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Julian Barnes: ‘Death and grief are things we don’t do well in this country’

Novelist Julian Barnes is completely relaxed about having handed over control of his work to Star Wars actor Ian McDiarmid to be turned into a stage show.

Two of his short stories from a collection called The Lemon Table have been adapted as monologues for a show of the same name, which is appearing at the Cambridge Arts Theatre.

“Usually when someone is adapting a piece of my work I say you have a free hand; if I sell it to you, it’s yours, not mine,” explains Julian.

Julian Barnes. Pic Credit Urszula Soltys (52292807)
Julian Barnes. Pic Credit Urszula Soltys (52292807)

“And if it’s a film I say, look, films are completely different from the book. Don’t be too faithful, throw it against the wall, see what comes down and build it up again. That’s my general attitude. But this is rather different. I’ve read the scripts of the two stories that Ian McDiarmid is doing and they seem to have stayed very close to the book because they are very much voice pieces. As he is doing a monologue based on my stories, he is only likely to make such small tweaks. I’m looking forward to seeing the finished play for the first time tomorrow.”

The play is called The Lemon Table and follows the stories of two men, one an audience member at the classical music concert and the other an elderly Sibelius struggling to complete his Eighth Symphony.

“The first story is about concert rage from someone who’s otherwise a very good citizen, getting totally enraged by the fact that people cough and rustle their programs and things like that,” says Julian.

“The character is a complete nutter by the end of it. He thinks that if you cough above a number of decibel, lights should come over and shine on your seat from above for the rest of the concert, which of course is mad because it’d be completely distracting to other concert goers.

“It’s often like that at this time of year. It’s like going to a pneumonia ward when you are at the theatre or a concert. And, the trouble is, once you start noticing things you lose your own concentration, and then you think, ‘Why are you opening the programme when we’re in the middle of the concert?’. But you have to think they’ve paid for the tickets. It must be very distracting for the musicians, though.

The Lemon Table with Ian MDiarmid. Pic by Marc Brenner. (52292406)
The Lemon Table with Ian MDiarmid. Pic by Marc Brenner. (52292406)

“I read somewhere that the opera singers find it sounded very distracting when surtitles first came in, which I find incredibly useful because you never know what they’re singing. But they said they would look out at the audience, and instead of the audience looking back at them, they were all looking about 30 feet above their head to read the surtitles, and you can see sometimes that musicians, even if they’re completely in the zone are put off by it.

He is, he says, very pleased that Ian McDiarmid approached him to ask about adapting the stories and has long been a fan of the actor.

“I’ve always admired him, especially since a performance of The Tempest he co-directed and acted in around 10 or 15 years ago. It was full of water cascading everywhere, it was very dramatic. After that I thought, ‘I will trust you completely from now on and will go and see anything you are in’. And so when he came to me I immediately wrote back and said I have no problem with you doing this adaptation, you have carte blanche because I trust you. He sent me the script and it was very good. I'll be very interested to see how it goes, technically.”

The theme of both stories was ageing and death, something Julian says has always fascinated him.

The Lemon Table book was about ageing and attitudes to it, and the approach of death. The book came out 17 years ago, so most of the stories I was writing about 20 years ago when I was a considerably younger man. I must have thought I needed to get this done early as I might not be up to it when I was 20 years older!”

Julian lost his wife, literary agent Pat Kavanaugh, in 2008 when she died of a of a brain tumour. He wrote about his grief over his wife's death in an essay in his book, Levels of Life.

Julian Barnes. Pic Credit Urszula Soltys (52292372)
Julian Barnes. Pic Credit Urszula Soltys (52292372)

He says: “The end of ageing, death and grief, are things we don’t do terribly well in this country. We tend to hide these things. They are medicalised or they’re put into the hands of experts, and all the old rituals of how we behave to old people have gone. In the old days, if people got old they would stay in the family. They sat in the corner. They were very annoying. They might have lost their minds but they weren’t shut away. And then they would die and then the local village women would come and wash the body and lay it out. And then the whole village turns out for the funeral and the wake, and then there would be a regular remembering. And now we just rush it, we want to get it over with and we don't want to think about death much.

“We also think that grief ought to be like feeling unhappy for a short time, which it isn’t. Amazingly, the American Handbook of Psychiatric Disorders says that if the symptoms of of grief continue after four to six months then, the patient should be treated as having a psychiatric disorder. It seems to me, outrageous. Being sad, being melancholy and being grieving are normal human events, they’re not illnesses.”

However, he doesn’t believe in ageing gracefully or being serene about the struggles of getting older.

Instead, he says: “I've always been against the idea that as we get older, we become more serene. I think in the old days, people were told that that’s what they should appear to be and that it was uncivil to be angry, and probably because your children might not then feed you and look after you. And you were meant to sit quietly in the corner, and not make a fuss and not rage against the dying of the light. So, yes I’m against the idea of that old age brings serenity. And nowadays, much more than it used to, it brings dementia because we live so long. And you can’t tell me that people who have dementia are serene - often very much the opposite, raging against a condition which they no longer understand.”

He admits he has been fascinated by death all his life and that it has always informed his work.

“I’m confident, that I’m going to die, unlike I know some people. Someone once said to me ‘I somehow know that everyone else is going to die but I somehow don’t know or believe that I’m going to die’. And that‘s obviously quite a good way of getting through life. But no, I think, I was 10 or 12, something like that when the idea of eternal non-existence first struck me because I don’t have any religious belief.”

The Lemon Table is playing at Cambridge Arts Theatre from Tuesday, November 2 to Saturday, November 6. For tickets, priced £20-£35, visit cambridgeartstheatre.com.

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