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Wednesday, June 2nd, 2004


The Lemon Table

by Julian Barnes

Barnes at His Best

A review by Adrienne Miller

A French literary syphilitic. One messy little love triangle. A doctor's fixation with Flaubert. This is just a brief entry into the multivalent mind of Julian Barnes. In fourteen books of stunning range, the brilliant Englishman has become one of the very few writers you cannot afford not to read. His classic 1984 novel, Flaubert's Parrot, is as provocative and mischievous a literary sleight of hand as Nabokov's Nikolai Gogol. And last year we saw Barnes's delicate translation of In the Land of Pain, the journals of the 19th-century French novelist Alphonse Daudet, which Daudet wrote as he was dying from syphilis. You see what I mean about Barnes's famous range.

And now The Lemon Table. The past's influence over the present is a major theme in all of Barnes's work, and these stories are a strong case in point. They reveal how time changes people and how it changes love. A man still can't manage to say what he needs to say to the woman he loves in "The Story of Mats Israelson," even as he lies dying. In "Knowing French," a clever old woman begins a monumental correspondence with a novelist named Julian Barnes. And then this from an elderly composer who stands watching the sky for cranes in the closing story, "The Silence": "Today they did not come. There were only wild geese. Geese would be beautiful if cranes did not exist." These gracefully constructed stories are subtle, erudite, and wise; they elevate us because there are few such generous observers of humanity. In a word: The Lemon Table is Barnes at his profound, dexterous best.

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