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A friend passed on to me The Lemon Table, a collection of short stories by Julian Barnes (Vintage,2014). The half-title page asserts the usual qualification for writing a worthwhile short story – ‘Julian Barnes is the author of eleven novels.’ My heart always sinks at this, not simply because I expect novelists to be a bit shaky when it comes to the older genre – they often aren’t – but because it reinforces that second class stereotype which the short story still suffers from.

There’s some fine writing here, as one would expect, and some powerful ideas about people and how they relate to each other. The Story of Mats Israelson, is a wonderful tale of two people bound by their respective cultures to first miss, and then to misinterpret their potentially adulterous loves for each other. It has more than a whiff of Emma Bovary about it! At 24 pages, it seemed longer. Perhaps that was because it is so dense, but perhaps too it might have been because it laboured points and repeated ideas that we’d already got safely lodged in our heads.

There was also a good deal of marking out of ground in the beginning: the setting up of a metaphor that would be returned to later on, setting up that involved all the small detail that novelists are so good at.

 

‘In front of the church, which contained a carved altar brought from

Germany during the Thirty Years War, there stood a row of six horse

Stalls.’

 

The opening sentence is a good starter, but a page and half of elaboration to tell us that ‘Ownership of each stall was a matter of private election.’ betrays the novelist’s need to create a credible and whole world, rather than the simple pool of light within which short stories are played out.  

It is a gripping story however, though at several passages I looked towards a denouement that I knew must come (and which did eventually), only to find that it was being put off to make way for another round of context building that seemed too like the one that just been completed.

Through a series of meetings, Ander Boden and Barbro Lindwall, engage in a faux affair that attracts the attention of the community, but which in reality is only a series of innocent conversations which neither recognises as having the potential that both community and spouses assume is being actually realised. Then passes a period of two decades in which each goes his and her own ways, until the dying Anders summons her to his hospital bedside. By this time both have realised what they did not consummate, but manage to snatch misunderstanding from the teeth of infidelity. He dies, and she returns to acquiescence in a failed marriage. The horse stall is allocated to a previously un-introduced character. Life, Barnes might be telling us, slips away, while we aren’t paying attention.

There’s a lot of repetition, of phrases rather than scenes: references to places that are passed by and described by him, to her. There’s a good deal of timber lore – Anders is the manager of a sawmill – and again, one wonders if this is the novelist’s need for detail, or just a symptom of that modern desire to fill stories with detail, as if we were not writers, but cameras.

Despite all this carping, I found the tale moving, and convincing. It’s the second story in the collection, and carries more conviction, I felt, than the first. That is A Short History of Hairdressing.

We always read stories in a context. That might be the context of what has just happened, or is about to, in our lives, or it might be that of what we have just read. Barnes’ hairdressing story is told in three parts, each of which takes place while his protagonist, Gregory, is in the barber’s chair. The three haircuts are at different stages of his life. The first as a child, taken unwillingly by his mother, the second as a truculent young adult, and the third as a middle aged man.

Co-incidentally, I had been reading Arthur Miller’s autobiography, Timebends, only a few weeks before and had discovered in it a section which might have been a short story – an incident in a barber’s shop, in which Miller encountered an older female friend of the family and experienced an epiphany of sorts which led him to a singular resolution about the plays he wrote, and the characters within them.

By comparison, Barnes’ three part story seemed overlong, and unfocussed and lacking in that snap-shut tension that a short story demands – even if that snap is silent and subtle. But there was more to it, for Barnes’ protagonist seemed also hard to see, hard to believe in. Something about the language given to him seeming not quite authentic, or at least, credible: as if an outsider had tried to capture or create a voice that was not his own: a voice that would be difficult to place in class, era, or place, a voice that foisted ill-fitting words upon a character, rather than drawing them out of him.

But the narrator too seems to be using words not his own, and notably the important word ‘geezer’, applied to the barber: ‘….the barber….resumed his standing crouch over a white-haired geezer.’ The word jars. Does it belong to Gregory and his world? Or to the world of the narrator? If to the former it seems atypical. If to the latter, again, it stands out from other words, for the narrator does not seem to be telling the story from within the language-world of his characters. It’s as if the narrator has lapsed, or rather stumbled, into another linguistic identity, momentarily. He does it with the word ‘loony’ too. ‘Most of all the torturer-in-chief was the same, a loony with big hands’. The torturer reference clearly places the narrative in Gregory’s mind, though it is throughout a third person narrative, and one in a quite formal, Received Pronunciation, Standard English.

The endings of short stories are what they about, and those endings seen within the context of the unfolding story – which is often, and perhaps necessarily, a context that contrasts with or revitalises our view of whatever is being offered at the ending, which we will recognise either from our own lives, or from earlier in the story – and here we have a sequence of endings, as we would at the chapter-ends of a novel. The first of these is a simple ‘yes’, to being shown his own, unrecognised skull in the barber’s mirror. The second is Gregory looking forward to the weekend – for which he has bought ‘something’. There’s an iconic reference here. Barbers, certainly in the fifties and sixties, and reportedly for the next few decades, were said to offer ‘Something for the weekend, sir?’ as Barnes’ does here (I cannot recall ever being so offered), and what was being offered, in those pre-pill days, was a prophylactic – a condom! The third part ends with the same proffered mirror as the first, but this time the answer is ‘no’. Gregory, having lived his life, and seen it mirrored, wants to see it no more – or rather, wants to reject it and has done so for a while: ‘his timid victory was repeated every time.’

The circularity between first and third parts strengthens this ending, but I’m not sure that Barnes has ‘revealed what life only implies’ as Pritchett said a short story should.

Reading The Things You Know, the third story, reminded me of Coppard’s exasperated reply to a commentator, that a story described as one in which not much happened, was a story in which ‘something was trying very hard to happen’. In Barnes’ story the ‘known’ of the title is what neither of the two elderly widows will share with the other, though they share their breakfasts, every two weeks at the Harborview hotel. That known but unspoken is what they think they know, each of the other’s dead spouse: that one was a ‘faggot’ and the other a ‘groper’. Like an ultimate weapon, held in reserve, as they snip away at each other, by praising and misrepresenting both their respective husbands, and themselves, the two reveal their truths to us through interior monologues. As with the first story, Barnes splits this into three numbered sections, like chapters, though each picks up and carries on their morning conversation without a discernible break in either time or place. It would make, without much tweaking, a decent dramatic conversation on film, or perhaps even as a short stage play, one of those stories where what little narrator comment there is might be turned to stage direction (and those interior monologues given as either voice over or soliloquy direct to audience).

It’s a great feeling when you strike gold.

Hygiene is the fourth story in the collection. It’s not an original story. I can remember a TV film along very similar lines from a couple of decades ago, but short stories aren’t all about originality. The friend who loaned me the book commented on how well written the stories in it were, even when, he felt, they probably weren’t worth telling, and here’s one that didn’t really need telling again, but was very well written; so well written, I would argue, that it was worth re-telling – because it’s the telling of the stories that is worthwhile.

As with the previous two, in this ‘age-themed’ collection, there’s a pervasive sadness as a retired officer jaunts from Shrewsbury to London, to do some shopping, and spend an afternoon with Babs, his whore of twenty-three years – who has come out of retirement for a once a year sip of champagne, and a reminisce about when they used to fuck. Of course, on this occasion, poor Babs, whose real name turns out to have been something quite different, has passed on, and Jacko returns home without ‘hanging one on it.’

It’s not a pessimistic story though, and that’s what I liked most about it. Like most readers, I read for what a story is about, rather than how it’s written, and this is about coming to terms with old age, and perhaps more than that, for as Jacko arrives back on the train, he is ‘hoping to see his wife on the platform.’ Without doubt it’s the strongest and most positive ending of all the stories so far, which makes this, for me, the most successful of those stories.

But content is served by form – the how it is written – and this story is written in a particular voice, the voice of Jacko’s self-created sense of himself. Using a military vocabulary that we recognise right from the beginning as being nostalgic, he tells himself –through the offices of a third person narrator – and tells us, what he hopes will happen and what does happen, and what it feels like afterwards.

Most pleasingly, it is without doubt, a short story – its eleven pages seemed more like six – untainted by the whiff of the novel. I wasn’t sure though, about the accuracy of Barnes’ assertion about the ready availability of Stilton and salad spinners in Shrewsbury.

 

The Revival reverts to the chapter numbering. It and Vigilance, which follows, both seem overlong, coming to life briefly with bursts of vulgarity – cunt and fuck being deployed, and quite amusingly at times – the ‘strong’ language that validates so much that the media loves. But the stories: an old man regretting that he has not put into practice a lust that he didn’t really feel for a much younger woman. What is it about ‘much younger women’ that attracts old men? Seriously! That’s The Revival. The other one is a first person account of bad behaviour at classical concerts, the narrator’s attempts at reaction becoming progressively more extreme until they become a more pungent example of it than the behaviour itself – all without, of course, the first person narrator realising it.

There’s something old fashioned about the stories in this collection, and not merely the fact that many of them are specifically set in the past. They seem to have no obvious connection, references even, to any of the issues of contemporary life. I suppose the strength of that impression depends upon what your own contemporary life is like – and of course, the issues they do contend with, love and ageing, are timeless.

Bark follows, begging the pun, and the bite is good – as sour as that of the hero, Delacour, who chews a slice of bark, instead of taking ‘proper’ food, in order to prolong his life. Yet it is a story set in the past, quaintly dated, in convincingly nineteenth century style to 18-. Concerned with the viewpoint of its hero, who is by turns a gambler, a gourmand and an ascetic, Barnes sets up a couple of maxims that the old man adopts, and then, shortly after, applies them to his own circumstances, bringing the story to a quick and lethal close. I found it to be very much in the style of the nineteenth century French storytellers (Francois Coppee and Prosper Merrime sprang to mind). There’s a detached, veiled amusement in the voice of the narrator, which in the hands of French writers of that era comes across as rather a lightness of touch, a hint of joie de vivre amidst their awful truths. Barnes’ tone seems a little more serious perhaps.

Curiously, and who knows but intentionally, the next story is called knowing French. An epistolary story – written in letters – I confess to not having waded through it. Nobody’s paying me, you know. And then come two crackers, Appetite, in which the wife of a man suffering from dementia manages a sort of conversation by reading out recipe books to him, and The Fruit Cage, in which a stroke cuts short a long suffering husband’s bid for freedom from an abusive wife. The last story, The Silence, is a first person account by an ageing musician who is failing to produce his 8th Symphony. One wonders to what extent it is an oblique observation on the difficulties any artist might face; a writer, for example?

The fact that I liked some stories more than others… much more…is no reflection on the writing, but a reminder that being ‘objective’ about whether or not a story is ‘good’ or ‘very good’, marking them in effect against some notional perfection, is a pointless, and meaningless undertaking. A story is as good as your enjoyment of it, and that’s as much about you as it is about the writing. We must remember C.S.Lewis’s warning not to ‘flood wretched material’ with our own imaginings, but remember too that defining that ‘wretched’ is virtually impossible except in cases of extreme incomprehension (like Jabberwocky, one might ask?).

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