Julian Barnes, The Lemon Table

  • By carleta
  • On Friday, 05 september 2014

Julian Barnes, The Lemon Table – Vintage International, May 2005 ISBN: 1400076501 (ISBN13: 9781400076505

Read from August 26th to September 4th 2014

My rating : 4/5 stars


The Table of Silence


The Brancusian table with twelve seats, eleven of them duly occupied by eleven characters, each of them waiting to take his lemon. The twelfth is forever empty for is forever reserved to the lemons’ distributor – Death. But before leaving with the yellow fruit in hand, each occupant has to tell his story, has to make sense of his life and to acknowledge his place in the world.

So maybe Julian Barnes’s Lemon Table is not about old age and death after all, just as Brancusi’s  sculpture is not about waiting. But both are surely about the power of art to give sense of the human feelings, of human existence. Like Anders Bodén, the hero of the brilliant Story of Mats Israelson, who, for more than twenty years polishes an old story as a gift for the woman he has loved, thus rising not only the narrative but also his own feelings above the oblivion:

…he worked at the story until he had it in a form that would please her: simple, hard, true.

In fact, the main theme of the book is love, be it creative or procreative. For the retired major Jacko Jackson, who has visited his mistress Babs once a year for twenty-three years, love is a means to escape the dullness of the quotidian: “She was – what was that phrase they used nowadays? – his window of opportunity” (Hygiene) For the 81-year-old man who leaves his wife to settle with his mistress of 65, love is his mutiny against decrepitude but also against the preconception that old means already dead or waiting for dying (The Fruit Cage). Reading, even cooking recipes, is love that slows the falling into Alzheimer nothingness of the beloved one (Appetite).

And then there is love as a source of creation. In the last story, The Silence, an old, drunken and apparently embittered Sibelius is evoked, whose love for music cannot be turned into creation anymore, but who is well aware that it is this love that defines him:

'Certainly, I am neurotic and frequently unhappy, but that is largely the consequence of being an artist rather than the cause.'

Finally, the two kinds of Eros are harmonized in The Revival, the story of the 65 year-old Turgenev’s last love for an actress of 25. A bittersweet love which “move il sole e l’altre stele” precisely because it is unfulfilled:

Like most of his life’s writing, the paly was concerned with love. And as in his life, so in his writing, love did not work. Love might or might not provoke kindness, gratify vanity, and clear the skin, but it did not lead to happiness, there was always an inequality of feelings or intention present. Such was love’s nature.

Each of the eleven stories in the volume is about love in one sense or another. In each one of them, love is sought to escape time.

Each stool around Brancusi’s table has the form of an hourglass. However, there is no sand dripping the time. The occupants are gone; their voices are but vague memories, their individuality already forgotten. But the seats are there, frozen into eternity. They will continue to speak about love, and suffering, and human imperfections and of death as not the end of all things as long as someone will listen to them. Like Barnes’s book does. 

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