Like choosing between bacon and egg and bacon and tomato

Christopher Tayler

  • The Lemon Table by Julian Barnes
    Cape, 213 pp, £16.99, March 2004, ISBN 0 224 07198 X

Julian Barnes’s new book of short stories is concerned with old age and death. Barnes – who was born in 1946 – should have a few years to go before he experiences either condition, but his fiction has always been precociously interested in both. He visited the afterlife, in the person of a cartoon suburbanite, in A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (1989). In Cross Channel (1996) he imagines himself ‘in his late sixties’. Many of his characters are pensioners, and everyone whose childhood is described in detail – as in England, England (1998) or Staring at the Sun (1986) – is last encountered in serene old age. In Barnesland, the young regard the prospect of not getting any younger with enthusiasm, occasionally even with impatience. ‘I sometimes don’t feel I’m quite the right age,’ says the narrator of his first novel, Metroland (1980). ‘I mean, you may happen to think I’m rather immature’ – he’s in his early twenties – ‘but actually I often don’t feel quite at ease with the age I’ve got. Sometimes, in a funny sort of way, I long to be a sprightly 65.’

Barnes’s fiction seems to value old age in part because it affords great scope for being wry – a quality he appreciates a lot. ‘Wry, if thin-blooded’ is a character’s verdict on one of the narrator’s sallies in Metroland, and similar things have been said about some of Barnes’s books. Certainly his characters have an amazing capacity for wryness: Graham Hendrick, the thoughtful historian who abruptly goes crazy in Before She Met Me (1982), even sends his ex-wife wry maintenance cheques (‘the claim was unanswerable, his cheque wry’). Jean Serjeant, the twinkly protagonist of Staring at the Sun, seems to leap from the cradle to the edge of the grave in order to spend as much time as possible ‘wryly noting’. In the space of four pages, a ‘Jean thought wryly’ is answered by a ‘Jean wryly recalled’: if she really is this prodigiously wry, you start to worry, what’s the point of the adverb?

Still, the opportunities for wryness aren’t the only attraction of age. In Metroland, one of Barnes’s many frighteningly sensible women points out to the narrator, Christopher Lloyd, that the attraction of the idea of fast-forwarding to a sprightly 65 might have something to do with fearing the responsibilities of adult life – a fear that he eventually overcomes. Jean Serjeant, thanks to a loveless postwar marriage, is similarly frightened of sexual relationships: ‘Part of her looked forward to the time when she wouldn’t have to worry about all that.’ But the characters’ fear of adult life is also related to their preoccupation with death. Christopher Lloyd lists in some detail the symptoms of his terror: ‘a surging need to scream, which the house rules forbid (they always do) . . . total wakefulness . . . a sensation of total aloneness . . . a realisation of Time (always capitalised) going on without you for ever and ever; and a persecuted sense of having been trapped into the present situation by a person or persons unknown’. Barnes likes to confront the gloomy facts of existence from time to time. But he doesn’t usually do it this openly: the house rules forbid.

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