In this issue:
Julia Sneden reviews three books:
The Lemon Table is a Julian Barnes collection of short stories dealing with elderly people coming to terms with the tying off, as it were, of their former lives. The Time Traveler's Wife, touted as a love story, manages to skirt soap opera and emerge as a heart-warming romance, but a romance without the usual rose-colored lenses. Overcoming Dyslexia is brilliant not only in its complexity, but also in its careful, step-by-step presentation.
Julian Barnes is a writer who has won many awards and prizes from his native England, as well as from France and the United States, for his collected essays, short stories, translations, and nine novels. In this country, he may be best known for his delightful “Letter From London” pieces for The New Yorker.
The Lemon Table, a collection of short stories dealing with elderly people who are coming to terms with the tying off, as it were, of their former lives, should add many more plaudits.
Barnes’s versatile and insightful prose investigates how old people deal with the universal fact of encroaching death. In each story, he presents vivid characters whose reactions to their varied circumstances ring painfully true, at least to this senior reviewer. Their responses to old age are not always pleasant (in fact, very few are).
We move, for instance, from the futility of an unrealized love affair (The Story of Matt Israelson) to a shallow and duplicitous (but somehow essentially supportive) friendship between two women discussing retirement homes (The Things You Know), to an absolutely charming epistolary segment involving an 81-year-old’s correspondence with the author (Knowing French). In yet another offering, an elderly man with what seems to be Alzheimer’s Disease spews out lewd, aggressive verbiage as his wife reads him recipes from cookbooks (Appetite).
The writing in this slim book is flat-out gorgeous. Take, for example, this bit from the story called, simply, The Silence, about a famous composer whose alcoholism has driven away his muse at the end of his career:
“When music is literature, it is bad literature. Music begins where words cease. What happens when music ceases? Silence. All the other arts aspire to the condition of music. What does music aspire to? Silence. In that case, I have succeeded. I am now as famous for my long silence as I have been for my music.
“Of course, I could still compose trifles. A birthday intermezzo for the new wife of cousin S., whose pedaling is not as secure as she imagines. I could answer the call of the state, the petitions of a dozen villages with a flag to hang out. But that would be pretence. My journey is nearly complete. Even my enemies, who loathe my music, admit that it has logic to it. The logic of music leads eventually to silence.”
For someone who recognizes all too well the discomforts of old age, The Lemon Table is not always easy to read, but it is nonetheless a brilliant book, and one that this reviewer would not have missed for all the world.
Julia Sneden is a writer, teacher, wife, mother, grandmother and care-giver. She lives in North Carolina. jbsneden can be reached by email (at) triad.rr.comJulia Sneden for SeniorWomenWeb