The Only Story
By Julian Barnes, Jonathan Cape, 224 pages, £16.99
Like his Man Booker-winning 2011 novel The Sense of an Ending, and indeed his 2008 memoir Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes’s latest novel is narrated by an older man puzzling over the meaning of existence. All three speakers share a 1950s childhood in the “Metroland” of Barnes’s debut novel, and a promising, if anxious, academic 1960s youth that took them away from their suburban families. Each also has a similarly melancholy, intimate tone, a fine line in rhythmic, elegant, understated prose, and plenty to say about time, love and the slippery nature of memory.
Our new hero, Paul, places himself nearer the truth-telling memoirist Barnes than his fictional predecessor, the fascinatingly unreliable Tony Webster in The Sense of an Ending. Paul begins, as if in essay form, with a wide, philosophical question: “Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more, or love the less, and suffer the less?” He constantly keeps one eye on historical context, and is especially astute on architectural detail and the way money is spent; and he is always intent on making himself ordinary, a mere example of humanity. As such, he is anxiously alert not only to the problems of self-heroising, but its opposite: “There is the danger of being retrospectively anti-heroic: making yourself out to have behaved worse than you actually did can be a form of self-praise.”
Tony started his story at school, where pretentious young men jostled to score points over the history master. Paul, by contrast, opens his narrative at leisure. He is 19, down from university, and bored and aimless as he drives himself around country lanes in a Morris Minor — bought, such were the times, with his student grant. Like Tony, he has several male friends, but he is not absorbed, in the traditional Barnes fashion, in rivalries with them, nor is he desperately preoccupied with his resentment of his parents, or even, apparently, with sex.
When his mother suggests he join the tennis club he assents amiably, contenting himself with just a few sour snorts about the “Hugos” and “Carolines” with whom he plays. But when, like Tony, he encounters an attractive, knowing, ironical older woman, Susan Macleod — “She is wearing her usual tennis dress, and I find myself wondering if its green buttons undo ... I have never met anyone like her before” — he does not, as Tony did, run away abashed, but partners her in the mixed doubles, drives her home, and embarks on a daring, decades-long love affair: his “only story” and the defining event of his life.
Not that the older Paul allows us to exult in his bravery or the romance. He is dry about everything: his revolutionary impulses, his rebellion against his parents, his expulsion from the tennis club, even the sex. “I can’t remember when or where we first kissed, who made the first move, or whether it was both at the same time. And whether perhaps it was not so much a move as a drift.”
Lovely romantic images — “love feels like the vast and sudden easing of a lifelong frown ... as if the lungs of my soul have been inflated with pure oxygen” — are tucked into asides, carefully distant from any actual encounter, and are deprecated almost at once: “I only thought like this when alone, of course.”
The Sense of an Ending slides rapidly by, powered by its slippery narrator and a tight plot where every detail proves important. Paul resists such artifice: he lopes, he repeats, he gives spoilers from the start, and he refuses to sort characters according to plot, giving for example extensive space to Susan’s friend Joan, who is not a significant actor in the story, and very little to Susan’s daughters, who are. Susan’s husband, Gordon “Elephant Pants” Macleod (nicknamed for his vast bloomers), is a potentially splendid villain: an obese, violent, bigoted golfer who chews spring onions before meals. Paul’s conflict with him is central, fascinating and lasts years: yet he insists on telling us about him sidewise, occasionally, without a single spotlit moment of conflict, so that even this struggle is distanced and diffused.
All this means that the exquisite moments — and there are many — in The Only Story come from its psychological acuity, especially about how we remember. In Paul’s narrative, experiences deconstruct themselves and personalities decay in a devastatingly convincing way. Susan is at first an alluring, rich, potent presence, full of ironic turns of speech from which we infer great intelligence; but she becomes reduced, by the middle of the book, to a series of repetitive tropes (“A played-out generation ... this has all been frightfully interesting”), while even her nicknames, a vital part of her charm, are reduced to verbal tics: “Mr EP” for the man who hits her, “Mr Badger” for Paul. She carries on asking desperate questions until we, not just Paul, wonder if we ever knew her at all.
There is a continual, delicate play with personal nouns: Paul is “I” only when he is with his love; elsewhere, he wears himself away to a generalised “you”, and at the end, a conventionalised “he” who can only flick back to his “I” at moments of extreme pain. Writing itself becomes suspect: “With your inky pen to make you hate me”, scribbles Susan in Paul’s diary, and her pathetic note is turned over and over in Paul’s mind, logically, philosophically, in all sorts of past and possible future contexts, until neither hate nor love is left. It all seems terribly sad, and horribly true: a definitive account of how romantic love becomes trapped in its own frame and empties itself of colour and meaning.
But it does not seem necessarily the “only story” about love. Like The Sense of an Ending, a book where two men kill themselves rather than become fathers, or Nothing to Be Frightened Of, where children are summarily dismissed as a defence against the fear of death, this is in many ways a story against parenthood. Paul “often forgets” that Susan has two children. In his mind, she is to be rescued from her mothering, which he sees as “rising social acceptance combined with slow emotional diminution”.
One of his most fondly remembered interludes is sitting with Susan in a car in Harley Street holding a freshly boxed diaphragm; he dismisses his contemporaries with conventional families and life-trajectories as “furrow-dwellers”. But Barnes is too good a writer to be equally callow. Over Paul’s shoulder, and especially in his anxiously recounted fantasies, we glimpse other kinds of love, less romantic, more commonplace, but also more generative: his friend Eric’s kindness; his girlfriend Anna’s hopeful positivity and firmness; above all, Susan’s daughter Martha’s shining patience with her ill mother, which does not speak of “emotional diminution”, but of family love given, at least at some point, freely and generously.
Even the terrible Gordon has his epiphany, as Susan tells Paul.
What I hate,” she says, “is when he gets down on his knees.”
“He gets down on his knees?” In his elephant pants, I think.
“Yes, it’s awful, it’s embarrassing, it’s undignified.”
“And, what, begs you to stay with him?”
“Yes. You see why I don’t tell you about it?”
And she doesn’t, much, but that story is here too, all the same.