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Nobody under the age of fifty should read this
on 29 March 2017
There is a problem with certain kinds of literature. The plays of Shakespeare, with the possible exception of "Romeo and Juliet", are far too often rammed down the throats of teenagers in schools, resulting in a lifelong aversion to any of his works. Why? Because young minds are simply not receptive to the ideas that Shakespeare explores, nor do they have the experience of life itself to relate to the complexities of plots and characterisation.
This review carries a health warning in the headline for the very same reason. Julian Barnes, one of the greatest of our living novelists, has put together a collection of short stories which are all linked by the theme of ageing and the increasing awareness of our own impending mortality. They are not all at the same level of inspiration but they each reveal marvels of characterisation and insights into human nature; anybody in their fifties, sixties and beyond that will recognise those character traits, those human failings, those stirrings of passion still left in dying embers and those iniquities of human existence that sum up so succinctly what being an elderly male or female is all about.
What Barnes does, he achieves with an economy of language and an irony that make these stories a delight to read. In the second story, set in Sweden at the end of the nineteenth century, he takes the image of an architectural feature in front of a village church (to which he neatly returns right at the end) as a lead-in for a tale of unrequited love, made the more poignant because the two leading characters, taciturn as Swedes often are, are held back by the mores of their age, their own misunderstandings and moral cowardice. In between he describes another figure in one of the remarkable phrases that distinguish his writing - ".....succumbed to akvavit, frivolity and atheism" - gives us one of many insights into the human condition - "a greater pain drives out a lesser one" - and presents in a simple sentence the dilemma of the leading female character - "......the desolation of her life, divided between not loving a man who deserved it, and loving one who did not." There are few contemporary writers who can lay bare the pain and sadness of human existence as precisely as Barnes can.
His powers of observation and ability to recreate authentic dialogue stand out in the third story, in which two elderly ladies dependent on each other for a kind of friendship spend all their time engaging in one-upmanship and malevolent deceit. Above all, he understands what hormones, and the lack of them, do to one's sex drive, not least in the ironically named "Hygiene". The elderly army officer, who once a year deceives his wife about his intentions in travelling up to London, is beautifully mirrored in the next generation up, a middle-aged man seated opposite in the train who uses his mobile to deceive his wife about his whereabouts and expected time home. Like father, like son, one is tempted to say: human behaviour repeats itself over and over again.
The range of Barnes' fictive imagination includes the rage of one concertgoer incensed at the antisocial disregard by others for his own enjoyment; the hilarious epistolomania demonstrated by one of the author's admirers, herself in increasing stages of dementia; the coprolalia (yes, I had to find a name for this activity) displayed by another more serious dementia sufferer; and the sexual passion of the aged Russian dramatist Turgenev for a woman who could have been his own daughter. Those who are familiar with the life of the composer Jean Sibelius will recognise all the references he weaves into the final story, "The Silence", where the origin of the title of this short story collection is revealed. And, as so often, Barnes provides food for thought in "The Fruit Cage": "Why make the assumption that the heart shuts down alongside the genitals?" This is a chilling story in so many respects, with its implication of domestic violence (in this case what the wife does to the husband), and the inability of one son to come to terms with his elderly parents' disintegrating marriage.
These stories are not intended to be a quick read and will not unlock their secrets easily, but they repay hugely.