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4.2 out of 5 stars
4.2 out of 5 stars

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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.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 3 November 2015
This is my first encounter with the author as short story writer, here with eleven stories sharing a common theme of aging, described mainly by aged characters.

Barnes’ skill is evident in the various ways that they express what lies ahead of us all. Barnes has an amazing ability and humanity to inhabit the minds of elderly characters and does not shy away from the realities of the aging process. There is generally an irony that prevents the tales becoming too desolate. Whilst the stories average less than twenty pages, they can encapsulate a lifetime.

The opening story, ‘A Short History of Hairdressing’, describes a character having three haircuts over a period of three decades or so – firstly as a terrified boy on his first trip alone to the barber’s, then as a rather smug youth and then as a somewhat disillusioned middle-aged man by Kelly, a stylist, in a smart salon. There is humour in the character’s reflections that brought back many memories.

The somber final story, ‘The Silence’, references the book’s title [‘I join the lemon table at the Kamp. Here it is permissible – indeed, obligatory – to talk about death. It is most companionable.’] and is narrated describes by the composer Sibelius, unable to compose but vehement in his attitudes and opinions – anti-Stravinsky, pro-Vaughan-Williams. Cranes [swans?] remind him of his earlier symphonic success. The world continues to ask, expectantly, about his Eighth Symphony but his compositions have dissolved into silence [‘I watched [the cranes] until my eyes blurred; I listened until I could hear nothing more, and silence resumed.’]. Another real character, Turgenev, appears in ‘The Revival’ as an old man remembering an unconsummated romance with an actress whilst a contemporary biographic voice inserts the kind of questions and commentary well known from 21st-century celebrity magazines.

‘Knowing French’ is in the form of letters from eighty-year-old Sylvia Winstanley to the author. Writing from a care home, ‘Old Folkery’, her wide-ranging exchanges of letters with ‘Dr Barnes’ present an articulate but slightly dotty character. After her death, we learn that Barnes’ responses have been lost through her habit of keeping them in the refrigerator.

In ‘The Things You Know’ two elderly women embellish their love for their dead husbands as they eat, with Barnes allowing the reader to know each husband’s real character through the insights of the other woman. Ex-army officer, Jacko Jackson excuses himself regularly to visit a lady friend ‘in town’ and peppers his narrative with dated army lingo. He combines his trips with seeking items on his wife’s shopping list and the end of this story, ‘Hygiene’, though unsurprising, is very tender and perceptive.

Markedly darker is ‘Vigilance’, about an aging gay concert-goer who is so fed up with the sniffing, unwrapping, coughing and even mutual fondling of other members of the audience that he takes matters into his own hands. Almost all readers will share his frustration and mounting rage.

In ‘The Story of Mats Israelson’, Barnes takes the reader to 18th-century Sweden and whilst the research is impressive I found the storyline about a relationship disrupted by convention, diffidence in recounting the eponymous story and, finally, death rather underwhelming.

Three marvelous stories are set on either side of the Channel. ‘Appetite’ gives an unflinching account of a carer’s experience of her dentist husband’s dementia and how his personality changes and fragmented memory, stimulated by her reading from recipe books, cut her to the bone but leave her hoping for a better day tomorrow. Here the man’s language hurts just as much as the loss of memory. ‘The Fruit Cage’ describes the effect on the narrator, a son, and others when an eighty-year old man leaves his wife for another woman. The marriage holds elements that remain in the shadows but the final pages are bleak and magnificent. Tfinally, the setting for ‘Bark’ is a small French town and concerns a ruthless old man, perhaps the strongest character in the book, who becomes increasingly neurotic in his resolve to be the last survivor in a joint-investment scheme.

The book, published in 2004, is dedicated to the author’s wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh who died just four years later.
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"Among the Chinese", it's revealed towards the end of the last story in this collection, "the lemon is the symbol of death", and the table of that name is in a cafe where people meet to talk about that all-consuming subject. But by the time you get to that point in this short book, you've already got a pretty good idea that this is what the book has been about. The characters are all growing old, on the foothills of "extinction's alp", and viewing their end with bitterness, or regret, or resignation. It can be hard to find anything original or memorable to say on this much-worked theme and, reading them one after another, I found that not all of these stories hit the mark, in spite of the usual excellence of Barnes' writing. I enjoyed "Vigilance" for its humour, and the way in which the unreliable narrator gradually reveals himself (similar to the protagonist in Barnes' Before She Met Me), and the wistful sadness within "The Story Of Mats Israelson" and "Hygiene", but I don't think the others will stay with me for long. Perhaps, as has been mentioned elsewhere, they worked better as separate pieces in their original settings; collected together, their common theme is somewhat overwhelming, and just a little too bitter.
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on 26 April 2010
In this collection of short stories, age, aging and departing are considered from different angles, centred on individuals of a certain, mature, age, healthy or coping with physical or mental illness, and set against a wide range of geographical and cultural backgrounds. Creating expressive mini-portraits of his characters and their "dearest and nearest", Julian Barnes explores the deep and sometimes conflicting emotions of regret and defiance, love and nostalgia, past and present happiness, new, rekindled or now only in the mind of the central figure. Exquisitely crafted, and most of them sprinkled with a good portion of irony and humour, the stories will capture the readers attention, and very likely, given their diversity, one or the other will speak especially strongly.

Among the eleven stories, three were my definite favourites. "The Story of Mats Indridason", set in a different era in a remote part of Sweden, touches on the long standing romantic feelings of two individuals who each were waiting for the other to declare themselves. Eventually, reality of will force a less than happy resolution. Another, also a very gentle story of long lasting love, is "Revival", set in Russia. It has all the ingredients of a deeply romantic Russian novel in miniature. "Vigilance" on the other hand is one of the highly ironic stories that captures a man who, after many years of sharing the pleasures of listening to live concerts with his partner, now has to be by himself. Annoyed, he becomes increasingly irritated by the distracting noise by others around him and reacts with force... Barnes captures the character and the atmosphere with great skill and a large dose of irony. The last story, "Silence" has a very different touch and stands apart for me. A composer (likely based on Sibelius) has stopped writing - seeing the ultimate aim of music to become silence. While being constantly pestered by his colleagues and admirers to complete his eighth symphony, he withdraws to watching the cranes fly by... This is a much more reflective, philosophical story that touches on aging in a much different way from most of the other stories.

Other than in two, the weakest stories in my estimation, the central characters are male and the women mostly play a supporting or nagging role (the wives) or are the object of desires past or have remained in the emotional present. Barnes lightens up the mood by adding ironic twists or the odd comeuppances to the psychological ups and downs he evokes in his aging characters, all affected with the symptoms of a nearing end.

And what about the title? According to one of the stories, a lemon represents death in Chinese and often a lemon was placed in the hand of a recently departed. [Friederike Knabe]
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 15 May 2007
This collection brings together eleven stories written over a span of roughly ten years, six of which were originally published in The New Yorker, and the remainder in venues such as Granta and the TLS. Originally titled "Rage and Age" (per the Dylan Thomas poem), the collection is thematically focused on aging and death and Barnes has said that the stories were intended to counter the notion that life calms down or gets serene in old age. While the collection certainly counters that myth, the thematic concentration results in a certain repetitiveness when the stories are read back to back.

The fairly forgettable "A Short History of Hairdressing" tells the story of a man's life through the framework of three visits to the barber, one as a child, one as a adult, and one as an old man. Set in 19th-century Sweden, "The Story of Mats Israelson" ponders the unconsummated love between a sawmill manager and the wife of the town pharmacist. As is so many period pieces, the two are locked into their social roles unable to express their feelings to each other, leading the a lifetime of yearning for what might have been. Thankfully, this ennui is dispelled in "The Things You Know," in which two widows meet for breakfast. Each is determined to sugarcoat their memories of married life, but each also knows certain nasty truths to the other's marriage, making the entire story very spiky and harsh.

In "Hygiene", a WWII veteran makes his way to London for the annual banquet of his old regiment. This affords him the chance for a yearly meeting with the same prostitute, a tryst which is his sole way of demonstrating his existence to himself. The Russian writer Ivan Turgenev is the protagonist of "The Revival", which reflects upon a brief period of happiness in his later years, spurred by his platonic love for an actress. "Vigilance" is easily the best story of the collection, dwelling on a middle-aged gay Londoner whose anger and frustration with his relationship is sublimated, only to emerge with venom at concert-goers who fail to be suitably quiet. It's both quite funny and sad at the same time. Much less successful is the French-set "Bark," which revolves around a scheme to finance the building of public baths by which twenty or so investors put up the initial funds, and the last living one inherits the proceeds.

"Knowing French" is built on a clever conceit, that an elderly woman reading her way through the library's fiction in alphabetical order, has come to Barnes' much lauded novel "Flaubert's Parrot." She then initiates a correspondence with him, of which we are only privy to her side. It's an effective evocation of the "problem" of elder homes, for which not all elderly people are suited. In "Appetite", a woman reads recipes to her Alzheimers-stricken husband, whose only responses are barks of indignation at vague recipe directions or lewd outbursts. "The Fruit Cage" tackles the confusion of a middle-aged man whose 80-year-old parents suddenly separate. The final story is, "The Silence", in which a fictional version of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius jots down fragmentary reflections on his life and career.

Ultimately, the stories are a clear warning to the reader that one's old age is not likely to be dominated by grandchildren and warm fires, but rather by nostalgia and brooding over mistakes of the past, words left unsaid, deeds left undone. In that sense, the stories are quiet affecting. However, they are perhaps best read one a month or so, as the same note tends to get struck -- albeit by very different characters in very different settings.
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This is a collection of 11 short stories published in 2004 by the English author, Julian Barnes. As he makes clear in his last story, the lemon is a symbol for death in China... and as the economic power of that country increasingly dominants the lives of those who live in the West... it is more than suitable that we should understand, and perhaps even adopt some of their symbols and metaphors (and as an increasing number of our youth are doing, learning the language won't hurt either.) The common theme throughout these stories is a view of life at the "end of the cycle." Barnes is now 65...er, ah, an appropriate age for summations; wistful backward glances at what might have been; and how to play the last few hands. Though there is a common theme, there is also a truly astonishing variety and range to these stories: one is set in 19th century Russia, also in the same century, another is set in Sweden. Sometimes they involve famous people, like Turgenev, and thanks to another reviewer, I now know that another concerns the composer, Jean Sibelius. But most involve people like you and me... those that have reached a certain age, reminisce, and/or stay focused on how many more hands will be dealt.

I don't know how "holy" they are, but I was also astonished that a trinity of fellow Amazon reviewers of serious books, Freiderike Knabe, Harold Schneider and Roger Bruyante have all reviewed this book - back-to-back - so the real challenge is: Is there anything new to say? First, of the three, I found myself most in agreement with Bruyante: "Barnes range of emotion is as great as his range of style." I didn't find a single weak story; so, it is a matter of individual "hot buttons" that were pushed that will determine which ones are long remembered; and there will be several.

"The Things You Know" is my favorite. Barnes paints this wonderful portrait of two widows who routinely get together for tea. One is most particular about how her tea should be served. Both project positive images of their former spouses, but, in terms of the "things you know," each knows some devastatingly negative aspects of the other spouse's lives, which they sum up, only to themselves, in the roughest "locker room" language. A brilliant contrast with the tea ceremony. "Vigilance" has a laugh out loud quality to it - which I did on several occasions. It concerns the coughers and noise makers at concerts, and how they should be dealt with. As the author states: "As I say, it was a normal audience. Eighty per cent on day release from the city's hospitals, with pulmonary wards and ear-nose-and-throat departments getting ticket priority." Also, as a bike rider, there was a good passage about how to deal with cars that cut you off. "Knowing French" is also excellent. It concerns the only "sane" person in an "old folk's home," and is done in the format of letters that she writes to the author. And how many people have been in this situation: they are middle-aged, stable, have their own family concerns, and are confronted with their parents "getting really eccentric, to going crazy" in their old age? Affairs for 80 year olds; one parent abusing the other? And so the child must become the parent to the parents. Such are the themes in the aptly named "Fruit Cage." Barnes also managed to bring back a flood of long forgotten memories of when I was a child and went to the barber shop; the routine that the barbers used with their not ideal clients: kids. It is all in "A Short History of Hairdressing."

It's been an accidental discovery of recent vintage: how many real excellent short stories there are; written by Alice Munro, Richard Ford, and now I also include Julian Barnes, in what should be a most "holy" trinity. 5-stars plus.
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on 21 May 2010
Barnes is a great stylist but there is also substance. Playing with his usual themes of aging, regret and death Barnes looks at them from different perspectives. He draws, with his usual humour, pictures of what it is to be human and to live. Using the palette of human experiences Barnes colours these pictures with different shades of grey. Sometimes wistful, sometimes bitter, these stories are always reflective even when playfully ironic. The odd thing is that at the end I couldn't recall exactly all the different stories but the themes stayed with me for a while. Perhaps I shouldn't have read the whole book in an evening. The one story that has stuck is "The Story of Mats Israelson", where two people pine for one another over drawn out years. This is a heartfelt recommendation.
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on 3 December 2006
This is an exceptional collection of stories...they all recount different aspect sof ageing... and none better than the opener which tells of three visits to the hairdressers'. It documents the same man visiting firstly as a child, then as a young man and then as an OAP. The little microcosm of the barber's chair tells his story and also the story of a social change. Brilliant. Barnes is at his prime.
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on 24 December 2014
This is a collection of eleven short stories, all of which focus on the ageing process. As with many short story collections, I thought that the quality of the individual stories varied. Perhaps ironically, the two that appealed to me the most did so for reasons that had nothing to do with ageing per se. `The story of Mats Israelson', set in nineteenth century Sweden, is about a man and a woman who are both in unfulfilling marriages; they are attracted to one another but each misunderstands the other's signals, so that they remain unhappily apart. `The things you know', set in contemporary America, is about two widows, each of whom talks at (rather than converses with) the other about her dead husband. Each also has private information about the other's husband which suggests that he was not the paragon of virtue that his widow claims. Whilst I enjoyed both these stories I felt that the miscommunications that they describe are part of life in general rather than specific to the ageing process.

Those stories that are more specifically about ageing are generally quite sombre in tone. For example, `Appetite' has a wife trying to entertain her husband, an Alzheimer's sufferer, by reading recipes aloud to him; he responds with a mix of meaningless and vulgarly offensive comments. In `The fruit cage' a middle-aged man is faced with his octogenarian parents splitting up because his father wants to go and live with a widow in her sixties. Two of the stories are semi-biographical: `The revival' is about Turgenev and `The silence' is about Sibelius. I couldn't quite see the point of either of these latter stories. I know little about Turgenev; conversely, I know a lot about Sibelius and his music; but I couldn't see much purpose to either story, regardless of whether or not one is interested in or knowledgeable about either Turgenev or Sibelius.

As it happens I have recently read John Updike's `My father's tears' which is likewise a collection of short stories about ageing. Compared with Updike, Barnes writes about relatively eccentric people behaving in relatively surprising ways (e.g. the elderly man in `Vigilance' who dedicates himself to stopping people from making noises during concert performances). By contrast, Updike deals with more easily recognisable situations and character types. Which you prefer is of course a matter of individual taste. Maybe Barnes has more imagination; alternatively, maybe Updike better captures, and has more insight about, the mundane realities of life. There is room for both, and I would encourage people who liked The Lemon Table to sample Updike's collection as well. If I had to choose I would opt for Updike: for all Barnes's wit and intelligence, I felt that in parts of this volume I was reading about characters and situations that crossed to the wrong side of the delicate boundary between imaginative story-telling and silliness.
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"And no one, having drunk old wine, immediately desires new; for he says, 'The old is better.'" -- Luke 5:39

So what's it like to be over sixty? This collection of stories captures more elements of that experience than any other that I've read. Perhaps because Julian Barnes was aged around that threshold, he can appreciate and capture the experience better than most. It's a labor of love for him. Reading the stories will be a joy for you.

The book opens with "A Short History of Hairdressing" that records the experiences of and reactions to being shorn over a lifetime. There's a self-mocking irony to it that will tickle you.

"The Story of Mats Israelson" beautifully captures the regrets and lost opportunities of failing to communicate what's in your heart.

"The Things You Know" delicately displays the contradictory elements that make for a good friendship . . . based on a self-justifying sense of superiority.

"Hygiene" is a painful search for emotional intimacy in a barren landscape.

"The Revival" explores the relationship between those of different generations from the perspective of the older.

"Vigilance" plays out the suppressed rage that many music fans have felt at those who make too much noise at concerts.

"Bark" is a stunning story of shifting obsessions . . . and how they control us.

"Knowing French" is a marvelous series of letters between a fan and the author.

"Appetite" brings new meaning to the term "food fantasies."

"The Fruit Cage" does an amazing job of exploring the subtleties of perception and self-justification.

"The Silence" explains life from a composer's perspective near the final rest.

The quality of the stories is uniformly high. I recommend them all. Enjoy!
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