For every one of us, there will come the day when we sit at life’s table only to find lemons on our platter; tastier morsels of our youth – love, the feeling of immortality, the presence of a future – mere memories on our tongue, stains on our teeth.
What each one chooses to do with those lemons – refuse to see them, chuck them away in disgust, suck on them resignedly, share them with others out of spite, or make margaritas – is the basis of Julian Barnes’ The Lemon Table. A collection of eleven stories that explores ageing with an impossible mix of humour, wisdom, pathos and realism. While the tales are peppered with the universal themes of this cruelest of human conditions – regret, denial, acceptance, defiance – no two are the same. How can they be, when no two people ever deal with growing old in the same way?
In the chilling ‘Bark’, a man sucks all the joy out of his remaining time, his only reason left to live being to outlive others. Once full of life, and greedy to feast on all it offered, all he does now is starve himself of every happiness in the vain hope that he will stay ahead in the race against time.
In the tragic-comic ‘Vigilance’ a man spends his later years prowling theaters and dispensing his own hilarious brand of vigilante justice on the boors that chatter, fidget or cough during performances – all in an attempt to block the guilt of his own “uncivilised” behaviour.
A haircut has often been used as a metaphor for change. But under Barnes’ pen it takes on a completely different form in the utterly brilliant ‘A Short History of Hairdressing’. Exploring every stage of a man’s life through the changes in the style of hairdressing salons over the ages. Each haircut and salon becomes a symbol of what he thinks of the world at different ages. From the fascination-mixed-with-exhilarating-fear of the child exploring a new, strange place. To the flippant been-there-done-that of the young adult. To, finally, the realisation of the old man that the world may be moving ahead, but he doesn’t really want to move with it.
The title of the book is explained to us in the final tale – to the Chinese, the lemon is a symbol of death, we learn. Yet, in spite of the subject matter, there is nothing morbid about this collection. Every story is a wonderful trip through Mr. Barnes’ droll wit, and gorgeous prose. Although, those familiar with the easy conversational style of Barnes’ Love Etc. and Talking it Over may find themselves a little lost at first in the seemingly heavy phrasing in a few of these tales, they will soon notice his trademarks floating around between the lines. Through the unusual, he talks to us about the everyday. And, within the few short pages of each tale, he manages to incorporate a wealth of human insight that other writers can’t manage in hundreds of pages. There may be a while before you’re sitting at life’s lemon table, but I would urge you to sit down with Julian Barnes’ The Lemon Table as soon as you can.
The Lemon Table story list: