| Van Gogh’s Old Man with the red-blue Scarf
The Lemon Table By Julian Barnes, Jonathan Cape, £ 10.25
“I walked slowly back to the house. I stood in the doorway, calling for a lemon.” Those are the last sentences of Julian Barnes’s collection of short stories, and the perfect exit line for the old composer who speaks it. He is crabby, alcoholic, intolerant, unabashedly barren for years, with an incomplete eighth symphony on his hands marking the minutes to death. It is also an exit line for the collection of Barnes’s eleven stories. All of them are about old age and the disjunction between the memories of love, sex, food, money, creativity, dreams and the unbelieving acceptance of decay.
Fittingly enough, the last story about the composer, who is probably Finland’s Jean Sibelius, is called “Silence”. It is not just that stories about old age should lapse into silence, but also that music comes from silence and returns to it. That is perhaps the inner rhythm all the stories seek to capture. At the same time, it is also why the quasi-fictional Sibelius has forbidden his five daughters to sing or play music in the house. It does not matter that he has not composed for thirty years: he has not chosen silence, silence has chosen him. If he were given to write the exit line, he would probably choose his favourite one: “Cheer up! Death is round the corner.”
But that would have been too bitter. To expect the collection to end on that note would be to ignore the finesse of Barnes’s touch and tone. Much closer to his elusive mastery is the reference to the lemon, the Chinese symbol of death, as Sibelius tells us. Barnes has not just written about death, or old age: eleven such stories would bore us, and they never do. “I think what the book is about is this,” the author said in an interview, “it’s against serenity.” Things do not calm down with age, and the notion that the body and the heart and sexual desire develop and age in the same way is wrong. “They don’t, they develop with great disjunctions,” says Barnes. So in “The Fruit Cage”, a son cannot plumb the depth of feeling that makes his 81-year-old father leave his 80-year-old mother for a 65-year-old widow. Nor can he penetrate the mystery of his father’s sudden bruises and the “other woman’s” accusations that his mother beats up her husband.
Old people are no less mystifying than the young, than men and women in their prime. The whole world “conspires”, the aged included, to pretend that old age is simple. Barnes’s old men are savagely sane, even when senile and incontinent. “I could do her tits,” raps out a drooling, prone husband with relish to his devoted wife in “Appetite”. He is looking at an old photograph of hers, and mistaking her for a whore. In “Hygiene”, a retired army man travels to London from the suburbs to attend the annual regimental dinner. But what he seeks in the city is the company of Babs, a retired prostitute, for the regular romantic interlude that sustains him through the year as he runs about on a thousand errands for his wife. He no longer needs three “johnnies” for the night, even one is becoming redundant, for he and Babs chat about the old times and fall asleep.
Flaubert’s Parrot had shown Barnes at his playful best, moving agilely among fiction, reflection, history and fancy. His landings never falter. In the short stories, too, the form is perfectly and delicately poised. So the tragedy, pity, warmth, bitterness, empathy, comedy and horror of each seem to hit the reader a few seconds after the story has ended. His map is European, as always. France, a small town in 18th-century Sweden, Russia, Finland, are all as vibrant and detailed as the very English “old folkery” in “Knowing French”. Here a lively old lady, incarcerated among the mad and the deaf, writes humorously and affectionately to “Dr Julian Barnes”.
If “Knowing French” celebrates the magic of a bond between a successful young man and an independent old woman who have never seen each other, “Vigilance” is purely funny. A dedicated concert-goer grows obsessed with the coughs, sniffles and whispers of the people around him. He believes that the others come with the sole purpose of coughing, sniff- ling and turning the pages of the programme while the orchestra is playing. He soon develops methods of dealing with them, methods that grow more aggressive and violent as he strives to impose standards of civilized behaviour.
“There is love and sex in it too,” Barnes had said about the book. Of the two major love stories in the book, one, “The story of Mats Israelson”, has no sex. It is the story of a dream of love in a little 18th-century Swedish town, where communication between the general manager of a sawmill and the wife of the pharmacist is gentle and indirect. Yet the memory of those apparently pointless conversations lasts a lifetime, with the man hoping to tell the story of the legendary Mats Israelson one day in the right way. That day, when it comes, dissipates the dream.
The central story is “The Revival”, a reconstruction of Turgenev’s last love affair, if it can be called that. The 60-year-old writer, reclusive, not too popular with his famous colleagues either for his style or for his occasional capers, falls in love with a 25-year-old actress. But the period is most suggestively evoked by his letters to her. The memory he treasures is of a half-hour journey with her by train, and the invisible young commentator in the story cannot fathom whether the old man’s descriptions portray the souls’ ecstasy or are euphemisms for cunnilingus.
“As in his life, so in his writing, love did not work.” This is said of Turgenev at the beginning of the story. But the reader is left wondering at the end if that is quite true. Similarly, with Barnes’s collection of 80-year-olds and 60-year-olds. Love did not work. Or did it'