Writers in their busy and vigorous prime - as Julian Barnes most certainly is - seldom bother with old age except as a marginal source of farce or pathos in their books. So the 11 carefully crafted stories about the business of ageing, losing and dying in his collection The Lemon Table (Picador, £7.99) add up to a bolder creative stroke than we might suppose. They are often ruefully comic but scenically very diverse: episodes from English suburbia that might belong in a superior sitcom alternate with trips to the 19th century and to Russia, Finland, France and Sweden. Yet the tales return time and again to the dying, and the sudden flaring, of the human light: when a dutiful husband becomes an ancient philanderer; when a retired French teacher marooned in an "Old Folkery" sends letters to the famous author "Dr Barnes", or when memories of perfect meals seem to halt the march of forgetfulness. The stories aim, perhaps, to be funny because of their intrinsic sadness rather than in spite of it. Does Barnes manage to sustain this emotional tightrope act? Do the stories add up to a coherent whole? Could they even help instruct the young in empathy with their elders? The titular lemon table, by the way, is a haunt of the aged Sibelius at the Hotel Kämp in Helsinki, a place where the proud (and pretty often pickled) composer goes because it is "permissible - indeed obligatory - to talk about death". Do join him: it's surprisingly good fun.