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the complete review - fiction
The Lemon Table
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- Several of these stories were previously published elsewhere, including in Granta, The New Yorker, and the TLS
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B+ : decent collection of variations on the theme of aging
See our review for fuller assessment.
Generally impressed by aspects, and some by the whole collection, but no real consensus, even on the individual stories
From the Reviews:
- "In The Lemon Table Julian Barnes presents us with a range of tales about the bitterness of old age, admirably unsweetened by saccharine sentimentality. A depressing theme, you might think; but these stories, though bleak, are exhilaratingly crisp, crystallised by Barnes's wintry intelligence. Still, it is noticeable that there is little here of mellowness, warmth, or even resignation (unless one counts moods of drained melancholy)." - Caroline Moore, Daily Telegraph
- "It is quite funny but not at all cheerful. This is a book about old age and disappointment, among other things. (...) The Lemon Table leaves one in no doubt as to Barnes's virtuosity." - Frank Kermode, The Guardian
- "The Lemon Table is clever, certainly; and elegant, laddish, efficient. And largely free from grief." - Peter J. Conradi, The Independent
- "The Lemon Table's very crisply done: there's pathos, there's humour -- though the wryness and whimsy are largely under control -- and, as you'd expect, there's a lot of fine writing" - Christopher Tayler, London Review of Books
- "But the proximity to gravitas serves only to pinpoint Barnes's inadequacies as a fiction writer. He dreams up some nicely unconventional figures and puts them in provocative scenarios, but he fails to discover any emotion richer than a condescending pathos." - Ruth Franklin, The New Republic
- "Essentially, most of these stories are retreads of perennial Barnesian fixations: jealousy, the embattled and misunderstood artist, French, and the mournful lesson that "a greater pain drives out a lesser one". If you share none of these obsessions, you might find the stories arch and mildly irritating. If, however, you do, you will find them, as I do, entrancing and curiously cheering despite their grim subject." - Amanda Craig, New Statesman
- "The stories diverge so sharply in tone and setting, and Mr. Barnes realizes each so completely, that the extreme dissimilarities contrast into a rare coherence." - James Hunter, The New York Observer
- "The best of these tales are beautifully wrought elegies for lost youth, lost promises and lost loves. They are stories that reveal an emotional depth new to the writings of the usually cerebral Mr. Barnes (.....) Other stories in this volume are far more schematic and contrived, relying on O. Henryesque endings to hammer home an irony, or high-concept narratives to make a winsome point." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
- "In The Lemon Table, love and sex are to be preserved reverently in memory by the old but are seen as a foolish indulgence if pursued into the present.(...) Stylistically, Barnes has always been a nonconformist; his novels smudge the boundaries between fiction, dramatic monologue, epistle, criticism and essay and this collection of stories manages the same in miniature." - Stephanie Merritt, The Observer
- "If his endings are occasionally a trifle obvious, the deficiency hardly seems to matter, since the stories' thematic work and characterizations have already been so well established that a last turn of the plot screw is unlikely to add all that much.(...) The Lemon Table, in ways both modest and grand, helps sustain a reader's faith in literature as the truest form of assisted living." - Thomas Mallon, The New York Times Book Review
- "Everywhere he ventures, Barnes is sure-footed: each word, each tone, each nuance of phrase is just right. Every word is the proverbial mot juste. Barnes is always adept at avoiding cliche. If some of the situations in the stories veer too close to that fatal shoal, he is sure to put in some unexpected touches (.....) It is inevitable that not every tale in this collection is a masterpiece. Even those, however, that do not rise to this level are very well done" - Martin Rubin, San Francisco Chronicle
- "(A) compelling series of vignettes of old age, executed with great skill. By the last story, we are almost desperate to be back in the company of the young, beautiful and hopeful again. But we realise, too, that we are ending in a place of silent and resigned resolution." - Ann Wroe, Sunday Telegraph
- "In The Lemon Table, Barnes has produced eleven stories which are always decorous, for the most part elegant, frequently funny, sometimes tender, but only once or twice saddening. We leave the book with the feeling of an opportunity missed, and this feeling seems to derive from the discrepancy between Julian Barnes's chosen subject matter -- so potentially rich in human drama -- and the meagre yield of pathos which results." - Robert MacFarlane, Times Literary Supplement
- "These particular stories suffer from an overwhelming disadvantage (and I don't care if Julian Barnes is a very skillful writer and gets published in the New Yorker all the time). You can't condescend to your characters, scorn them even, and expect to leave the reader with much more than a bad taste. A little hauteur goes a very long way." - Carolyn See, The Washington Post
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
The Lemon Table is a collection of eleven stories, all variations on the subject of aging.
Many of the protagonists are in their sixties, seventies, or eighties, some have been battered by age, even lost to Alzheimer's.
Quite a few, not surprisngly, wind up dead.
It's a lot of weight to bear for a story collection, and Barnes isn't entirely successful -- a few are simply too light --, but he's a talented writer and there's little that's completely off-base.
The collection begins with A Short History of Hairdressing, a foray more into maturity than actual old age.
It even begins far earlier, with boyhood.
The story gives glimpses of Gregory Cartwright's life, at three distinct times: as a child, a student, and a mature man, focussed each time on his experiences at the barber's (or salon, by the end).
It's rarely a comfortable experience, generally a time for some doubt; only in the last section has he finally settled in, comfortable with the transaction that takes place, sure enough of himself even to assert himself -- and becoming resigned to inevitable decline.
Barnes captures these different parts of life well: childish unease, the uncertainty of the student on the cusp of manhood, and finally the settled adult.
It's nicely done, though little more than that.
The Story of Mats Israelson is set in Sweden, around 1900, and describes the failed efforts of Anders Bodén to express his longing for Barbro Lindwall.
They are two married people who meet and come close to falling into each others arms but just fail.
For more than two decades Bodén pines after her, a romantic ideal and missed opportunity, and only when he is dying does he again risk trying to make his feelings known.
But these two ships seem doomed to miss each other in a constant fog of (mis-)communication.
Miscommunication, secrecy, things left unsaid all feature in many of the stories, from the muddled mind of the husband suffering from Alzheimer's in Appetite to the family secrets the narrator in The Fruit Cage comes to learn and suspect regarding his aging parents.
The Things You Know describes the monthly get-together of widows Janice and Merrill, old ladies who find in each other a sort of companionship -- largely because each is in the same position as the other, growing vulnerable in old age.
Much can't be questioned: the image each has of her husband for example -- which the other knows (but won't say) isn't accurate.
Each knows they both have little more than illusion to cling to, and that it wouldn't do to touch that.
Particularly poignant: Hygiene, the account of Jacko Jackson's last pilgrimage to whore Babs.
The trip to London is the old military officer's one annual adventure.
It happens to be -- or is nominally supposed to be -- sexual adventure, but it's as much a rite as anything.
His domestic life is settled, satisfying enough but boring; Babs is a reminder of youth and wilder ways -- except that she's aging just as he is.
Like Jacko, characters in other stories also have to face either mortality or loss: death is the harshest reminder, but other changes (such as the mind lost to Alzheimer's, or dreams that are remembered but that can definitely no longer come true) are similarly devastating.
Several stories are based on, or lean on, fact.
The Revival is about Russian author Ivan Turgenev, and tries to echo his sublime First Love; it is among the collection's disappointments, not quite coming off, especially in its use of Turgenev's own work (familiarity with it makes Barnes' summary use feel particularly heavy-handed).
The Silence is a slightly more convincing take (perhaps only because the facts surrounding the subject aren't as well-known) on a composer who is evidently Sibelius.
It's the final story, and the title of the collection is explained here:
I join the lemon table at the Kämp.
Here it is permissible -- indeed obligatory -- to talk about death.
And death is certainly something that preoccupies the frustrated composer.
It's also a story that repeats what could be the Leitmotiv of the collection, the admonition:
Cheer up !
Death is around the corner !
Barnes himself even figures in one story, Knowing French -- though he remains unseen and almost entirely unheard, his words and thoughts revealed only refracted in the letters from an old woman in a nursing home who writes to him.
It's a curious way of presenting one's ideas, but the playful approach is well-suited to his ambitions and it's among the more resonant pieces.
The Lemon Table is a modest collection.
These aren't loud, dramatic stories.
Barnes presents characters who are sinking, slowly -- mainly into old age, and away from something they seem just to have lost grasp of.
He's not interested in abrupt life-ending, but in final and often slow transitions -- more noticeably stretched out, in this day and age, than perhaps previously.
It's not an entirely depressing collection -- Barnes shows both cheer and wit -- but it's an odd mix of a light touch (as he occasionally slips into trying to present things too comfortably) and heavy subject matter.
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The Lemon Table:
Other books by Julian Barnes under review:
Other books of interest under review:
- See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review
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About the Author:
English author Julian Barnes was born in 1946.
He is the author of several highly acclaimed novels.
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© 2004-2021 the complete review
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