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Death be not proud
Julian Barnes takes full measure

Julian Barnesís fiction chronicles the life of the English Everyman. His debut, Metroland, introduced readers to an adolescent boy trying to reconcile bohemian recklessness with the practicalities of making a living. Later, in Talking It Over and its sequel, Love, etc., Barnes dissected marriage and betrayal as they play out in a love triangle among three urban Brits.

There have been exceptions from these domestic dramas, like the essay collection Letters from England, and the novel Flaubertís Parrot, a clever treatment of his other obsessive interest: the life of the artist. But now Barnes is back to the quotidian with The Lemon Table, 11 dense gems of short fiction whose characters are moseying toward death. Itís an undertaking that could end up reeking of melancholy, but Barnes wards off sentimental introspection and evinces a wry sense of humor. Here, death is not a menacing Grim Reaper hovering in the doorway but an incarnation of Lady Justice who gently taps her fingers on the scales as her victims take inventory of their lives and sort out infidelities, grudges, obsessions, even pet peeves. Some protagonists achieve balance; others head off still unsettled. In "The Things You Know," two elderly women meet for a monthly breakfast to swap gossip, but each safeguards the one juicy morsel she knows about the otherís dead husband. After all, the revelations would ruin their companionship, and though they secretly criticize each other, both need "people to see you through until the end." The narrator of "The Fruit Cage," who investigates the sensational details of his 81-year-old fatherís affair with a sixtysomething neighbor and the collapse of his parentsí marriage, says, "My mother would talk practically of the Four Last Things. Thatís to say, the Four Last Things of modern life: making a will, planning for old age, facing death, and not being able to believe in an afterlife."

Not all of Barnesís characters face the end this systematically. His people have always been hot-blooded and poised for passion, but their analytical tendencies act like cooling agents on the soul. The inevitable result? Oppressive frustration. Barnes suggests that passions donít fade with age but instead become increasingly harder to express for these seniors: the sharpness of the mind is dulling, patience is thin, creative streams are drying up, and libidos have shriveled ó at least for some. In "Hygiene," Major Jacko pays his annual visit to a prostitute named Babs. Biology and time have taken their toll on his wife, so he justifies the ritual as "making sure his machinery was still in working order." But itís a youth-sustaining proceeding, and it comes to a halt when he learns Babs has died. Jacko is lurched into the present and forced to face his own mortality.

These characters never mope, though. "Cheer up! Death is round the corner," says the octogenarian composer, a thinly disguised Sibelius, in "The Silence," the final entry, which reveals that the lemon is the Chinese symbol of death. The blocked composer goes to the lemon table at a café to "reflect upon mortality" and the maddening irony of his art: he needs silence to create music, yet silence is the fatal fear.

Barnes continually flouts stylistic limits. Like his entire úuvre, this collection is an intersection where epistolary forms, monologues, folklore, and historical fiction criss-cross. The tender "Knowing French" is a series of letters addressed to the author from a patrician marooned in an "Old Folkery." At once funny and serenely prim, she discovered his novels while working her way through the public library from A to Z. Her letters are ruminations on matters that dominate his work ó French philosophy, the nature of coincidence, and lifeís nonsensical underpinnings. Itís a postmodern prize because Barnes sustains a strong presence without intruding on the voice of his narrator. We donít see his responses; they were ruined when the freezer she used for storage was defrosted upon her death.

Even when his characters are despicable, Barnes can make them endearing by flipping English propriety on its head. In "Vigilance," a gay classical-music enthusiast takes up a crusade against the coughers, sneezers, and others who wreak brute intrusions on his concert-going experiences.

These tales are to Barnesís novels what a Rembrandt portrait is to a Bruegel landscape. With a few intimate details of demise and decay, he depicts the lead-up circumstances while encouraging speculation about the moments beyond. Even when his characters make us pucker at the lemonís tartness, a sweet aftertaste of the fruit of life remains.

Issue Date: July 9 - 15, 2004
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