The narrator of one of Julian Barnes's new short stories tells us that: "Among the Chinese the lemon is the symbol of death." The Lemon Table is preoccupied with mortality. Sooner or later, authors who have celebrated randy youth, adulterous marriage and the trials of fatherhood come to this, blubbing about the hair on their heads reappearing as ear-fluff.
To Barnes's credit, he began looking into the open grave almost 20 years ago with Staring at the Sun, which described in mordant detail how its heroine aged and died. The Lemon Table features another enjoyably cussed old woman, of 81, and confined to an old people's home, who writes to "Dr Barnes" in "Knowing French". She intends to go through fiction in her local public library, beginning with A, and tellingly, in view of Barnes's bust-up with his old friend Martin Amis, she writes, "I find I have read many entertaining descriptions of pubs and much voyeurism on women's breasts, so I pass on." Her queries regarding Barnes's own work provide an amusing coda to Flaubert's Parrot as well as a portrait of someone refusing to go gentle into the night. Barnes's steely wit finds best expression when inhabiting the anguished and angry.
Here, we revisit the finicky mortifications of Metroland with "Barnet Shop", which revealed to me why my son and husband loathe having their hair cut. The hapless narrator is transfixed not only by the dangerous scissors and razor but also the rudeness of the barber's pole. "Everything was rude if you wanted it to be," observes the dismayingly homophobic young Gregory, meditating on the relative size of his schoolmates' "whangers". Later, in the disillusioned confidence of maturity, he gains a small victory over the hated barber despite retaining his fear of sex.
Barnes's protagonists are nearly always losers, as in "The Story of Mats Israelson", whose protagonist nurtures an unspoken passion for another man's wife. Anders is a pompous, middle-aged timber merchant in snobbish 19th-century Sweden who has an unexpected turn for poetry. Mrs Lindwall believes herself in love with him, but during their one private meeting, when Anders is on his deathbed, he denies he is dying and angers her by appearing to be a mere seducer. It is a neat inversion of Madame Bovary, which clearly remains the lodestone to Barnes's creative life.
Other stories imagine Ivan Turgenev's thwarted passion for a young actress, a husband's annual excursion into adultery with a comforting, ageing prostitute, and a music lover's baroque revenge against those who cough at concerts. These are not, in other words, stories to enlarge the spirit. Their brilliance rather plays upon our petty furies and failures, embellishing them with the same self-deprecatory wryness as Barnes's recent collection of essays, The Pedant in the Kitchen. Perhaps an infusion of Balzac, rather than the sniggering and small-minded Flaubert, would encourage the metropolitan energy and savagery that lurks in the wings. Barnes is a natural satirist, and as such not really suited to writing, as he has repeatedly done, about love.
Essentially, most of these stories are retreads of perennial Barnesian fixations: jealousy, the embattled and misunderstood artist, French, and the mournful lesson that "a greater pain drives out a lesser one". If you share none of these obsessions, you might find the stories arch and mildly irritating. If, however, you do, you will find them, as I do, entrancing and curiously cheering despite their grim subject.
Amanda Craig's most recent novel, Love in Idleness, is published in paperback by Abacus in May