The bittersweet taste of life’s denouement

Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short-story collection "Stealing the Fire," a contributing editor to Parade magazine and will be distinguished writer in residence at Knox College this fall.

Julian BARNES has long had a fascination with aging and death. “I am now older than Flaubert ever was,” points out middle-aged Geoffrey Braithwaite, the narrator of “Flaubert’s Parrot,” the audacious novel-as-faux-literary-investigation that put Barnes on the literary map 20 years ago. “It seemed a presumptuous thing to be; sad and unmerited. Is there ever a right time to die?”

In recent years, Barnes, whose 10 books of fiction have established him as one of the most erudite of contemporary writers, seems to have been thinking less of Flaubert and more of Alphonse Daudet, another member of what he has called the “nineteenth-century French club of literary syphilitics ... the Big Three being Baudelaire, Flaubert and Maupassant.” Barnes’ recent translation of Daudet’s memoir, “In the Land of Pain,” includes such comments on mortality as: “Generations never fall with one blow.... Death prefers to do it piecemeal.... One of us goes one day, another some time afterwards; you have to stand back and look around you to take in what’s missing, to grasp the vast slaughter of your generation.”

Barnes takes up the theme of aging as unflinchingly in “The Lemon Table,” his second collection of stories. “I join the lemon table” at the restaurant, muses the narrator of “The Silence,” the last story in this collection. “Here it is permissible -- indeed, obligatory -- to talk about death.” The lemon is the symbol of death among the Chinese, notes the narrator, a Sibelius-like composer whose old age rings with sour notes of self-reproach for having been blocked on his last symphony for nearly 30 years.


In “The Revival,” Barnes addresses Ivan Turgenev’s last love. He is 60, she is 25, an actress who mounts a production of one of his early plays in Petersburg, playing a minor role, and so inhabits the character that the playwright falls in love with his own creation. The two have a rendezvous on a train (about which he writes, “My life is behind me ... and that hour spent in the railway compartment, when I almost felt like a twenty-year-old youth, was the last burst of flame”). He fantasizes about other journeys, even inserts her image into his memories of a trip to Florence many years before. Throughout, Barnes maintains an ironic commentary comparing Turgenev’s century with ours, acknowledging that the ideal of renunciation is certainly passe, but “[i]f we know more about sex, they knew more about love.”

“Hygiene,” a poignant reminiscence of a World War II vet who keeps his marriage -- and his fantasy life -- alive with an annual visit to a prostitute, also underscores the frayed connection between sex and love.

And unrequited love is at the heart of “The Story of Mats Israelson,” the tale of would-be lovers in a Swedish village who meet three times on a steamboat. During these chance meetings, Anders, who manages a sawmill, and is honored in the village by having one of six reserved horse stalls at his church, talks about the forest and explains about how wood is grown, transported, hewn. Barbro listens to him, without his wife’s undertone of sarcasm. Anders speaks of Mats Israelson, whose body was found in a state of perfect preservation 49 years after he died in a mine accident in Falun, and was identified by an elderly woman who had been his betrothed. “I would like to visit Falun,” Barbro says.

On the fourth trip, Anders imagines, he will invite her to go there with him. But Barbro does not show up. “Gossip suggested there had been a quarrel. Gossip counter-suggested that they had decided on concealment.” Gossip was wrong. Barbro is pregnant with her first child. For the next 23 years, Anders and Barbro fantasize about what might have been. At last, Anders invites her to come to Falun, where he is in the hospital, ill with cancer. Even then, they do not connect.

One effect of Barnes’ setting many of these stories in an earlier time is to create a counterpoint between now and then, invoking a more leisurely approach to considering the lost possibilities of a lifetime. Erotic yearning, missed opportunities, regret and other somber chords predominate in this collection, although nearly always with an accompaniment of wry wit.

A comic tone distinguishes “A Short History of Hairdressing,” a remarkable miniaturist trilogy in which the narrator grows from a young lad having his first haircuts (he learns to say, “ ‘Short back and sides with a little bit off the top’ ... you had to get the words just right, like a prayer”); then, in his 20s, relates to the older male hairdresser with irritation (“These blokes were on the way out.... They ought to sell trusses and surgical corsets and support hose”); and finally, as an older man, visits a salon where he submits to a shampoo, throat bared in the porcelain sink as if waiting for the guillotine, then toddles off with Kelly, a stylist young enough to be his daughter, who finds him boring.


“Knowing French,” which begins as an elderly woman’s fan mail to Julian Barnes and a comment on “Flaubert’s Parrot,” has moments of hilarity. Sylvia Winstanley introduces herself in her first letter as “Me, old woman, rising eighty-one.” Their relationship is transformed over its three-year course into an epistolary flirtation and discourse on Flaubert, the French and coincidence. Finally the spunky Sylvia passes along her thoughts on death (and her battle against “the tabooing of death as a subject -- or Fear of It”) before her time in the “Old Folkery” comes to its inevitable end.

There are lesser stories in this collection -- “The Things You Know,” a slice of life involving two widows having tea, and “Vigilance,” a concertgoer’s monologue about audience noise that ends in a crescendo of violence -- but most of them are gems. Barnes’ novels rely upon pyrotechnics, lexicographer’s puns and postmodernist devices; these new stories are filled with emotional resonance and hard-won wisdom. “The Lemon Table” is a virtuoso performance of remarkable clarity and insight. *