John Freeman
3 min read
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“I lie awake,” quips a character in Julian Barnes' new story collection, The Lemon Table, “and think of the advantages of dying. Not that we are given a choice. Well, yes, there is self-slaughter, but that has always struck me as vulgar and self-important, like people who talk of the theatre.”

Like many other protagonists in The Lemon Table, the woman speaking here approaches aging with a mixture of bathos and gallows humor. She jokes about the unreliability of a man's member and the ubiquity of short hair on older women. Beneath all her nasty humor, however, comes a hoary cry—a scream of the sort Edvard Munch depicted in his famous painting.

Getting old, she reveals, is scary as hell.

This underlying message makes The Lemon Table a kind of geriatric Postcards from the Edge—in which one character after another tiptoes to the brink of life's hoary maw and then backs swiftly away. In “Hygiene,” a retired military man discovers the prostitute he visited all these years on the side has died. Suddenly, he has to face the fact that so too will he one day. “He had liked her to put on that mumsie nightie, climb into bed with him, turn out the light and talk about the old days. How it used to be.”

Memory is both a solace and scourge for Barnes' narrators, though, since every recollection of the good old days conjures a bevy of regrets about what could have been. It is an acidic backwash, but Barnes gives it an extra spike by showing how impossible it is to rewrite one's own history. In “The Things You Know,” two widowers talk around the gossip they knew about one another's late husbands. One woman's husband was known around campus as a closeted gay; the other woman's man was referred to as The Groper.

This could be treacle territory, but Barnes dispatches sentimentality with chilly aplomb. As in his previous fiction, from Flaubert's Parrot to the Booker finalist, England, England, the heroes and heroines of The Lemon Table embrace their sexual appetites and are pragmatic about love. Looking back on a youthful romance, the narrator of “A Short History of Hairdressing” recalls a misstep he would never make again. “I love you,” he recalls telling his girlfriend with “sudden desperation. It was the first time he'd said it to anyone, and he knew he'd got it wrong. You were meant to say it when you felt strong, not weak.”

The Lemon Table is packed with vinegary emotional bromides such as this—and not all of them have to do with getting older. Like John Updike, whose lubricious view of the sexes he shares, Barnes can telescope the whole world through a single lens. In this bitter but beautiful little book, he has chosen the prism of aging. Sadly but inevitably, he reveals that—unlike Alice in Wonderland—once we pass through maturity's looking glass it is impossible to come back.

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