If Julian Barnes' collection of stories has a theme it is 'rage in age'. Among the Chinese the lemon is the symbol of death. At the 'lemon table' (a coinage of Sibelius, protagonist of the final story) it is permissible - indeed obligatory - to talk about death, and each of Barnes' characters is facing death.
If Julian Barnes' new collection of stories has a theme it is 'rage in age'. Among the Chinese the lemon is the symbol of death. At the 'lemon table' (a coinage of Sibelius, protagonist of the final story) it is permissible - indeed obligatory - to talk about death, and each of Barnes' characters is facing death, but each in a very different way. The settings range from eighteenth-century Sweden and nineteenth-century Russia to the 'Barnet Shop', a hairdressing salon where an old man measures out his life in haircuts, or a South Bank concert hall where a music lover carries out an obsessive campaign against those who cough in concerts. In 'Knowing the French' an eighty-four-year old woman, a former teacher 'incarcerated' in an old people's home, begins a correspondence with an author - 'Dear Dr Barnes' - that enriches both their lives. In 'Hygiene' an old soldier makes his regular trips to town to do errands for his wife - stilton from Paxton's. rubber rings for Kilner jars, Elizabeth Arden powder - and to spend the afternoon with a tart balled Babs. These stories are wise, funny, clever and moving.
Julian Barnes is the author of eight novels, including Metroland, Flaubert's Parrot, A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, England, England and Love Etc., and a collection of short stories, Cross Channel.
A new collection of stories by one of the masters of the form
The characters in Julian Barnes's second collection of short stories are coming towards the end of their lives. But the onset of old age and infirmity does not mean this is a downbeat selection. There is all the sharp observation and acerbic wit here that we have come to expect from Barnes in his previous short stories and in his novels such as A History of the World In 10 Chapters. Many of the 11 stories are deliberately misleading - you think they are going to be about one thing and then they turn out to be about another. Each powerfully-drawn personality has to cope with anger, but they do it in very different ways. There is the music lover who wages an obsessive campaign against people who cough during concerts, and the 84year-old who feels herself to be a prisoner in an old people's home but who finds a new freedom by corresponding with an author. Good short stories are notoriously difficult to write but Barnes shows himself here to be a master of the form. (Kirkus UK)
Eleven old-fashioned stories that take their time but are riveting, muscular, and real. The ever-capable Barnes (Love, Etc., 2001; the nonfiction Something to Declare, 2002, etc., etc.) is able to write knowingly on an extraordinary range of subjects-from, say, an aristocratic tale of 19th-century French stoicism and sexuality ("Bark") to the story of a married British military pensioner who falls in love-depending on how you define that-with the London prostitute he sees once a year ("Hygiene"). The approaching death of a great modern composer-on personal terms with Stravinsky and Ralph Vaughn Williams-is every bit as incisive, observant, and moving in its way ("The Silence") as is the tale of long-ago Sweden and a 23-year love affair that goes unconsummated, unrecognized, and, in the end, pathetically misunderstood ("The Story of Mats Israelson"). Stories that might be merely topical or trendy in lesser hands bear real fruit in Barnes's, as witness "Appetite," a tale about the ravages of Alzheimer's that never comes even close to the dread magazine-article tone that so often haunts and diminishes such efforts; or "The Fruit Cage," the genuinely compelling story of an aging woman (her grown son narrates) who may indeed actually be a physical abuser of her husband. Even prospectively lesser material can grow authoritative and large with Barnes's treatment-like his look at hair-cutting then and now ("A Short History of Hairdressing"), or his one-act-playlike portrayal of two widows, each thinking she has the goods on the other ("The Things You Know"). Most moving of all may be "Knowing French," made up of letters written by an octogenarian to "Mr. Novelist Barnes." The writer is living in an old folks' home (an "Old Folkery"), but she demonstrates such brio, pizzazz, introspection, and natural learnedness-all as she's about to die-that no reader can help but love her. Fine stories, well rounded and grounded. Six of the eleven have appeared in The New Yorker. (Kirkus Reviews)