Sunday 27 September 2009

70 - 'The Lemon Table' by Julian Barnes

Funny name, Julian Barnes, very English; it evokes images of Enid Blyton's 'Famous Five' stories and 'Tom Brown's Schooldays', punting on the Thames and running down to London for the weekend during Hilary Term. Unsurprisingly then, he is a very English writer, famous for his sparse, precise prose and an unerring eye for detail. The thing is, having read a few of his books, I'm not convinced. I don't mean that I dislike his writing; I've enjoyed everything of his that has come my way. It's just that I wouldn't exactly go out of my way to find one of his works (how very English of me).

How I came to read 'The Lemon Table' is a good example of what I am trying to say. For months, there has been a copy of 'Flaubert's Parrot' floating around the bargain shelves of the campus bookshop (and is it just me, or does 'Flaubert's Parrot' sound like a joke of a book title, a parody even? It always reminds me of the book launch from 'Bridget Jones' Diary' for 'Kafka's Motorbike' - one of the best few dozen books of our time, possibly), but, at only 25% off the cover price, I've never been really tempted to take it off their hands. However, when I saw Mr. Barnes' collection of short stories on offer on the last day of the recent sale, for the bargain price of $2.50 (about the price of a small cup of coffee - although, in keeping with the tone of today's post, let's make that a cup of English Breakfast tea), I had no hesitation in handing over the few sparkly pieces of metal required, even though short stories are not really my cup of tea (more Safeway Select than Earl Grey).

Of course, 'The Lemon Table' is a lovely collection of tales, all centring on old age, how it affects us and what we make of it. Barnes provides eleven differing experiences of the twilight years, which vary not only in protagonist and setting, but also in time and the form of the story itself. Each one examines what's left of life after decades spent chasing the dream of happiness, exploring the role of the 'aged' in society. Should we fade out gracefully, leaving the scene to younger, fitter more attractive players? Must we live up to society's expectations of feeble old fogies needing 24-hour care to eat, sleep and poop? Have old people left all the desires and dreams of the young (and middle-aged) behind?

In 'Knowing French', an old woman who has accepted the inevitable and moved into a nursing home before she is forced to against her will, describes her efforts to hold out and grow old disgracefully in a series of letters (to an author, Mr. Barnes...). The one-sided exchange (the author's replies, although existent, are not included in the story) shows how dull and brain-numbing life can be in the wonderful institutions we have created for the elderly. At the other end of the scale, 'Appetite' is told in the form of a monologue from a woman nursing her husband, a man evidently suffering from Alzheimer's or some similar disease. Her deep care in the face of vicious, unknowing abuse shows why it's sometimes easier for family members to go down the route of packing off elderly relatives to the nursing home.

Another theme is the way our thoughts change over the course of a lifetime, with the ideas we had when young changing slightly in later years. The first story in the collection, 'A Short History of Hairdressing', sees the same person receiving a haircut at three points in his life; as a young boy, a young man and in old age. His attitude towards life (and the way you should behave in the barber's chair) evolves with each 'visit' until, in the last line, we find out the fruits of his mental labours. In 'The Story of Mats Israelson', set in nineteenth-century Sweden, a possible, quasi, imagined, real love affair is the backdrop for a similar progression of feelings. When the two main protagonists meet again late in life, will their love have survived?

Of course, modern English writing (and films, and music...) is well known for peeking behind the suburban net curtains and painstakingly describing what goes on in the private lives of the middle classes, and a couple of these stories carry on this tradition. Both 'Hygiene' and 'The Fruit Cage' deal with the lives of old men who have had, to use the vernacular, a bit-on-the-side for many years, in one case following the fallout of the decision to go public and in the other the realisation that something which you thought would last forever has suddenly gone.

The eleven stories are beautiful to read, elegant and precisely written, wonderful examples of the genre. And yet... As a reader, I have a feeling at the back of my mind that Barnes is too clever for his own good. While all the styles and settings work, and the stories combine to create a magnificent collection of thoughts on a single topic, it does seem at times as if it is done merely to show that it can be done. Is there any real need to set tales in Sweden, Russia and America? Does the time need to bounce from century to century? I am probably comparing this book (somewhat unfairly) to the most recent short-story collection I have read, 'Dubliners', and my obvious preference for the tight-knit set of tales in Joyce's collection may be colouring my judgement.

Another quibble I have is Barnes' tendency to get... well, a little vulgar at times. He seems to delight in using taboo language to shock both his characters and the readers - and he does it very well too. Perhaps (as I'm sure you will have noticed) I'm a delicate little flower, and I need to toughen up; perhaps this type of language is a necessary part of what he is trying to create; perhaps, in forty years time, I'll have a very different opinion about his use of expletives to now...

All in all, 'The Lemon Table' is a great read if you like short stories and well worth the effort even if you don't. However, I'm afraid the jury's still out on Mr. Barnes, probably because I still haven't read any of the books which he is famous for. This leads us to a vicious circle: I probably won't be convinced by old Julian until I read 'Flaubert's Parrot', 'Metroland' or 'Talking it Over', but I'm unlikely to buy any of those books until I'm convinced I'm going to love them. The solution? I suppose there's always the library option, but it's not just a matter of money, it's also a matter of time spent reading, time I don't have enough of. Hmm. Don't expect the jury back with a decision any time soon...