Julian Barnes’s collection of short stories <em>Pulse</em> is a masterly exploration of love, loss a

Julian Barnes
Jonathan Cape, 240pp, £16.99

Many of the stories in Julian Barnes's new collection are about death, which will not surprise anyone familiar with his meditative memoir Nothing to Be Frightened Of (2008). This was published in the year that Barnes's wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, died. He writes here with unusual clarity about the landscape of grief.

Yet Barnes is also deeply concerned with the state of being alive; of having a pulse and five senses; of being a living piece of solid flesh. This is the other side of bereavement - the acute, occasionally guilty awareness of not being dead. In these stories, he sometimes considers the value of a particular sense by writing about its loss or absence; his characters include a blind musician, a deaf painter and (in the title story) an elderly man who has lost his ability to smell. The man tells his son that he hates not being able to smell his wife, and the son is disconcerted by this hint of sensuality in his reticent parents. Do they have a sex life? He decides he doesn't need to know. "I'd seen the look in my father's eye . . . It didn't matter one way or the other if they were actually having sex. Because their intimacy was still alive."

Sex is the ultimate sensual experience (and the one you have to be most not-dead to enjoy), and Barnes is just as fascinated and beguiled by the strange phenomenon of falling in love as any romantic novelist. However, he never lets his inner Georgette Heyer get the better of his inner Voltaire. He is too intelligent a writer to be satisfied with sentimentality, no matter how attractive. The moments of piercing tenderness in Pulse are all the stronger for being strained through an elegant, 18th-century scepticism.

In "Carcassonne", the narrator describes the day in 1839 when the Italian revolutionary Garibaldi spotted a woman in the distance through his telescope and instantly fell wildly in love. The narrator then points out the historical howlers in the romantic legend, and follows it up with an anecdote about two women discussing the taste of sperm. In this story, the recurring theme is the sense is taste. "Falling in love is the most violent expression of taste known to us . . . So how do we know to trust that moment of passionate taste, however camouflaged?"

The moment of passionate taste is triggered by all kinds of things - the sight of legs in hiking boots, or the bleached fingertips of a woman with Raynaud's syndrome. Though love is often a cause of anguish, however, Barnes is never bitter about it, or cynical. He is a believer. The half-chapter of his 1989 novel A History of the World in 10½ Chapters is about love (and reads now as a beautiful epitaph for his wife).

In "Marriage Lines", one of the most moving stories about bereavement I have ever read, a newly widowed man returns to the Scottish island where he and his wife spent some of their happiest times. He appreciates the tact of Calum and Flora, the couple who own the B&B where they stayed every year, and is relieved that he will not be expected to recite all the details of his wife's illness and death - "the speed of it all, the process, the merciless tramp of events".

Barnes captures with delicate precision the awful way that things stop happening after the drama of the funeral is over. The bereaved husband sits out in the drizzle with his binoculars and sandwiches, and begins to understand why he had to come back. "He had thought that grief might be assuaged, or if not assuaged, at least speeded up, hurried on its way a little, by going back to a place where they had been happy. But he was not in charge of grief."

The detached style is inseparable from Barnes's wit; even his melancholy has an ironic edge. The stories in the first half of the book are interleaved with a series of wickedly observed dinner parties "at Phil & Joanna's". A group of middle-aged, highly articulate, middle-class friends gathers around a dinner table in north London for food and wine. Each dinner begins with a brisk introduction to the main conver­sation - "We had also considered whether the Labour Party was any longer distinguishable from the Conservatives, the suitability of London's streets for bendy buses . . . and the effect of global warming on English viticulture."

After that, it's straight into the talk, which jumps from the politics of smoking to Hugh Grant's blow job. The old dears talk a great deal about sex, mostly in the past tense, and someone seriously says "Touché", which surely hasn't been said seriously since the early James Bond novels.

When he is being purely funny, Barnes can observe with wince-inducing accuracy. "Sleeping With John Updike" is a small, barbed jewel of a short story about the literary life. Jane and Alice are a pair of novelists in late middle age, friends and rivals who have become a popular double act on the festival circuit. "Each had had a little more success than they had anticipated, but less, looking back, than they thought they deserved." As the women sit together on a train, their relationship falters suddenly when a time-worn anecdote about Updike is called into question.

The second half of the book contains the two historical stories that show off Barnes's celebrated gift for what could be called "entertaining intellectualism" - or making the reader feel as effortlessly smart as he is. In "The Limner" he considers sight and what it might become if not shackled to hearing. James Wadsworth is an itinerant portrait painter in late-18th-century America who walks through towns and villages, offering people something that they have never seen: an image of themselves as they look to other people.

Wadsworth has been deaf from the age of five, but his keen eyes read the character of his sitters, who are often - like the fat and argumentative collector of customs Mr Tuttle - pompous monsters. The painter is spared having to listen to them; they write their comments in a notebook. Tuttle scribbles: "More dignity." But Wadsworth feels that he has given the man more dignity than he deserves; he is a moralist, and his deafness has given him a saintly detachment.

“Harmony" works nicely as a companion-piece to "The Limner". The setting is Vienna in the 1770s; the protagonist is a girl, Maria Theresia von P-, a gifted musician who has been blind since the age of three. Maria Theresia's inexplicable blindness has made her into a celebrity with an allowance from the empress, but her parents are still seeking a cure. "M-" is a scientist who has had success with "magnetism", yet he is sharp enough to follow the girl's illness back to its true source.

All the stories in Pulse have the absolute completeness and density of the very best short fiction. You could add a litre of water to the last two mentioned and there would still be enough material to flavour a whole novel. Barnes writes wonderfully about dying, but is interested mainly in the experience of being alive - even if he does know more about everything than he quite likes.

Kate Saunders's "Beswitched" is published by Marion Lloyd Books (£5.99)

This article first appeared in the 03 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The siege of Gaza