(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Julian Barnes continues to explore the lives of famous artists in The Lemon Table, a collection of stories, as he did in the experimentalFlaubert's Parrot (1984). The title of the collection, his first since Cross Channel (1996), comes from the last story in the book, “The Silence,” written in diary format, ostensibly in the words of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius during the thirty years of artistic inactivity that extended into his eighties. Barnes has Sibelius wryly suggest that his long silence is appropriate, for while all other arts aspire to the condition of music, silence is what music aspires to. In Barnes's account, Sibelius is intrigued by the lemon as the Chinese symbol of death and wants to be buried with a lemon in his hand. He dines alone and reflects on mortality or with others at what is called the lemon table at a club, where it is permissible, even obligatory, to talk about death. Sibelius laments that old age is dreadful for a composer, for self-criticism intensifies, and the artist knows that he is doomed to be misunderstood and then forgotten. The story—actually a meditation on art, aging, and death—ends with a morning walk on which Sibelius cries to the sky, “Birds of my youth,” and then walks back to his house, calling for the fateful lemon.

An aging Ivan Turgenev is the subject of “The Revival,” in which the great Russian author recalls a train ride with a young actress who appeared in one of his plays. However, at the time of the journey, because he is sixty and she is twenty-five, the encounter confirms Turgenev's conviction that after the age of thirty there is only one word to sum up life: “renunciation.” Another philosophic meditation, the story focuses on the premise that love is an act of the imagination, exploring the notion that because love is self-referring process, it is appropriate that a dramatist would fall in love with his own creation.

“Knowing French,” the collection's only note of hope for the elderly and one of the strongest pieces here, is told in the form of letters to a writer named Julian Barnes from a lonely, eighty-one-year-old woman living in a retirement home. The woman is still alert, intelligent, witty, and full of life. Although she admits that one of the main reasons for dying is that it is what others expect when you reach the age of eighty-one, her primary reason for living is that she has never done what others expect. Although the story ends with the death of the aging correspondent, her verve and love of life provide ample evidence that Barnes can write about growing old without the cynicism that imbues so many of these pieces.

Some of these stories are fairly routine literary games: idea stories, tours de force. For example, “Vigilance” is a clever extended rant by a gay concertgoer who cannot tolerate noise from the audience. In addition to handing out lozenges to prevent coughing, he goes so far as to trip a cell phone user down a flight of stairs. The story is redeemed by the comic extremity of the protagonist, wryly lamenting at one point that the audience was normal, with pulmonary wards and ear-nose-and-throat departments getting most of the tickets. He has two preposterous proposals to reduce the noise level: overhead spotlights that would come on when someone makes a noise over a certain level, or wired seats so that a small electric shock will be administered in accordance with the decibel level of the occupant's cough, sneeze, or sniffle.

“A Short History of Hairdressing” is a concept story about a man's life being structured around three different haircuts, from an early boyish visit to the barber to the poignant hair-thinning of middle age. Any man who has ever visited a barber shop will recognize the familiar conventions here: the head being pushed down on the chest, the bin full of tattered magazines. To these Barnes adds some obviously researched facts, for example that the red stripe around the barber's pole denotes the strip of cloth wrapped around the arm when barbers also served as surgeons and bled their patients. The story ends, as all these stories do, with the shameful reality of old age, in this case thinning hair on the head, comically compensated for by the increase of hair in the ears. Writers have constructed many metaphors to symbolize the three ages of man; Barnes simply chooses different experiences in the barber shop for this trivial little stages-of-life story.

Perhaps the saddest story in the collection is “Hygiene,” about a retired army man who has been going to an annual secret meeting with an aging mistress over the past twenty-three...

(The entire section is 1887 words.)