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The New Republic Online
Thursday, September 16th, 2004


 

The Lemon Table

by Julian Barnes

I Beg Your Pardon

A review by Ruth Franklin

The writer at work, a personification of all our myths of creation, occupies a special place in the public imagination. We have those legends whose typewriters emit words in steady streams, knocking back their daily requirements each morning like multivitamins before heading off to lunch at the club. Their opposites, the beneficiaries of intermittent but ecstatic visits from the muse, appeal to the romantics who believe that in every garret hides a poet. And a third type, who struggles painstakingly over every sentence, every word even, is rewarded with a special kind of awe: he embodies both the joy of inspiration and the diligence of perfectionism. Flaubert is the model to whose specifications this stereotype was built: the classic image is of him contemplating le mot juste at his table, the pages of the manuscript that would become Madame Bovary stacked neatly at his side, growing at the painful rate of just five hundred words a week, over a total of four and a half years.

The creative model that Flaubert epitomized, the writer who whittles each well-formed line into its Platonic ideal, has lately lost its sheen: these days, writers would rather be called stylish than stylists. But Flaubert's influence healthily survives, primarily among such old-fashioned British neo-realists as Penelope Fitzgerald or Graham Swift, both writers of novels as compact and shapely as a teardrop. Their compatriot Julian Barnes may be the most prominent Flaubertian of the day, having staked his affiliation explicitly twenty years ago in the amorphous prose fiction Flaubert's Parrot. Not quite a novel, not quite criticism, this book established his reputation as one of the most gifted contemporary shapers of prose, possessed of a remarkable limberness of form and voice, and an unconstrained literary imagination.

Barnes's output over the last two decades has not disappointed in either its quantity or its innovativeness. His thirteen novels include two (Talking It Over and Love, etc.) that are written entirely in dialogue, and another that purports to tell the "history of the world" through a series of vignettes that include the story of Noah's ark as seen by a stowaway worm. Barnes accomplishes much of this delightfully; he can be counted on for a pleasurable romp. He has published three crime novels under a pseudonym; he has made forays into essays, translation, and the short story; and his exquisitely genteel voice inhabits a dizzying variety of personas. The narrators of The Lemon Table, his second collection of stories, range from the collective voice of a nineteenth-century Swedish town to a gay middle-aged London symphony patron.

Yet novelty inevitably wears off, and once it does one wonders whether Barnes's inventions are not the fruits of creative necessity but the by-products of a show-off's fondness for turning new tricks. Behind their dazzle, his books show evidence of a short attention span: Flaubert's Parrot is an irresolute hodgepodge of lists and genre parodies; the dueling narrators of Talking It Over and Love, etc. have a way of slipping out every time the conversation takes an interesting turn. No matter how much care he may take with his prose, Barnes really does not parrot Flaubert at all: he substitutes literary games for interiority. His entertaining characters can stay up all night talking, but one rarely has the sense that they actually feel. His fiction, as tightly constructed as a soundproof box, provides just as little access to the deeper questions within.

This is a particular problem in The Lemon Table, which takes as its main preoccupation the uncomfortable intermingling of sex and old age -- love and death, in other words, and what could be more crucial than that? But the proximity to gravitas serves only to pinpoint Barnes's inadequacies as a fiction writer. He dreams up some nicely unconventional figures and puts them in provocative scenarios, but he fails to discover any emotion richer than a condescending pathos.

"A Short History of Hairdressing," the first story in the volume, is a typical Barnes trick: a man's life, told via three haircuts. In Part One, Gregory is a child, nervous to be visiting the barber by himself for the first time. Next, he is a college student, long-haired and stubbly, who has just been dumped by his girlfriend. Finally, he is middle-aged: he and the girlfriend evidently reconciled, as they have been married now for twenty-eight years, with two children. The haircut that started out costing one and threepence has inflated to twenty pounds, including tips. And the boy who looked upon the barber as "torturer in chief" has grown into a man adept at casual banter with his regular stylist: "It had only taken him about twenty-five years to get the right tone."

"Marriage is the only adventure open to the cowardly," Gregory had opined (quoting Voltaire) to the hairdresser in the middle segment. By the end, he has "stopped being afraid of religion and barbers"; he knows how to handle himself in the salon, even bringing an extra pound coin along "just in case they put the price up." But love still discomfits him. Barnes belabors the association between sex and haircutting -- Gregory's girlfriend (now wife) used to perform oral sex on him after cutting his hair -- but the connection is valid nonetheless: the awkward intimacy and vulnerability, the mind left idle to daydream or fantasize. "It had all seemed quite clear and bold, back then, when he stood up in the bath and Allie took his cock in her mouth. All that stuff had been self-evident, and imperative in its truth. Now he wondered if he hadn't always got it wrong." There is nothing bold about Gregory any longer. His great triumph at this point is refusing, when presented with the mirror, to inspect the back of his head. The hairstylist always forgets, but that doesn't matter: "In fact, it was better, since it meant that his timid victory was repeated every time." He has become what he dreaded, and he no longer has the energy to care. Aging, in this volume, is inevitably accompanied by a kind of defeat.

"Were you as young as you felt, or as old as you looked? That was the great question nowadays," or so it seems to Major Jacko in "Hygiene." He is a retired, married military man who has made a habit, during his annual visits to London for a regimental dinner, of spending the afternoon with a lady named Babs. The two have been meeting now for more than twenty years -- he no longer remembers the exact number, though he used to mark their anniversaries with gifts. On the train journey there, he reminisces affectionately about their first time together (they had sex three times in an afternoon) and their ritual of sharing a bottle of champagne at each visit (although now it is a half-bottle, and they don't usually finish even that, since she has developed heartburn). "Mostly they talked. Sometimes they slept."

The major's memories are both so fond and so tame that it comes as a shock to discover that Babs is a prostitute. When he knocks on the door of her house, another woman answers -- "a tart," he thinks -- and he learns that Babs has died. Confused, he tries to go through the motions anyway, but is overcome by emotion.

Do you still want what you've come for? Oh yes, he still wanted what he'd come for, but that wasn't anything she could possibly know about. He and Babs hadn't done it for, what, five, six years? The last year or two they'd barely even sipped the champagne. He liked her to put on that mumsie nightie he was always teasing her about, climb into bed with him, turn out the light and talk about the old days. How it used to be.... You were a tiger in those days, Jacko. Quite wore me out. Used to take the next day off. You didn't. Oh yes I did. Well I never.

Barnes's superb control of language is both the excuse and the impetus for this story. More than twenty years after his retirement, the major still conducts his interior monologue in army jargon: "Each year there was something she remembered at D-Day minus thirty seconds," he glowers of his wife's tendency to load him with errands at the last moment. "Principles of Concealment, section 5b, para 12: the enemy is seldom likely to spot anything placed directly in front of his face" is his rationalization for writing to Babs via postcard rather than a letter tucked discreetly in an envelope. The interplay of voices is especially lovely in the passage above, which trails off into the clichés of pillow talk, "You didn't. Oh yes I did. Well I never": empty banter, yet when Babs's voice suddenly announces itself, breaking through the major's thoughts, she becomes suddenly, powerfully present in a way that reinforces Jacko's deep sadness at her death.

Barnes has always been infatuated with dialogue, as Talking It Over and Love, etc. demonstrated, and he uses the human voice to great effect elsewhere in this collection as well. "The Things You Know," a little piece about two elderly widows who meet for breakfast once a month, could be unbearably dull but is livened by the women's savage asides about each other's clothes, habits, and late husbands. (Barnes has the rare knack of drawing characters who are just annoying enough to be amusing.) "Knowing French" is another token of Barnesian whimsy: it consists entirely of letters written to a writer named "Julian Barnes" from an elderly fan confined to an "Old Folkery." Though the conceit is stilted and all is wrapped up a bit too cutely at the end, here again Barnes pulls off the impressive feat of constructing an entire character out of very limited materials.

Still, expert stylist though he may be, Barnes occasionally loses control of his voices, and the results are jarring. In one story, called "Appetite," a man's Alzheimer's disease manifests itself in the profanity that suddenly, shockingly infiltrates his language. "He said, 'Suck my cock,'" his wife reports. "I said, 'I beg your pardon.'" Barnes's own language is invaded by similarly incongruous vulgarisms. Take, for instance, Gregory's fantasies in the first story: "It had all seemed clear and bold, back then, when he stood up in the bath and Allie took his cock in her mouth." There is no internal reason, narrative or linguistic, for the word "cock" here, nothing in the story to suggest that Gregory would naturally use it. Or this intrusion by the nameless narrator of "The Revival," which charts a romance between Turgenev and a much younger actress who stars in one of his plays. "Our knowing age rebukes its predecessor for its platitudes and evasions.... Love isn't a bonfire, for God's sake, it's a hard cock and a wet cunt, we growl at these swooning, renouncing people." Barnes seems to intend this earthiness as a moment of hyperrealism, a sharp jab to the complacent reader, but in these genteel surroundings it just feels ugly and out of place.

Barnes is not simply taking a schoolboy's delight in gratuitous profanity, even though it sometimes sounds like he is. At one point he seems gently to mock his own tendency to go overboard: "'Before She Met Me' [an early Barnes novel] has been taken out [of the library] eleven times since January, you will be fascinated to know, and one reader has heavily scored through the word 'fuck' whenever it occurs. However, he has condescended to read it all the way to the last 'fuck' on p.178," the elderly lady informs her correspondent in "Knowing French." But when a writer who is otherwise as discreet as Barnes makes such lapses over and over, the nervous tic has to be seen as symptomatic of a more serious ailment.

Barnes has always been obsessed with the mechanics of sex: the frequency, the positions, the kinks. (His work includes an inordinate number of characters who pay for sex.) And in this book sex among the elderly becomes another variation on the theme, another perversion, and one that is inherently pitiable, since the mechanisms are often out of order. It is Major Jacko, fumbling with his condom as Babs's replacement smirks, or the grotesque Alzheimer's sufferer in "Appetite," who leers to his wife over a photograph of her younger self, "I'd like to do her tits." We may be embarrassed on behalf of these characters, but they cannot speak to us in a deeper way.

When sex is removed from the equation altogether, leaving Barnes unable to make his characters at least go through the motions, he has no idea what to do with them. This is the problem in the most peculiar story in the volume, the curiously stilted "The Story of Mats Israelson," which tells of an unconsummated love affair between two married people. It takes place in Sweden in 1898, but the atmosphere is so cold and remote that it could just as well be 1598. Anders Boden, a sawmill manager, meets his neighbor Barbro Lindwall every week on the boat up the lake, and a connection develops between them: he talks to her about whatever comes into his head, and she simply listens. Soon gossip spreads around the town and back to Mrs. Boden, who angrily confronts her husband and unwittingly helps him decide to consummate the relationship. But the next day Barbro Lindwall fails to show up; he soon learns that she is pregnant, and after that he meets her only in town, she with her husband, he with his wife.

The story takes its title from a local legend that Anders Boden recounts to Barbro Lindwall on the boat, the story of a man whose body fell into a copper mine and was discovered, perfectly preserved, forty-nine years later, identified by an old woman who had been his betrothed when he disappeared. And that, Anders Boden decides, is how he will live from now on.

A door opens, and then closes before you have time to walk through it.... But if so, and his life, from now on, would never change, then, he realized, neither would he. He would remain frozen, preserved, at this moment -- no, at the moment which nearly happened, which could have happened, last week. There was nothing in the world, nothing wife, nor church, nor society could do, to prevent him from deciding that his heart would never move again.

In this, the book's only vision of unequivocally platonic love, it becomes a force that freezes rather than liberates, as cold and fixed as death itself. "Why make the assumption that the heart shuts down alongside the genitals?" asks the narrator of "The Fruit Cage" (perhaps the best story in the collection until it derails violently toward the end), having learned that his eighty-year-old father is leaving his mother for another woman. But why not make that assumption when we are never allowed to see them working in tandem? Sex in Barnes is all loins, no fire.

Strangely, the only moment of sensuality in this sex-obsessed collection appears in the same story, but it has nothing to do with sex at all:

Childhood comes back in smells. Porridge, custard, my father's pipe; washing powder, Brasso, my mother's scent before the Masonic dinner-dance; bacon through the floorboards as I lay in bed; Seville oranges boiling volcanically while there was still frost on the ground outside; drying mud entwined with grass on football boots.... All these smells recurred, as did the unchanging cycles of school, weather, garden-growth, and domesticity. The first scarlet break of runner-bean flowers; folded vests in my bottom drawer; mothballs; the gas-poker. On Mondays the house would throb to our washing-machine, which used to crab itself berserkly across the kitchen floor, howling and bucking, before sending, at deranged intervals, gallons of hot grey water along its fat beige tubes to spit and gush into the sink. The manufacturer's name on its metal badge was Thor. The god of thunder sits and growls in the outer reaches of suburbia.

The language here is simple and lovely, at first no more than a list of nouns, then gradually expanding into sounds, textures, feelings: one sees the cracks in the hardwood floor and the child under his quilts, hears the noise of the madly boiling oranges, feels the warmth of the vests -- all the comforts of domesticity that are gradually dismantled by the son's knowledge of his father's affair and of deeper troubles between his parents that he had not known. Even the final veer into preciosity is forgivable, because it is consonant with the character's own voice. But coming at the end of this cacophonous book, the passage feels like just another mode that Barnes is trying out, another voice in his ventriloquist's arsenal. It is, in short, the work of a genuine stylist.


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