The Only Story

Julian Barnes

Jonathan Cape, £14.99

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Review by Rosemary Goring

THE only story to which Barnes alludes is, of course, the story of love. And for good or ill, everybody has such a story to tell. In the end, it reveals itself as the thing that most matters, that has had the greatest impact, changing or transforming the course of a life.

Paul, the novel’s narrator, learns this lesson precociously young from his lover, Susan Macleod. It is a nugget of wisdom he is to brood on over the years, as his once passionate, transgressive romance turns into something he could not have predicted, threatening to ruin his future. Love, whether in its first blossoming, or as it endures, or simply the memory of what once was, becomes his specialist subject. He keeps a notebook of quotations, crossing out those maxims that, after a while, no longer ring true. Eventually, the only one he can relate to is: “Every love, happy or unhappy, is a real disaster, once you give yourself over to it entirely.”

It’ll be no surprise, then, that this is an emotionally gruelling novel. Written many years later, it is Paul’s attempt to convey his own ‘only’ story, with Susan. Lest the reader has high expectations of atmospheric scene-setting, he cautions: “I’m remembering the past, not reconstructing it... I’m not trying to spin you a story; I’m trying to tell you the truth.” It is the most explicit reference to the realism this novel embraces, stripped of sentimentality and most self-pity, at times uncomfortably yet never self-indulgently plain.

That Susan is of his mother’s vintage is not the problem. Even when they fell in love, he a bored 19-year-old on university vacation, she his 48-year-old doubles partner at the local tennis club, age was not the issue. Nor that she was married. Mr Macleod – irascible, boorish, unattractive – barely crossed his, or her, mind. She called him Mr Elephant Pants, from hanging his trousers on the washing line. Childish nicknames and phrases are her thing. “Where have you been all my life?”, she would ask, to Paul’s delight. When he learned it was an expression picked up from her husband, his feelings are complicated, not by association with the man he is cuckolding, but by what the habit of appropriation reveals – in any of us, not just Susan.

Recalling those early years, when the pair were expelled from the tennis club because of the gossip, Paul realises he enjoyed being unconventional. It was the swinging sixties, and as no-strings-attached sex was coming into vogue, his parents’ generation looked on in dismay. To his amusement and even pleasure, his and Susan’s May-December match “proved as offensive to the new norms as to the old ones”.

Those expecting a tale in the mode of The Graduate will be disappointed. Barnes’s regular readers would be even more disappointed if it took that banal route. Instead, what follows is a compelling, deeply felt, unglamourised reflection on the turning point of Paul’s and Susan’s lives whose events – some of them dramatic – are of less importance than what they say about the nature of love itself.

It is no spoiler to reveal that Susan leaves her husband and the pair set up home. Despite the disparity in age, it could have been a promising start, but as Paul slowly learns, everyone brings their past to a love affair, hidden rocks on which a happy couple can be shipwrecked. Such is the case here, and Barnes describes Paul’s dawning horror as what had seemed so bright and true turns sour with such brilliance of tone and controlled colour, it is like reading a landscape by Andrew Wyeth, sepia-toned, beneath a jaundiced sky, with no hint of comfort on the horizon.

Not all is misery, though. Barnes’s mordant humour enriches his tale. His youthful list of why he hates the idea of adulthood runs to a page, and that is only the start of it: “the sense of entitlement, the sense of superiority, the assumption of knowing better if not best, the vast banality of adult opinions, the way women took out compacts and powdered their noses, the way men sat in armchairs with their legs apart and their privates heavily outlined against their trousers, the way they talked about gardens and gardening....” Yet such passages serve only to highlight the sombre carefulness, the deliberate lack of anything flash or glib, that distinguishes this account.

Composed in three parts, Paul’s narrative shifts between first, second and third person. As he writes, “first love always happens in the overwhelming first person.” And later, “nowadays the raucousness of the first person within him was stilled. It was as if he viewed, and lived, his life in the third person.” Yet it is the second person that is the most arresting, used frequently, and confidingly. In so doing, Barnes creates a sense that the reader is sharing Paul’s bildungsroman, that, like him, one has been contemplating these matters as profoundly as he.

The worst fact he eventually must acknowledge, perhaps, is that his original, burning love is never renounced, but instead is lost. It has fled, like all feeling in a frostbitten limb. As Susan descends into addiction, Paul is obliged to look out for himself. What follows is the wasteland of a life bruised beyond repair. Only as he looks back can he conclude: “It was a question of what heartbreak is, and how exactly the heart breaks, and what is left of it afterwards.”

These are huge questions, to which there are no answers. Barnes’s superbly restrained and haunting contemplation of the problem mirrors the way one remembers and thinks, circling backwards and leaping forwards as the mind tries to make sense of what is, eventually, unfathomable. The Only Story is prefaced by Samuel Johnson’s definition of a novel: “A small tale, generally of love.” Certainly this is not a big book, but in depth and ambition and effect, it is the opposite small.