing their heads with a palm as solid as the flat of a hatchet and muttering, ‘Keep still.’ to his twilight victory over the mirror – a tiny revolt in old age. Another story which revisits a meeting point is “The Things You Know” which follows two friends as they have breakfast together at different times and reminisce over their dead husbands. The reader is made aware of the irony through the perspective of time, but the characters don’t have that vantage, even when they should.

The stories follow a wide variety of different settings and structures. Love lost, missed, idealised and regretted form the basis of the 18th century Swedish tale “The Story of Mats Isrealson” where the main character mis-tells a story to his neighbour’s wife, a woman with whom he has fallen in love, and the two resist the temptation and go their separate ways, living a life of regret and longing. The story culminates in Isrealson‘s one chance to make amends before dying. In “The Revival”, an aged Turgenev falls in love with the actress who played Verochka in one of his plays, but is it really love, or just another way of avoiding love? “This is safe. The fantasy is manageable, his gift a false memory.” (98). There is Major Jacko Jackson of “Hygiene,” who travels regularly to visit his mistress, a retired prostitute in London – his two days of furlough from his wife, “as per,” until he finds that aging has caught up with the mistress, as it has caught him. In “The Fruit Cage,” we learn about a couple through the narration of their son, a boy who discovers a third party in his parent’s marriage. All of these stories have a strong undercurrent of irony – of the human and fairly unattractive needs which are hidden under what we call love in our youth. There is always a twist in the tale – the politics of the ego, the idealisation of beauty, and the vanity of our romantic illusions.

Other stories deal with self-justification and the vanities that become entrenched as we age, such as Vigilance”, the story of a man who takes increasingly violent steps to pay back those who are cough or otherwise rude during the concerts he attends. The blackly humorous piece ends with an ironic nod to the notion of ‘civilisation.’ In another blackly humorous piece, “Bark,” Jean-Etienne Delacour’s becomes a member of a subscription loan scheme to build the municipal baths. The last man surviving acquires the capital amount. Delacour becomes increasingly neurotic about his food and lifestyle in an attempt to live the longest. Barnes’ food writing skills are shown to great advantage as he describes Delacour’s former gastronimic excesses.

“Knowing French” brings back the Elderly Englishman, Mr Barnes, as the subject of Sylvia Winstanley’s letters. She is working her way through the alphabet at her local library: “Having done Barnes, I move onto Brookner, Anita, and blessed if she didn’t appear on the Box that very day.” (142) Although Winstanley is a character who is silly at times, the fictional Barnes is clearly affectionate towards her, and this grandparent-grandson relationship is moving. The final story, “The Silence” pulls the previous stories together as a fictional Sibelius reflects on his life, his work, his silence, and impending death in a number of different ways, through overt discussion: “I join the lemon table at the Kamp. Here it is permissible – indeed, obligatory – to talk about death. It is most companionable.” (206), and through sound and motion: “The day was heavy with clouds, but for once the cranes 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 south. I watched until my eyes blurred, I listened until my ears could hear nothing more, and silence resumed.” (213)

Barnes’ craftsmanship is second to none. Minutely detailed, beautifully paced, and often wryly fun, each of the stories in The Lemon Table can be read on its own. Together however, the book becomes a rich and varied exploration through the pain, frustration, and vanities of aging, of what it means to be alive.

For more information visit: The Lemon Table