Making Lemonade 

In his story collection, Julian Barnes looks at death with something of a smile

In his story collection, Julian Barnes looks at death with something of a smile

Julian Barnes' The Lemon Table: Stories (Knopf, 256 pp., $22.95), was inspired by a newspaper clipping about an 85-year-old man who, in jealousy, murdered his 81-year-old wife. The working title of the book was Rage and Age, and, in fact, the second to last story of the collection, "The Fruit Cage," features domestic abuse among geriatrics—an 83-year-old woman who throttles her husband with a frying pan, finally paralyzing the left side of his face.

The lemon is a Chinese symbol of death (the narrator of "Silence" tells us this), and if anything can challenge a title like Rage and Age in accurately representing this morbid collection, it is The Lemon Table. The 11 stories in the book offer an assortment of variations on, if not death, then senility, decay, failure, sickness, boredom, mourning, guilt and the general fear and promise of oblivion.

Nearly every one of the stories concludes with the passing away of a male narrator. In "The Story of Matt Israelson," Anders Boden, a sawmill manager who has spent 40 years infatuated with his married neighbor, Barbro, realizes that, in fact, he and Barbro have nothing in common. Promptly, he shoots himself.

In "Knowing French," the fussy narrator wishes to die, but hangs in there out of a sense of propriety. Suicide, she says, is "vulgar and self-important, like people who walk out of the theater or the symphony concert."

As depressing and uncomfortable as the book sounds, Barnes carries it out with a comic lilt. Dying is a matter of plot more than mood, and the stories, which take it as a given that we will die frustrated and unforgiven, are interested less in death than in what we can get out of the final days before it happens.

In the "Fruit Cage," the pan-paralyzed husband welcomes his wife's daily visits, reveling in the final—and most intimate—stage of their relationship. The wife tenderly reminds him of all their time together, and "when [her husband] dribbles from the left corner of his mouth," she carefully, compassionately "dabs away the spittle."

—Rachel Aviv

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