Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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The Lemon Table – Julian Barnes – A Review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on May 24, 2009

As one grows older, I guess one’s mind starts wandering towards death. Not that one desires and embraces it wholeheartedly, but one starts to move towards accepting its inevitability. While the eventual outcome may be a resigned and despondent acceptance, an individual’s journey of growing old and moving towards this position can be extremely idiosyncratic, quirky and worthy of narrating as stories. That is exactly what Julian Barnes has delivered in his wonderful collection of short stories “The Lemon Table

But why the title “The Lemon Table“?  In Chinese belief system a lemon symbolises death and a lemon table a place where people discuss death and dying without any restraints and hesitation. All the stories in this collection revolve around growing old and thoughts around death. Barnes never allows the morbidity of this theme to come in the way of his narration. With a brilliant combination of humour, irony, pathos and originality of plots, Barnes make these collection of eleven stories into a wonderful reading experience.

Paradoxical it may sound but I have had a grand and joyous feast at “The Lemon Table

In the story “A Short History of Hair Dressing” the protagonist Gregory, revisits his whole life in terms of the haircuts and the displayed behaviour of barbers while giving a haircut. In the process one also gets a glimpse of the subtle changes in the profession of hairdressing over six decades and the softening of the protagonists attitude towards them indicating a growing degree of forgiveness. In a larger sense will this not be the predicament of all of us who grow old? –  from agressive passions and headstrong persistence towards a mellowed sense of forgiveness to all things gone by and all people who tresspass us?

In the story “The Story of Mats Isrealson” one gets to see the reminscence of a dying manager of a sawmill in 19th century Sweden, who revisits his life that passes between his tarmagant wife and some of the expectant moments that he spends with his silent lover who is the village pharmacists wife. Barnes evokes subtle sadness and pathos which takes over gently and leaves the reader pensive

As one grows older some of us become punctilious and pernickety. The story “Vigilance” is about an aging gay whose love of concert music is so pronounced that he justifies and relishes insulting all those patrons who do not behave themselves during the concert. Every man and woman have their indiscretions which remain as secrets. These secrets are either hermetically sealed or revealed only towards the fag end of their lives – the stories “Hygiene” and ” The Fruit Cage” are about extra marital affairs that have been kept as secrets till the end. The stories “Knowing French” and “Appetite” are about senility and the cantankerous edge it assumes. The former written as a form of letter exchanges between a very educated lady and Julian Barnes and the latter as a narration of conversations between a retired doctor and his former nurse and lover and current wife. One gets a glimpse of the tragedy that senility includes

The story “Silence” is about a famous composer who is past his creative prime and who actually awaits his death with an equanimity much to the chagrin of his wife. As I read this story I was reminded of “Interference” – a story from Barnes other brilliant collection of stories “Cross Channel” which is about a self exiled British composer dying on the French soil. Both I would say are brilliant stories

Do I have any complaints about this book? Yes, there is one and it lies in the answer to the opposite of a baker’s dozen –  it is that there are only eleven of these gems available for ones reading. All the stories in this collection are worth reading many times over and in a strange way are life affirming for the sympathy and understanding they engender for the inevitable autumnal phase of our lives. In many ways these stories are a reflection of Barnes genius for short stories

I am told that Barnes has written another book “Nothing To Be Frightened Of” which are his deep meditations on death. I am looking forward to reading this as soon as possible

Afterword: After I have written my impressions on this book, I managed to read a series of reviews by various well known critics on the same. The one written by Ms.Kakutani of NYTimes was peevish with a grudging acknowledgment of the merits of the book. To such learned people there are a couple of things I would like to say:

  • The bulk of readers read books to enjoy, escape, educate and elevate themselves into other dimensions that extend beyond themselves. Any fiction that meets these criteria, in my opinion, is good fiction. What a writer does to meet these criteria belongs to the realms of artistic liberty. Any commentary beyond this stretches a critics’ remit and I am inclined to view this trespassing as mere quibbling and display of hidden jealousy
  • There is no city in the world where statues have been built for critics

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