Not going gently
Is there anything Julian Barnes can’t do? One of Britain’s leading literary lights, Barnes is the author of nine novels (including Flaubert’s Parrot, a slightly metafictional meditation on the author of Madame Bovary), four thrillers, and three essay collections (including one on food). He also translated into English a collection of German cartoons and the journals of a French novelist.
Now he has just published his second collection of short stories, The Lemon Table. The lemon is a Chinese symbol of death and Barnes’ title refers to a gathering place to discuss the oft-avoided subject. The Lemon Table‘s theme–aging and dying–is more universal than that of his previous story collection, Cross Channel, which explored the interplay between Britain and France. The 11 stories here tell us about those considerations at the end of life that none of us can avoid–have we lived how we wanted, have we accomplished what we wanted? Barnes is only 58, but is piercing in his examination of what are perhaps life’s most difficult questions.
No one is happy here; nor, in Barnes’ view, are they satisfied with the answers. “I expect I’ll find myself doing sums,” says the wistful narrator of “Appetite.” “Like: twenty or thirty years ago he spent two or three days working with all the skill and concentration at his disposal to earn money I’ll now spend in an hour or two getting a nurse to wipe his bottom and put up with the jabber of a naughty five-year-old.” But it is not because these characters are reflecting on the Four Last Things–death, judgment, heaven, and hell. For Barnes, who seems untroubled by questions of belief, their concerns are strictly worldly: has their time here on Earth been completely wasted?
“Knowing French” has the stuff of Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot–French and a metanarrative. The story consists of letters from a spry old lady in a nursing home to the novelist Julian Barnes. The conceit, its one-sidedness (Barnes’ letters to her were destroyed), and her habit of talking all over the place make this one of the more difficult stories to read. But it’s filled with quick insights into what we all must think as we approach our end. The narrator relates how a famous artist reported in his autobiography that he spotted her at a party when she was a mere nine years old: “If I had deigned to look at him, he says, he would have followed me to the end of his days.” But she did not. “You are too young for this kind of question,” she writes “Barnes,” “but it is the sort you increasingly ask yourself as you become deaf and mad. Where would I be now if two years before the Great War I had glanced in a different direction?” The line is typical of the characters’ concern with what might have been–not with what might be, after death.
In fact, lost chances–especially those involving adultery and near-adultery–is the main theme of the book. The narrator of the first story, “A Short History of Hairdressing,” could be Chris, the protagonist of Barnes’ first novel of adolescent angst turned into adult anxiety, Metroland. Through snapshots of three haircuts, Barnes gives us a man’s whole life–a stubborn boy becomes an establishment figure. But he still manages a slight rebellion, if only in the barber shop. In “The Story of Mats Israelson,” even impending death can’t bring an admission of love from two obstinate people who have spent their lives married to others, but thinking only of each other.
And it is those characters that make the stories. Some are famous: “The Revival” muses about a potential, possibly platonic love affair between the aging Ivan Turgenev and a young, beautiful actress. “The Silence” imagines the overflowing thoughts of the composer Sibelius as he reaches the end of his life, with few symphonies to show for it. Others are not: “Vigilance” is a wildly funny story of a homosexual concertgoer who goes to extreme lengths to silence coughers and programme-turners. In “Hygiene,” a man who feels younger than he looks gets quite a shock when he goes to pay his yearly visit to his also-aging mistress.
Barnes shows off his incredible range in this collection. He always speaks with the protagonist’s voice, whether the story is in the first person or the third. Jumping through centuries and between continents, Barnes has the amazing ability to get into the head of all the varied characters about whom he writes–convincingly. He is a master craftsman–“Mats Israelson” is O. Henry-like, “Vigilance” almost as funny as a story by two other British satirists, Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse. But his craft never draws the reader’s attention away from the emotion. No matter how professionally composed, the stories almost never fail to provoke feeling.
Still, none of them, or even all of them, is as satisfying as a Julian Barnes novel. The short story is almost dead; few magazines publish them, few people read them. When one thinks of the genre’s greatest practitioners–Edgar Allen Poe, Nabokov, Chekhov–one might decry the loss. But a writer can examine subjects in a 200-page novel in a manner all but impossible in a 15-page story. In The Lemon Table, Barnes tackles some big ideas in a small form. But he is much more satisfying when he has hundreds of pages to talk about love, art, adultery, history, and missed chances.
Kelly Jane Torrance is arts and culture editor of Brainwash. Her Web site is kellyjanetorrance.com.