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Tenuous Memory 

Britain's Barnes brilliant as ever

"Among the Chinese," Julian Barnes tells us in his new collection of short stories, "the lemon is the symbol of death." So says the unnamed aging composer in the story "Silence" as he forgoes finishing his final symphony to instead spend his days contemplating mortality, often in the company of like-minded friends and artists at his local "lemon table."

The Lemon Table, it follows, is also a place where it is not only "permissible -- indeed, obligatory -- to talk about death," as the composer suggests, it is even "companionable." Throughout the 58-year-old British writer's 25-year career, the mental and spiritual components of aging have been a long-running theme in Barnes' nine novels and two story collections.

This new compendium of 11 stories is chockfull of literary costume changes, too, and forsakes none of Barnes' enduring themes -- class, marriage, food, sex, love, and the British obsession with all things French. But each story and character in The Lemon Table is united by the unmistakable theme of aging, and the idiosyncratic nature of the wisdom that is our alleged compensation for falling apart. These characters' lives are never wrapped up with a neat bow at the end, and their gained wisdom can seem as arbitrary, subjective and banal a concept as it was in adolescence.

Barnes brooks no trite aphorisms or simple solutions, and like all strong authors can freight the simplest things in life with the weight of our own repressed histories (what often passes for the wisdom of the elderly). "The Things You Know" features two aging widows engaged in their ritual monthly lunch, each burdened by the misanthropic secrets they know -- but don't dare tell -- about the other's "beloved" deceased. Even in this story, where the characters are better off not knowing the truth about the past, wisdom is merely an accident brought about by death (neither will blaspheme the dead).

In "The Story of Mats Israelson," Barnes is particularly unflinching when depicting a young couple whose love for each other goes unrequited for a half-century, only to be cruelly deflated at life's end by the way both characters misread a crucial moment, irrevocably poisoning the past. Who can really know what courses through the minds of even our closest friends and lovers, Barnes asks.

Even a lifetime of memories together can be tenuous. That point is driven home in the story "Appetite," in which a wife cares for her aging husband stricken with senile dementia. Once a gourmand, he initially responds to the recipes she reads him with detailed accounts of meals they shared over the course of their marriage, bringing some solace to his lonely spouse. Eventually, however, as the disease progresses, her husband recalls only highly salacious details of X-rated scenarios -- many of which she can't recognize, leaving her contemplating the possibility of an entirely different past filled with her husband's infidelities.

As he has proven in previous works (most notably in Flaubert's Parrot), Barnes is also a master at the fictional equivalent of television's docudrama. In some of his stories, as in the novels of his fellow European Milan Kundera, the thinly veiled first-person narration allows ample room for digression and speculation about these supposedly well-known biographies. "The Revival" recounts the last great love of the famous Russian author Ivan Turgenev to a ballerina 35 years younger, a hopelessly chaste affair by modern standards. But while the flagging and perhaps even delusional Turgenev appears quite ridiculous and oh-so-19th-century, the narrator is quick to point out that even though in our blunt age "we know more about sex, they knew more about love."

Finally, in "Knowing French," a story consisting solely of letters from a young-at-heart retirement home patient to a writer named "Julian Barnes," the question this whole collection begs is put to the reader as well:

"If I asked you, "What is life?,' you would probably reply in so many words, that it is all just a coincidence," Barnes' wise old pen pal writes. "So the question remains, "What sort of coincidence?'"

This is where Barnes leaves us to contemplate our own answers, alone. But as is the case with all strong literature, Barnes reminds us of the bonds we do share -- in this case the common knowledge that almost all of us will take our seat at the lemon table. As a both a student of the human condition and writer, Barnes has few peers.

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