My bookish love affair with Julian Barnes continues, and I thoroughly enjoyed his short story collection, The Lemon Table. It's funny, a lot of the criticisms that I leveled against Sarah Selecky's work -- mainly its use of the second person, a story in epistolary format, and general the "twee-ness" of much of the stories -- can be set against this collection as well. Barnes uses the second person, which normally makes me crazy; he has a story that's all letters from a kooky old lady to himself, wherein the self-referential nature of it all would usually enrage me; and the last piece could be described as microfiction with no "real" plot per se but a selection of descriptions that come together to tell the tale of an egotistical composer. All of the above normally have me throwing the book against the wall and giving up in exasperation. But gracious, these stories are excellent.
The last story, "The Silence" tells me that lemons are a symbol of death in Chinese culture -- I'm not sure how reliable the narrator is in this last piece, so I am not going to take that verbatim. But it does give the reader and understanding of the general theme that pervades the entire collection. Musings on the ends of lives, on divorce, on death, on widows and the children left behind, on relationships that could have been but never were -- and I imagined 'table' more of tableau -- of that terrible acting exercise where your teacher yells "hold" and everyone freezes in whatever position they landed upon.
It's a terrific collection, cohesive even though none of the stories are linked; rich in language and metaphor; paced brilliantly and truly honest in its interpretation of the human condition. In a way, these stories reminded me of Alice Munro, only there's a little bit more sex and bad language, especially in "Appetite," which like her story, "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," deals with the tragic and debilitating affects of Alzheimer's. Both Barnes and Munro have a distinct talent when it comes to creating characters and situations that highlight the slightly awkward and sometimes terrible aspects of human nature. In this, the stories feel real, they feel relevant, and they feel complete, but not overwritten.
On the whole, I can't get over the immense breadth of Barnes's talent for creating characters that cross decades, even centuries, are so wholly different in voice, and are so utterly believable (even when he writes from a woman's perspective). In the epistolary story, entitled, "Knowing French," a spunky pensioner sends the author Julian Barnes a number of letters, each progressively more familiar, with little gems of humour and slices of life: "What I was trying to say about Daphne [a fellow "inmate" at her home] is that she was always someone who looked forward, almost never back. This probably seems not much of a feat to you, but I promise it gets harder."
And then, in an amazing story about misguided and unrequited love, "The Story of Mats Israelson," he writes, "Barbro Lindwall was not convinced of her feelings for Anders Boden until she recognized that she would now spend the rest of her life with her husband."
And then my last favourite line from the book, it's from the last story, the microfiction-like one about the egocentric, aging, and silent-for-years composer: "Geese would be beautiful if cranes didn't exist."
I can't stop. I earmarked a half-dozen, maybe more, pages, and kept putting the book down on my chest just to savour particular passages. In "The Things You Know," two elderly widows sit down for a terribly polite breakfast once a month and what comes out of their mouths is completely different from the thoughts in their heads: the resentment towards one another only palpable as a fork stabs an egg or a waiter brings hot water instead of a purely fresh pot of tea -- it was actually one of my favourites among an already rich collection.
Overall, now I think I want to read every single book Julian Barnes has ever written. It'll be a challenge to find books this good on my shelves as I continue through them. Thankfully, I've got a few books from publishers to get through before I get back to my challenge. I need a bit of a break from the pressure of the 300-odd titles staring at me day after day from my desk chair.