Book Group: Ian Irvine reviews 'The Lemon Table'

Looking back in faint regret
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The Independent Culture

"I mow the lawn on Sundays, but I can still quote Mallarmé." I think that's the correct quotation. Twenty-five years ago, I enjoyed Julian Barnes's first novel, Metroland, so much that I lent it to a friend with an enthusiastic recommendation and never got it back, so I'm unable to check the precise wording. However, it carries the gist of one of the book's themes: the ways in which we all end up often far from what we imagined our lives might be, possibly with rueful recognition of what value remains and what is irrecoverable in an individual's existence.

"I mow the lawn on Sundays, but I can still quote Mallarmé." I think that's the correct quotation. Twenty-five years ago, I enjoyed Julian Barnes's first novel, Metroland, so much that I lent it to a friend with an enthusiastic recommendation and never got it back, so I'm unable to check the precise wording. However, it carries the gist of one of the book's themes: the ways in which we all end up often far from what we imagined our lives might be, possibly with rueful recognition of what value remains and what is irrecoverable in an individual's existence.

Metroland followed its hero from precocious schoolboy, through his restless twenties, to a middle-aged conformity in suburbia that would have dismayed his younger selves, with their vague but boundless ambitions. "Ending up" is a subject to which Barnes has often returned. The 11 stories in this newly paperbacked collection, The Lemon Table, run elegant variations on this.

In the bleakly comic "The Things You Know", the companionship of two dons' widows is revealed to be founded on the mixture of compassion and superiority each feels toward the other through knowledge of the other's husband's peccadillos. In the poignant monologue of "Appetite", a dentist's wife, like an Alan Bennett Talking Head, confronts the less pleasant aspects of her husband's character that have become apparent in his Alzheimer's decline. "The Revival", somewhat in the manner of Flaubert's Parrot, analyses the character of Turgenev and the uses to which the Russian author put his last, platonic love affair. In "The Silence", the imagined journal of Sibelius expresses in lapidary paragraphs the composer's thoughts on death, his family, his alcoholism and his decades-long creative silence.

One of the pleasures of the collection is its range of voices: suburban demotic in "A Short History of Hairdressing", army bufferishness in "Hygiene", posh eccentric intelligence in "Knowing French". "Bark" seems like a tale from Kleist, "The Story of Mats Israelson" like Chekhov. All are subtle, perceptive and thoroughly enjoyable.

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