Stiff Upper Lip

Julian Barnes
Julian Barnes; drawing by David Levine

Recently Charles McGrath, writing in The New York Times, proposed that there is some hope for the short story, now that it seems to be breaking out of its refuge in academe, where it is turned out at a certain uniform level of uninspired proficiency, mostly to sustain academic writing programs. The MFA short story factories still exist, but, he noted, frisky innovation is appearing in the pages of The New Yorker and, as ever, from the pens of the few masters of this orphan little form to whom it is natural, rather than just a quick substitute for writing a novel. Nonetheless, he acknowledges the dwindling audience for stories.

A dwindling audience is confirmed by an interesting recent report from the National Endowment of the Arts about the decline of reading in general, which found that fewer and fewer people of all ages read literary writing, and that the habit is falling off at a faster and faster rate. Readers and nonreaders alike are affected by the Internet and television, the byte, the sound bite, and the accelerating pace of life, and have only a short story’s worth of time to give to literature. All this should lead us to expect, among the reading 47 percent (who are also the upper-income and upper-educational segment of the population), a renaissance for the short story, a sort of compromise serious form for the busy.

Luckily, in the hands of the greatest short story writers, the form has the weight and complexity of a novel, complete and resonant—one thinks of Mavis Gallant, Alice Munro, Hemingway, Updike, Cheever. In Julian Barnes’s new collection, one feels the satisfactions of novel-reading, and something of the excitement of the innovations Mr. McGrath was talking about, in that The Lemon Table can be thought of as a novel, experimental in form, about aging, one theme linking the stories into something rather like a musical composition, theme and variations, experienced as a whole. This is a technique he has used before, for instance in his A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters.

The advantage of using separate stories for such a difficult theme, the perils and rages (there are no satisfactions listed) of getting old, is that the different points of view, different characters, and different narratives emphasize the universality of a subject that is usually too grim to go on and on about. Stories about old age tend to be written by people younger than the characters, and faintly patronizing in their pitying tones. This is partly true here. Barnes is a young fellow to be taking on the A-word—he was born in 1946; but the stories have none of the condescension and pity most A-stories have when written by someone younger than the characters described. Perhaps stories have talismanic properties that can ward off some of the effects the author so brilliantly, if prematurely, invokes.

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