Saturday, July 3, 2004

Julian Barnes is not an old man. Born in Leicester, England in 1946, it would seem to be premature for him to be gazing on the end of life with the kind of force and authority he musters in “The Lemon Table,” his new collection of short stories concerned with that theme.

But mortality is not a new preoccupation for the award-winning author, whose first novel, “Metroland” (1980), included ruminations on aging and dying alongside life choices that variously suit, stifle or backfire. And if succeeding novels and short story collections are any evidence, one could say that he’s been in the business of wrestling with life’s last act all along.

The characters in the 11 stories that make up this collection find — or don’t — meaning in the careers, spouses, lovers, language or art that has defined the lives they have led or are leading. But it is not their careers or lovers that dominate. It is death, the finish line, the event that forces them to come to terms with what or who is important in their lives.

In one way or another, the characters here all look back and ask: Was it a life well lived? An accomplishment appreciated? A need for love satisfied? And they make their way on the power of their personalities. Some triumph. Others don’t, but to a person they are memorable.

This makes what could have been a very gloomy book something far more complex and cheerful. Even as he is mindful — and respectful — of what his characters face, Mr. Barnes infuses their swan songs with humor. The old-age home in “Knowing French” (the “Old Folkery”) may trap its inhabitants, but their stories don’t begin or end there.

Here is Sylvia W. ruminating about a relative in a letter she addresses “Dear Julian”: “Did you know my great friend Daphne Charteris? Maybe your great-aunt’s sister-in-law? No, you said you were Middle Clarce in origin. She was one of our first aviatrices, daughter of a Scottish laird, used to ferry Dexter cattle around after she got her license.

“One of only 11 women trained to fly a Lancaster in the war. Bred pigs and always named the runt of the litter Henry after her youngest brother. Had a room in her house known as the ‘Kremlin’ where even her husband wasn’t allowed to disturb her. I always thought that was the secret of a happy marriage.”

Sylvia is probably the liveliest of all the characters in the book, and she animates her letters with observations about the study of French: “Would you believe that my father, who would now be 130, was taught French (as Latin then was) pronounced as English: ‘lee tchatt.’ No you wouldn’t. Not sure myself. But there has been some progress: the R is frequently rolled in the right direction nowadays by students.”

She is also free with observations about Mr. Barnes’ work, notably his novel “Flaubert’s Parrot.” It is not difficult to see why Sylvia is drawn to Mr. Barnes’ rendering of the story of the aging Felicite and the parrot Loulou. Nor is it difficult to see or appreciate that by writing himself into the story, Mr. Barnes makes himself one with the characters who are busy contemplating life, art and the end of it all.

While he is generous to those who create, he is less kind to their critics. As the musician who tells his life story in “The Lemon Table” notes, “Always remember, there is no city in the world which has erected a statue to a critic.” Point taken.

Though reflection and closure can be found in these stories along with ample doses of irony, no two stories are alike. They range across continents and time: Sweden, Russia, and contemporary London, and with individualized dilemmas.

In “Hygiene,” a retired soldier makes his annual trip to the city for a regimental dinner. His wife has given him a shopping list, but he is preoccupied with seeing Babs, the prostitute he has visited for years.

When he learns that Babs has died, he is forced to face his own physical and sexual decline, even as he comes to terms with loss and the comfort of his marriage. The question that dogs him more than once in the story captures the familiar human dilemma: “Was this right or wrong? Were you as young as you felt or as old as you looked?”

In “The Story of Mats Israelson,” probably the most wrenching of the tales, Anders Boden, a sawmill manager, meets the wife of a pharmacist new to town. She wears a blue ribbon around her straw hats. Barbro was not remarkable looking, but “over the next fortnight, he found himself reflecting that Barbro was a name with a lovely weight to it, and softer sounding than … other names. He thought also that a blue ribbon round a straw hat made his heart cheerful.” Is there writing lovelier than this?

Barbro and Anders keep their distance over a virtual lifetime, only sharing a conversation here and there until at the end of their lives it appears they may actually consummate a union.

In “The Silence,” an unnamed composer comes to the end of his career with some dignity. “The Revival” is a contemplation of Ivan Turgenev’s last love affair with an actress 40 years younger than he. It is concerned with consummation but it is also concerned with the judgment of others.

“Tolstoy … began railing at the lusts of the flesh and idealizing a Christian peasant simplicity. His attempts at chastity failed with comic frequency. Was he a fraud, a fake renunciator, or was it more that he lacked the skills, and his flesh declined renunciation?

“Three decades later he died on a railway station. He last words were not, ‘The bell rang, and ciao, as the Italians say.’ Does the successful renunciator envy his unsuccessful counterpart? There are ex-smokers who decline the offered cigarette but say, ‘Blow the smoke in my direction.’”

After Mr. Barnes puts Leo Tolstoy’s life in perspective, it is Tolstoy who gets the last word (which I won’t reveal for fear of denying the reader the pleasure of stumbling on it). It is difficult to know whether Tolstoy wrote it or not, but it ranks as one of the book’s star and startling turns. In this rich collection, it is difficult to know where to begin to lavish the praise it deserves. As for endings, never has finality felt so good.


By Julian Barnes

Knopf, $22.95, 240 pages

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