Recently Charles McGrath, writing in The New York Times, proposed that there is some hope for the short story, now that it seems to be breaking out of its refuge in academe, where it is turned out at a certain uniform level of uninspired proficiency, mostly to sustain academic writing programs. The MFA short story factories still exist, but, he noted, frisky innovation is appearing in the pages of The New Yorker and, as ever, from the pens of the few masters of this orphan little form to whom it is natural, rather than just a quick substitute for writing a novel. Nonetheless, he acknowledges the dwindling audience for stories.
A dwindling audience is confirmed by an interesting recent report from the National Endowment of the Arts about the decline of reading in general, which found that fewer and fewer people of all ages read literary writing, and that the habit is falling off at a faster and faster rate. Readers and nonreaders alike are affected by the Internet and television, the byte, the sound bite, and the accelerating pace of life, and have only a short story’s worth of time to give to literature. All this should lead us to expect, among the reading 47 percent (who are also the upper-income and upper-educational segment of the population), a renaissance for the short story, a sort of compromise serious form for the busy.
Luckily, in the hands of the greatest short story writers, the form has the weight and complexity of a novel, complete and resonant—one thinks of Mavis Gallant, Alice Munro, Hemingway, Updike, Cheever. In Julian Barnes’s new collection, one feels the satisfactions of novel-reading, and something of the excitement of the innovations Mr. McGrath was talking about, in that The Lemon Table can be thought of as a novel, experimental in form, about aging, one theme linking the stories into something rather like a musical composition, theme and variations, experienced as a whole. This is a technique he has used before, for instance in his A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters.
The advantage of using separate stories for such a difficult theme, the perils and rages (there are no satisfactions listed) of getting old, is that the different points of view, different characters, and different narratives emphasize the universality of a subject that is usually too grim to go on and on about. Stories about old age tend to be written by people younger than the characters, and faintly patronizing in their pitying tones. This is partly true here. Barnes is a young fellow to be taking on the A-word—he was born in 1946; but the stories have none of the condescension and pity most A-stories have when written by someone younger than the characters described. Perhaps stories have talismanic properties that can ward off some of the effects the author so brilliantly, if prematurely, invokes.
The success of Barnes’s stories depends on more than just their rather Maupassant-like shapes, with unfolding plots and neat endings. Major Jacko Jackson, on the way to his regimental reunion in London, looks forward to the annual visit to an old tart, Babs, who has for some years formed part of the ritual. But the girls are new this year, and tell him Babs has died. “Want me to put [the condom] on for you, Gramps?” But he doesn’t really want sex, hadn’t even been having it with Babs for a few years, just a cuddle. Now he is obliged to relinquish this furtive but romantic secret part of his life, as he sees that we all have to give up illusions and youth, not without a struggle, but with realism wrung out of us by circumstance. He goes home to his wife, Pamela, with the salad spinner and other errands completed “as per.” The coffee in his thermos is, like life, “cold and old.” The joke, he tells himself, is on him, and he tries to think of other things: “He’d have to give another coat of yacht varnish to the decking outside the French windows….” Life diminishes, the heart refocuses, and there is a kind of bravery in accepting it.
Mrs. Lindwall and Anders Bodén miss their chance of romance, through misunderstandings and timidity. In a number of the stories, the characters fail to run at the gates that their hearts are telling them to try. It is “too late,” or they don’t have the courage. In “A Short History of Hairdressing,” we have Gregory’s ruminations as he gets his hair cut, as a little boy, young man, and man not so young. The boy begins with fear and hope; the man ends not without hope, but with acceptance and slight resentment. In the first section, the hairdresser is a brusque barber, and in the last a bored girl called Kelly, who doesn’t see him as a man, or even as an individual, forgetting each time his particular decision to defy convention by refusing to look at the back of his head in the proffered hand mirror.
Sexuality, coextensive with vitality and happiness, wanes, puzzles, withdraws its promptings, and some issue of identity becomes important. Identity is important for Merrill and Janice, two widows having breakfast together, each trying, in jockeying to impress the other, to hold her own, to get through getting older, ignored by waiters, strapped, each knowing something about the husband of the other that his wife doesn’t know, or doesn’t acknowledge. Like Jacko, stiff upper lip.
In “The Fruit Cage,” the middle-aged narrator confronts the sexuality and festering animosity of his elderly parents with the same mixture of embarrassment and understanding everyone feels when thinking about sex and the old, sex and one’s parents. Here, the father, aged eighty, announces that he wants to go live with a local widow, and the son gradually understands the anger and discord that have long characterized his parents’ marriage:
Why make the assumption that the heart shuts down alongside the genitals? Because we want—need—to see old age as a time of serenity? I now think this is one of the great conspiracies of youth. Not just of youth but of middle age too, of every single year until that moment when we admit to being old ourselves. And it’s a wider conspiracy, because the old collude in our belief. They sit there with a rug over their knees, nodding subserviently and agreeing that their revels are now ended.
Except that his father “was declining to play the game.”
So is the composer, presumably Sibelius, in his ruminations on his life in the last story, “The Silence.” He is thinking of a composition, and of his life as a composition. “How should we best mark it? Maestoso?…tempo buffo? No, I have it. Mark it merely sostenuto.”
The significance of the title The Lemon Table emerges from this last story, where we are told that the lemon is the Chinese symbol of death. Throughout the book, where fruit is the symbol of sexuality and vitality, the lemon exudes its associations of tartness and disappointment and malfunction, a sour attitude to life as well as to death: “Cheer up! Death is round the corner.”
There are no verbal antics here. Some of the vigor of the writing comes from the absence of descriptive ornament; each phrase is instrumental, an occasional surprising adjective the only indulgence. There is a characteristic tone. “Not that I want to sound too understanding: that way lies forgiveness.” This remark, by the crotchety narrator of “Vigilance,” a man in his sixties who has become increasingly obsessed about inconsiderate coughers at concerts, might stand as the epigraph for the collection, adroitly navigating between acerbic edge and sympathy. It is Barnes’s signature tone, along with what the reader senses of the author’s pleasure in his own virtuosity, a quality that in some writers might be irritating but is one of the pleasures here, like watching a great dancer or juggler getting into his own feat. And despite not wanting to give in to understanding, the author can hardly contain his ability to share in and render the inner life of others, sometimes actual figures of the past (Turgenev, Sibelius).
But the power of these stories mostly lies in the relentless accumulation of the all-too-familiar details of aging. Jean-Étienne Delacour in “Bark,” who has invested in a kind of longevity scheme, institutes—as we all do—ever more healthy habits and ever more conservative diet regimes to ward off approaching death. The narrator of “Vigilance” despairs for civilization itself, even as he violates (or expresses?) its norms by kicking a rude cougher downstairs. This increasing frustration with the ills of the world many of us will recognize as an affliction of the spirit that becomes more marked with time. If we never quite get an answer to that facile but burning question, “Were you as young as you felt, or as old as you looked?,” it is reassuring to have company in posing it.
October 21, 2004