The Lemon Table: Stories
By Julian Barnes
Knopf, 241 pp., $22.95
''Do not go gentle into that good night/Old age should burn and rave at close of day," wrote the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. British writer Julian Barnes, author of the acclaimed ''Flaubert's Parrot" and numerous other works, might have had Thomas's poem in mind when he wrote the stories for ''The Lemon Table," nearly all of which depict older characters -- mainly men -- going every way but gently.
In the wrong hands, the subject of the aging male could easily have become maudlin. But the saving grace of the characters in ''The Lemon Table" is that they don't invite sympathy. Quite the opposite, in fact: Barnes's people -- like the demented dentist in ''Appetite" who insists on having his lover-dental hygienist read recipes to him -- are feisty, self-absorbed individuals one simultaneously pities and laughs at. Over time, they have become distillations of their younger selves and are now the very essence of annoyance, self-delusion, obsessional neurosis, or perhaps all three.
In ''Vigilance," one of the collection's funniest stories, an aging gay male obsessed with the bad behavior of concert-goers fantasizes about a solution: ''Every seat in the hall would be wired, and a small electric shock administered, whose strength would vary according to the volume of the occupant's cough, sniffle or sneeze." His partner, Andrew, warns with classic English understatement that ''the practical effect of electrocuting concert-goers might well be to make them less willing to book tickets in future."
Such mordant humor pervades these stories, cutting through any pathos like -- well, like lemon juice in oil. In ''The Things You Know," two elderly widows have tea, both knowing damning secrets about each other's dearly departed husband. One of them, Janice, observes the other's hair: ''Her hair, cut short, was an improbable bright straw, and seemed not to care that it was unconvincing; instead, it merely said, this is to remind you that I was once a blonde -- some sort of blonde, anyway. More an aide-memoire than a hair-colouring." These and other vicious little observations by Barnes's characters provide the ideal antidote to the poison of sentimentality.
In his 1984 novel, ''Flaubert's Parrot," Barnes's narrator admires the second-sighted nature of a lexicographer who saw a net as ''a collection of holes tied together with string." It is this way of seeing -- upside down or inside out -- any way, in short, except the usual way -- that Barnes himself displays in ''The Lemon Table." It is such fresh ways of seeing the commonplace, rather than the stories' quiet, ultimately forgettable plots, that stay with the reader long afterward. The narrator in ''A Short History of Hairdressing," after being shampooed, notices how the girl ''watchfully half-led him back to the chair, as if drippingness were close to blindness." He notices, too, right before refusing the de rigueur back-of-the-head mirror, that, formerly, ''if they had clipped a swastika into his nape he would probably have pretended to approve."
As the author defies the clichs of observation, so too does he defy those of subject matter. Nearly all the stories in ''The Lemon Table" offer up new angles on the mundane -- though not entirely new to the author's oeuvre. There is, for one, his signature obsession with the lives of artists that have come before him: ''The Story of Mats Israelson" is a sort of remake of Anton Chekhov's ''Lady With a Lapdog," except that the affair happens only in the tortured narrator's imagination. ''Revival" depicts the inner sexual and romantic desires of the aging Russian writer Ivan Turgenev. And ''Silence" is an extended meditation on death by -- one infers -- Swedish composer Jean Sibelius, in his final year of life.
Whether contemporary or modern in setting, what nearly all the stories in ''The Lemon Table" speak of is loss. Their narrators are men in the tortured throes of having to let go -- of their sexuality, their eye for beauty, both carnal and aesthetic, and of their former identities. In ''The Silence," the composer-narrator recounts, ''At the funeral, I reflected upon the infinite wretchedness of the artist's lot. So much work, talent and courage, and then everything over. To be misunderstood, and then to be forgotten, such is the artist's fate."
However, what Barnes's characters never lose -- the only consolation of aging -- is their power to observe. At this they excel, even if it is to observe their own shocking understanding that they have never truly understood: ''Now he wondered if he hadn't always got it wrong," thinks the narrator of ''A Short History of Hairdressing." ''He didn't know what sex was for. He didn't think anyone else did either, but that didn't make the situation any better. He wanted to howl. He wanted to howl into the mirror and watch himself howl back."
In China, reveals the narrator of ''The Silence," the lemon is a symbol of death. The symbol of the lemon -- and particularly lemons on a table -- proves extraordinarily rich for Barnes: ''Lemons," as in fruit for those with undiminished appetites. ''Table," as in, perhaps, what one brings to the table by way of accomplishment. And ''lemon table," as in a still life, the fruit of art's labor, which nourishes and sustains in so many subtle ways.
Over the years, Barnes's work has been called many things: hyper-fiction, postmodern, meta-textual. At heart, though, the stories in ''The Lemon Table" are quite old-fashioned -- in the best sense of the word. They remind one of the deceptive simplicity of the stories of Chekhov or that prodigy of the absurd, Nikolai Gogol.
With their underlying classicism, their commitment to truth and beauty, Barnes's stories also harken back to a pre-existential time in which hope was still, in a tragic sort of way, possible. The greatest hope being, of course, that the fruits of your life's work would still be gleaming, fresh and pungent on the table, after you had gone.
Jodi Daynard teaches creative writing at Emerson College.