THE LEMON TABLE

By Julian Barnes

Knopf. 241 pp. $22.95

These 11 short stories address a serious, noble, difficult subject: the years, months, weeks, days, minutes that lead up to the death of the people we love (or don't, particularly). People don't especially like to think about all that -- or read about it. "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" or the works of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross come to mind, or that useful how-to book on suicide, Derek Humphry's "Final Exit," which talks about the right dose of Seconal, the hefty shot of vodka, the plastic bag, the optional, thoughtful laxative the day or night before.

This body of work is not enough to cover the experience that waits for us all. Even with faith-based rhetoric thrown in -- Saint Joseph, patron saint of the happy death, or chipper relatives beckoning to us from "the other side," the fateful white light -- all of that really tells us little about how people, "in real life" or serious fiction, actually die.

Those who work in hospitals and hospices are fond of saying that humans die the way they live. But what does that mean? In the story "Hygiene" a retired military man, who thinks in dated army jargon, cordially detests his wife and lives for his trips to London, where he attends a regimental dinner and looks forward to an afternoon with a tart from long ago. He is astonished, blindsided, poleaxed, to find that the woman has died of natural causes, of old age. She was "elderly," one of the other girls in the house remarks. Elderly and then dead. The military man has made no plan for this. It hasn't crossed his mind. Oh, well!

In "The Story of Mats Israelson," a man and woman in a small, obscure Scandinavian town are married to the wrong spouses -- he to a sarcastic shrew, she to an ineffectual pharmacist. They are thrown together on a few occasions, but the town gossips about them, so they stay apart, unable to communicate what's in their hearts. On his deathbed the man sends for the woman he loves, but of course they still can't communicate (correctly, cogently) what's in their hearts. He dies. Two more lives down the drain.

Two unpleasant widows get together once a month for breakfast, though in fact they can't stand each other, have nothing to say to each other and have deeply differing opinions about the (lack of) virtue of their respective husbands. One thinks of her "friend's" dead spouse as "the groper." They are troubled, these women, by aches and indigestion and general, overwhelming stupidity. Two more wasted lives.

These particular stories suffer from an overwhelming disadvantage (and I don't care if Julian Barnes is a very skillful writer and gets published in the New Yorker all the time). You can't condescend to your characters, scorn them even, and expect to leave the reader with much more than a bad taste. A little hauteur goes a very long way. Put another way, "Don't speak ill of the dead" might as well be extended to "Don't speak ill of the dying."

To be fair, other stories in "The Lemon Table" tackle mysteries that "people like us" (i.e., not morons) either have experienced or can look forward to with considerable dread. In "Appetite," a long-suffering, decent, loyal wife reads cookbooks to a husband suffering from -- what? Garden-variety dementia? When he shows any signs of recognition or interest, she elaborates on the recipes. Appetite and memory are what they have in common. Then, at times, from another part of his brain, he spouts the coarsest obscenities. Another kind of appetite. Did they have that in common, too?

In "The Fruit Cage," a dutiful middle-aged son keeps in touch with his parents. They seem all right as far as the son can see, but how many of us look closely at our parents, or anyone for that matter? His mother is brutish in little ways, his father mildly mocking. It may be that his mother beats her husband. Then his mother discovers her husband has been having an affair (but she's always hated this "other woman," and didn't she "know" all along?). The husband matter-of-factly leaves and spends his life with this other woman, except when he goes home to do chores for the beastly wife. Does she, in fact, beat him? Does she, as some women are rumored to do, wait for him to fall and then wait and wait some more so that he almost dies? And as he does lie dying, which of these headstrong women becomes his favorite? The truth is: No one knows the truth.

In "Knowing French," Barnes introduces himself as a (largely absent) character, a writer who has an elderly fan who's read "Flaubert's Parrot" (which Barnes himself wrote) and writes to him from a nursing home where she's waiting for death. She's read Gide and Proust and Giraudoux. "I was a top scholar," she remembers wistfully. She's in her eighties now. For the last three years of her life she writes to him of what it is like where she is, but what is "it"? Is it life, her wretched physical circumstances, her swell past? "You see, I went round the world in 1935, before everything was spoilt. Also in a lot of boats, not avions." She reaches, she yearns, she questions: "If I asked you, 'What is life?,' you would probably reply . . . that it is all just a coincidence. So, the question remains, What sort of coincidence?"

Then, what else? She dies.

Oh, well!