Not About Old Age, Exactly, But How Aging Is Experienced

The Lemon Table, by Julian Barnes. Alfred A. Knopf, 241 pages, $22.95.

“Novelists either go in for padding or else philosophizing, what we were told to regard as ‘generalizations,’chez Balzac.” These are the words of an 81-year-old deafspinsternamed Sylvia Winstanley, a recent resident of an “Old Folkery,” as she calls her rest home. Winstanley’s letters to, variously, “Dr. Barnes,” “Julian” and “Mr. Novelist Barnes” comprise “Knowing French,” a highlight of this collection of stories by the English writer Julian Barnes. The old lady is a card. She keeps her purse in the refrigerator, deplores badly rolled French R’s, boasts of a 1935 trip around the world (“before everything was spoilt”), and admits to having read only one Jane Austen novel, a single Shakespeare play and none of Dickens, Scott or Thackeray. Gide is fine; Proust bores her.

But fannishly reaching out to the “Julian Barnes” of Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), a writer she encounters while exhausting authors alphabetized under “A” and “B” in the public library, Winstanley proceeds with unfazed authority. “Whom Is The Novel for, I ask myself,” she continues. “In my own case for someone of an undemanding nature who requires to lose herself between about 10 p.m. and bedtime. This may be unsatisfac. for you, I can see,” she warns the presumably lofty novelist. With that last disclaimer, Winstanley gets Mr. Barnes the fiction writer instructively wrong. A lover of contemporary and historical detail who disdains padding, a sweeping generalist who avoids generalizations, his lapidary and brilliantly juxtaposed work actually strives to be, for readers with something like Winstanley’s intelligent empathy and impatient curiosity, not “unsatisfac.” at all. As much as any Dickens scholar or Proust marathonist, she represents a fine example of Barnes’ ideal reader.

The Lemon Table is Mr. Barnes’ 15th book, an ample oeuvre . With Flaubert’s Parrot , which he wrote at 38, Mr. Barnes demonstrated how literary postmodernism could be as lively as the television he once reviewed. Ten of his books are fiction, among them an earlier story collection, Cross Channel (1996). Three of his books are nonfiction, including Letters from London: 1990-1995 , an anthology of New Yorker pieces. He has also translated from the French a short book by Alphonse Daudet, a memoir of his affliction with tertiary syphilis. Like Martin Amis-Mr. Barnes’ close friend until a few years ago, when the two writers had a rather public falling out after Mr. Amis changed literary agents-Mr. Barnes is his own man. He works at, as Mr. Amis once put it, a “sophisticated remove” from everyone else. Among well-known others of his now-fiftysomething generation of English writers, Mr. Barnes is less pop and avowedly world-conquering than Mr. Amis, less academic than A.N. Wilson, and showier and sunnier, in his stealthy way, than Ian McEwan.

Mr. Barnes specializes in viewing people, events and moods from unexpected angles, mixing things up in lucid ways. In his unsentimentally egalitarian universe, as evidenced by two different stories here, a retired Royal Air Force deputy executive and the Finnish composer Sibelius carry on the same lightly existential conversations. “Billiards doesn’t have to end,” says the former R.A.F. man in “The Fruit Cage,” someone who in his early 80′s leaves his sensible wife (for years, he has referred to her as “the government”) to move in with a sixtysomething woman fond of garish eye wear. “A game of billiards could last forever, even if you were losing all the time. I don’t like things to end.” Sibelius, the statesmanlike artist whose self-regarding voice Mr. Barnes reconstructs in “The Silence,” undiplomatically dismisses Wagner: “His gods and heroes,” barks the Finn, who hates diluting music with literature, “have made my flesh crawl for fifty years now.”

Readers who dislike the narrative interruptions of story collections should know that The Lemon Table is no miscellany of short fictions; because Mr. Barnes customarily plays with form, the collection’s cohesive variations will seem scarcely more disjointed, cumulatively, than his novel-writing or essay methods. The stories diverge so sharply in tone and setting, and Mr. Barnes realizes each so completely, that the extreme dissimilarities contrast into a rare coherence. They range from the severe Swedish emotionality of “The Story of Mats Israelson,” where Mr. Barnes carves out the plight of a woman “divided between not loving a man who deserved it, and loving one who did not,” to the blokey discoveries an Englishman makes throughout his life in “A Short History of Hairdressing,” to the artistic raptures of a 60-year-old Turgenev in “The Revival.” In this last story, Mr. Barnes defiles a civilized voice that is all hand-kissing and train travel with another, more modern howl that cuts through the lace and club cars with interjections such as: “Hand-kissing! It’s perfectly obvious what you really wanted to kiss.” This allows Mr. Barnes to hold a colloquy on consummation versus desire, sex versus love-debates that inform the whole book.

The least Barnesian thing you might say is that The Lemon Table -in which almost all of the characters are aging-is “about” old age; the stories are about, instead, how Mr. Barnes imagines various different people find it. Sometimes they don’t know. In “Hygiene,” a retired military man going on his regimental dinner trip without his wife-and looking forward to his yearly meeting with a prostitute he knows as Babs-glances at the flask of coffee and candy his wife packed for him and wonders, “Were you as young as you felt, or as old as you looked?” As the collection unfolds, the answer to this and other related questions comes to be that no single answer exists.

Mr. Barnes gives Sibelius the last word. The composer wonders how to mark the tempo of “life’s final movement.” Not “maestoso” (“Few are so lucky”). Not “largo” (“a little too dignified”). Maybe “tempo buffo,” with “a drunkard on the podium.” But for Sibelius, that’s too over-the-top: “No,” he concludes, “I have it. Mark it merely sostenuto, and let the conductor make the decision. After all, one may express the truth in more than one way.” For Julian Barnes, other generalizations would seem unsatisfac.

James Hunter writes about music and books for Rolling Stone, The Village Voice and other publications.