In his widely acclaimed new collection of stories, Julian Barnes addresses what is perhaps the most poignant aspect of the human condition: growing old. The characters in The Lemon Table are facing the ends of their livesesome with bitter regret, others with resignation, and others still with defiant rage. Their circumstances are just as varied as their responses. In 19th-century Sweden, three brief conversations provide the basis for a lifetime of longing. In todayes England, a retired army major heads into the city for his regimental dinnereand his annual appointment with a professional lady named Babs. Somewhere nearby, a devoted wife calms (or perhaps torments) her ailing husband by reading him recipes. In stories brimming with life and our desire to hang on to it one way or another, Barnes proves himself by turns wise, funny, clever, and profound- a writer of astonishing powers of empathy and invention.
- New York Times Notable Books of the Year
Polished and classically structured, the 11 exquisite stories in this collection are as stylish as any of Barnes's creations, while also possessed of a pleasing heft. Told from a dazzling array of viewpoints, each is underpinned with a familiar Barnes concern: death. In "The Revival," the Russian writer Turgenev ruminates on lost love at the end of his life (as Tolstoy looks on), while in "Hygiene" a WWII vet revisits more than just his old mates during an annual trip to London for his regimental dinner. The past is seen from the perspective of the barber's chair in "A Short History of Hairdressing," and from two entirely separate angles in "The Things You Know," about a pair of widows who mentally savage each other over the course of a polite breakfast. Fans of Barnes's conversational novels, such as Love, Etc. and Talking It Over, may be nonplussed by the Dinesen-like sonority of the prose in "The Story of Mats Israelson" ("When Havlar Berggren succumbed to akvavit, frivolity and atheism, and transferred ownership of the third stall to an itinerant knife-grinder, it was on Berggren, not the knife-grinder, that disapproval fell, and a more suitable appointment was made in exchange for a few riksdaler"), but readers willing to follow Barnes's imagination will not be disappointed. With the exception of the plodding last story, "The Silence" (in which the title phrase is explained: "Among the Chinese, the lemon is the symbol of death"), the author handles his dark subject matter with grace and humor. This is not a morbid trip. Instead, Barnes always has his eye on something unusual, and the reader is taken for a delightful ride.
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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April 03, 2005
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Excerpt from The Lemon Table by Julian Barnes
A Short History of Hairdressing
That first time, after they moved, his mother had come with him. Presumably to examine the barber. As if the phrase "short back and sides, with a little bit off the top" might mean something different in this new suburb. He'd doubted it. Everything else seemed the same: the torture chair, the surgical smells, the strop and the folded razor--folded not in safety but in threat. Most of all, the torturer-in-chief was the same, a loony with big hands who pushed your head down till your windpipe nearly snapped, who prodded your ear with a bamboo finger. "General inspection, madam?" he said greasily when he'd finished. His mother had shaken off the effects of her magazine and stood up. "Very nice," she said vaguely, leaning over him, smelling of stuff. "I'll send him by himself next time." Outside, she had rubbed his cheek, looked at him with idle eyes, and murmured, "You poor shorn lamb."
Now he was on his own. As he walked past the estate agent's, the sports shop and the half-timbered bank, he practised saying, "Short back and sides with a little bit off the top." He said it urgently, without the comma; you had to get the words just right, like a prayer. There was one and threepence in his pocket; he stuffed his handkerchief in tighter to keep the coins safe. He didn't like not being allowed to be afraid. It was simpler at the dentist's: your mother always came with you, the dentist always hurt you, but afterwards he gave you a boiled sweet for being a good boy, and then back in the waiting room you pretended in front of the other patients that you were made of stern stuff. Your parents were proud of you. "Been in the wars, old chap?" his father would ask. Pain let you into the world of grown-up phrases. The dentist would say, "Tell your father you're fit for overseas. He'll understand." So he'd go home and Dad would say, "Been in the wars, old chap?" and he'd answer, "Mr. Gordon says I'm fit for overseas."
He felt almost important going in, with the adult spring of the door against his hand. But the barber merely nodded, pointed with his comb to the line of high-backed chairs, and resumed his standing crouch over a white-haired geezer. Gregory sat down. His chair creaked. Already he wanted to pee. There was a bin of magazines next to him, which he didn't dare explore. He gazed at the hamster nests of hair on the floor.
When his turn came, the barber slipped a thick rubber cushion onto the seat. The gesture looked insulting: he'd been in long trousers now for ten and a half months. But that was typical: you were never sure of the rules, never sure if they tortured everyone the same way, or if it was just you. Like now: the barber was trying to strangle him with the sheet, pulling it tight round his neck, then shoving a cloth down inside his collar. "And what can we do for you today, young man?" The tone implied that such an ignominious and deceitful woodlouse as he obviously was might have strayed into the premises for any number of different reasons.
After a pause, Gregory said, "I'd like a haircut, please."
"Well, I'd say you'd come to the right place, wouldn't you?" The barber tapped him on the crown with his comb; not painfully, but not lightly either.
"Now we're motoring," said the barber.
They would only do boys at certain times of the week. There was a notice saying No Boys on Saturday Mornings. Saturday afternoons they were closed anyway, so it might just as well read No Boys on Saturdays. Boys had to go when men didn't want to. At least, not men with jobs. He went at times when the other customers were pensioners. There were three barbers, all of middle age, in white coats, dividing their time between the young and the old. They greased up to these throat-clearing old geezers, made mysterious conversation with them, put on a show of being keen on their trade. The old geezers wore coats and scarves even in summer, and gave tips as they left. Gregory would watch the transaction out of the corner of his eye. One man giving another man money, a secret half-handshake with both pretending the exchange wasn't being made.
Boys didn't tip. Perhaps that was why barbers hated boys. They paid less and they didn't tip. They also didn't keep still. Or at least, their mothers told them to keep still, they kept still, but this didn't stop the barber bashing their heads with a palm as solid as the flat of a hatchet and muttering, "Keep still." There were stories of boys who'd had the tops of their ears sliced off because they hadn't kept still. Razors were called cut-throats. All barbers were loonies.
"Wolf cub, are we?" It took Gregory a while to realize that he was being addressed. Then he didn't know whether to keep his head down or look up in the mirror at the barber. Eventually he kept his head down and said, "No."
"Boy scout already?"
Gregory didn't know what that meant. He started to lift his head, but the barber rapped his crown with the comb. "Keep still, I said." Gregory was so scared of the loony that he was unable to answer, which the barber took as a negative. "Very fine organization, the Crusaders. You give it a thought."