Jul/Aug 2004 Book Reviews

The Lemon Table

Julian Barnes
Jonathan Cape (May 2004) 213 pages
ISBN: 0 224 07198 X

reviewed by Ann Skea

Tiddley-winks old man
Suck a lemon if you can
If you can't suck a lemon
Suck an old tin can.

Life, like this old rhyme, is a nonsense. "So much work, talent, courage, and then everything is over," as Barnes's octogenarian composer puts it. And like all the characters in this book, we live a little, love a little, learn a little, create a little music, and then comes silence. "Cheer up!" says Barnes's famous composer. "Death is around the corner." And he goes to dine at the lemon table, where it is "permissible—indeed, obligatory—to talk about death." He finds that "most companionable."

Barnes's Lemon Table stories, however, are not so much about the moment of mortality but about slow decline and the little deaths which occur all through life. Each of his characters, in these eleven stories, confronts this inevitable process in different ways. And what comes through this book most strongly is the persistence of individual character and the sheer, life-affirming determination and energy which these habits of behaviour demonstrate, even when they are not socially acceptable.

Few music lovers can fail to sympathize with the man in "Vigilance" who objects to "coughers" at orchestral concerts. Few, however, would do more than glare and grumble. Barnes's man does more. After a lifetime of suffering such unwelcome interruptions, he has had enough. His sarcasm is scathing and funny, as he tells us of the tactics he adopts. But his growing confidence in confronting the culprits is entirely in character with his increasing need to vent his own personal frustrations on others, even to the bitter (and bloody) end. Barnes is superb at creating characters through their own voices, and his ventriloquism in this story never falters. Perhaps there is an element of caricature involved, but the reader quickly recognizes the bitchy, slightly camp tones of this self-appointed policeman of concert-hall behaviour, and the underlying tensions in his conversations with "Andrew, my civilized friend, companion and ex-lover."

Sylvia Winstanley, in 'Knowing French', is also an entirely believable creation. And this time, a likeable and humorous one. In her very first letter to "Dear Dr Barnes," she introduces herself as "(Me, old woman, rising eighty-one)" and immediately launches into a sharp-witted, ironic account of how the "Red Cross" choice of fiction in the "Old Folkery," where she now resides, drove her to start reading all the fiction at the public library, "beginning with 'A'." Her comments on the 'A' authors could well be read as Barnes's own joke against at least one of his best-known fellow novelists. Sylvia Winstanley's eventual discovery of Flaubert's Parrot, and her own French bi-lingual background, prompt her first letter to Dr Barnes, and clearly, although we only have her half of the correspondence, "Mr Novelist Barnes" (as she liked to call him) responded. And what author could fail to be charmed by a reader who tells you that "Barnes comes at chest level," and goes on to proclaim King Lear, which she had just read for the first time,"total balderdash." Topics in the letters range from literature, to the daily trials of life in the Old Folkery among "the deafs and the mads," and include musings on death and the after life. The 'nonsense' of life is described and demonstrated, and life itself is summed up as "just a coincidence." But, as Barnes asks via Sylvia W., "what sort of coincidence?." Sadly, this is never resolved.

Each of Barnes's characters, like each of us, lives life differently. Some, like Major Jacko Jackson (retired), in 'Hygiene', rely on routine - everything in order, everything checked off, everything strategically planned. This routine, in Jacko's case, includes the annual, post regimental-dinner adultery with "dear old Babs," for hygiene's sake, just to make sure "his machinery was still in working order." Sadly, even routine cannot stave off time and change. Dear old Babs (who was known to the other 'girls', anyway, as Nora) has died, and the new young girl just doesn't fit the old pattern. So? Adjust the routine, change the pattern, keep "on the qui vive." Life goes on.

The people in The Lemon Table come from different countries and different eras, they are as different from each other as is possible, but what they demonstrate most effectively is that human nature doesn't change as we get older. We still want the same things—love, sex, food, happiness, comfort—it's just that the world changes around us, our bodies let us down more frequently, and some cope with the changes better than others.

Some, like Gregory Cartwright, in 'A Short History of Hairdressing', manage to get by. Others, like Mat Israelson, in 'The Story of Mat Israelson', never quite manage to get the hang of it. Two elderly women in 'The Things You Know', share a monthly breakfast date, but only share the secrets each knows about the other's dead husband with the reader. They exchange news and gossip, whilst silently criticizing each other and pondering the alternative version of each's marital reminiscences. They are, as one wryly comes to recognize, not so much friends as allies—people who share memories, help each other in small ways, and "see you through to the end."

There can be other, darker, secrets, too, as people get older. In 'The Fruit Cage', a man talks about the break-up of his elderly parents' marriage, when his father leaves his mother for another woman. There are hints of physical abuse within the marriage But the son, caught between the conflicting stories told him by the three elderly people, has no way of determining who is telling the truth or of knowing whether some mental instability due to age is a factor in all that happens.

The final story in the book, 'The Silence', is told by the octogenarian musician who explains the purpose of the lemon table. He is as individual a personality as any of Barnes's other characters but his musings on music, literature and art could well be taken to be Barnes's own thoughts as he contemplates his future. "How dreadful old age is for a composer!," laments the old man. "Things don't go as quickly as they used to, and self-criticism grows to impossible proportions." And he muses on Wagner's opinion that "if we enjoyed life fully we would have no need of art" but concludes that this is "back to front." Nevertheless, he believes that "To be misunderstood and forgotten, such is an artist's fate." "So," he insists, "misunderstand me correctly." It's a piece of nonsense: like life. And the end, which this composer accepts and embraces, is what he believes all music aspires to: silence. Let's hope that Mr Novelist Barnes is not yet ready for that.


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