The Lemon Table, by Julian Barnes

Sweet and sour tales of death and dying
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The Independent Culture

Julian Barnes casts a cold eye on death, for which ­ we learn ­ the lemon is a Chinese symbol. These stories concern those about to die. Their author knows this, even when his characters don't. It lends his tales their air of jaunty superiority, which readers are invited to share.

One of Barnes' characters has spent a lifetime accumulating the money he will need during his last months, "getting a nurse to wipe his bottom and put up with the jabber of a naughty five-year-old". The tone is dry and suggests a bleak but easy stoicism. Barnes' Four Last Things are not death, judgement, heaven and hell, but making a will, planning for old age, facing death and not being able to believe in an afterlife.

A life that is ending begins to show its shape, and can be inventoried. Barnes, like his hero Flaubert, loves to catalogue bourgeois inanity. Both love lists. The Lemon Table abounds in lovingly recorded recipes, registers of suburban interiors, seemingly random symmetries.

So one man's life is told in three parts through visits to a hairdresser - first a frightened boy, later a raunchy young man, fading into elderly impotence. Styles of hairdressing décor get chronicled as a stylish, witty extra. The viewpoint is that of a naturalist studying human feeling, above and outside.

A retired army man makes his jocular annual visit to a mistress who died nine months earlier ("Hygiene"). A madman campaigns against noisy concert-goers ("Vigilance"). Turgenev is beautifully caught in a late love affair, then bizarrely patronised, together with his epoch, for dressing up an unstated desire for cunnilingus as a cult of frustration ("The Revival"). A son watches helplessly as his parents' marriage dissolves in their eighties ("The Fruit Cage").

The long littleness of life in Britain, the excitements of elsewhere: this contrast featured in Barnes' first novel, and haunts him still. The stories set abroad pack a special frisson and are expertly researched, and felt. A late 19th-century Swede undergoes a frozen affair, symbolised by a corpse discovered in a copper mine. An egotistical Swedish composer reflects on his loves, enmities and forthcoming death. A 19th-century Frenchman moves from gambling to gourmandising and back: Barnes' evocations of his world are finely done.

"Knowing French" is among the best stories. A lonely, 81-year-old patrician, who read French at Oxford, finds herself, after a fall, isolated among the mad and deaf in an old people's home. She is humorous, intelligent, brave and resourceful, and springs from the page with vividness. She writes letters to "Dr Julian Barnes", about fiction, life and death, and about "belief in coincidence", which passes in these stories as a substitute for belief in God. "Knowing French" comes to mean knowing what's what.

"Wise, funny, clever, and moving" says the jacket blurb. The Lemon Table is clever, certainly; and elegant, laddish, efficient. And largely free from grief.

The reviewer's latest book is 'Going Buddhist' (Short Books)