THE LEMON TABLE: STORIES, by Julian Barnes, Knopf, 241 pages, $22.95.

A good short story can be enjoyed quickly — sitting in a waiting room, on a short plane trip, riding TRAX. Often, it's more satisfying than reading a portion of a book in a short time.

But a short story requires a touch of genius and a gift with words capable of enchanting the reader.

Such are the short stories of Julian Barnes in "The Lemon Table," a collection of delicately worded accounts that arouse the senses and challenge the intellect. Barnes is a prolific British novelist who has written just one previous book of stories and two collections of essays. His style grabs the reader immediately, even though each story in the new collection is quite different.

Barnes' diversity of setting and time is astounding, yet there is a common theme around which he faithfully writes — growing old and contemplating the end of life. Common to all the stories is a desire to hang onto life in spite of personal losses and fading health.

One of the best is the first, in two parts: "A Short History of Hairdressing," set in a contemporary English barbershop. A young boy is in a barber chair getting a haircut, practicing the cliched phrase, "short back and sides, with a little bit off the top." Although his mother is waiting for him, the boy sees a haircut as pure torture — with the barber's big hands pushing his head down until his windpipe almost snaps. It is the lad's conviction that boys are discriminated against by barbers because they are charged less and do not tip.

Constantly, the barber is saying "Keep still!" At the same time, he slaps the top of his head with a comb:

Eyes tight shut, he endured the tickly torment of hair falling on his face. He sat there, still not looking, convinced that the barber should have stopped cutting ages ago, except that he was such a loony he would probably carry on cutting and cutting until Gregory was bald. Still to come was the stropping of the razor, which meant that your throat was going to be cut; the dry, scrapy feel of the blade next to your ears and on the back of your neck; the fly-whisk shoved into your eyes and nose to get the hair out.

Part two continues Gregory's experiences with hairdressers well into his older age, still as unpleasant as ever. Those who cut his hair still insist on carrying on mundane conversations with their victims, and Gregory never gets accustomed to it. "So, Gregory Cartwright, give us an account of your life so far." In reply, he says he has stopped being afraid of religion and barbers. He still hates looking at the back of his head in the mirror. He figures that if one day a barber "clipped a swastika into his nape he would probably have pretended to approve."

"Knowing French" follows an 81-year-old woman who begins a correspondence with an author, which turns out to be mutually enriching. In "Appetite," a woman reads recipes to her sick husband. In "The Things You Know," two women get together regularly for tea and reminisce about their younger days, when their husbands were so attentive to them — yet each knows something about the other's spouse that creates doubt about the veracity of the stories. Maybe both Merrill and Janice are better off with their husbands dead.

The 11 stories are realistically rendered, often with prickly language and an unmistakable gift for description, making Julian Barnes a memorable writer.


E-mail: dennis@desnews.com