Novelists, unlike rock stars, often improve with age. Which is especially appropriate in Julian Barnes’ case, because The Lemon Table, his most recent collection of short stories, takes age as its subject. That sounds grim, of course — not what your average person would consider a “selling point” — but then, age-and-death-haunted writers are often surprisingly popular. Think of Philip Larkin or Anita Brookner.
There’s nothing morbid about Barnes’ stories, however. Nor is death treated as something particularly to be feared. Rather, what he sets out to do, in an impressive variety of styles, is to examine life in the declining years with the same curiosity and verve he brought to adolescence in his first novel, Metroland. “A Short History of Hairdressing,” the opening story in the collection, sets the tone. It is one man’s minibiography in three movements, or rather three haircuts, taking him from anxious adolescence to cocky 20-something adulthood to disillusioned middle age. Barnes maps the journey with amazing delicacy and precision, and with humor, too. It’s the kind of story that’s even better on the second reading.
From then on, it’s pretty much senior citizens all the way. In “Vigilance,” a gay classical-music maven dreams up different ways to torture people who cough and sniffle their way through concerts. In “Bark,” an old man grimly tries to outlive his peers in a small French village. In “The Things You Know,” two widows, both of whom seem to have a lot of unspoken dirt on each other’s deceased husbands, share an only superficially tranquil breakfast. It’s not that either likes the other, it’s that each needs the other — the condition of old age. They are not friends but allies — “Allies who remembered Munich, who remembered the old films, which were still the best, even if you tried to like the new ones . . .”
Another standout is “Hygiene,” in which a retired major goes up to London from the countryside for his annual visit to his mistress, whom he seems to spend the other 364 days of the year dreaming about. Only his “mistress” is really a prostitute, and the prostitute so aged that, as he will duly discover, she has in fact died since his last visit. The story’s construction — two parts, each a mirror image of the other, beginning with identical sentences that mean completely different things — is perfect, as is Barnes’ ability to capture the way we talk to ourselves. Though the major’s story is both comic and macabre, not to mention bathetic, it’s heartbreaking, too.
The Lemon Table is an extraordinarily good collection.
THE LEMON TABLE | By JULIAN BARNES | Alfred A. Knopf | 241 pages | $23 hardcover