The Only Story, by Julian Barnes (First edition: April 17, 2018; hardcover; publisher: Knopf; 272 pages. This edition: April 17, 2018; hardcover; publisher: Penguin Random House Canada; 272 pages)

Julian Barnes’ latest novel is called The Only Story and, despite the subject (the “scandalous” love affair between a man in his twenties and a much older woman) I found it to be oddly downbeat and without much Angst. I think it is because the characters have such banal, middle-class backgrounds and are so repressed. Is this story of disappointed love also Barnes’ personal “only story”? One should not attribute an author’s personal emotions and motivations to his fictional work (after all, one reviews the book, not the author) but still…I hope that this was just pure fiction, the hand of a master painting a picture that is true to life, but still only a picture. 

Whereas with his previous work, The Noise of Time, I felt empathy for the characters and was in a cold sweat of suspense much of the time, with this one, I was not. This sense of dissociation is partly because of the voice of the narrator, which becomes increasingly distant as the novel progresses.

The first part of the novel is written in the first person, the young man describing the start of the affair. He is “Paul Roberts”, 19 years old. The second part is in second person voice (mostly “you”), describing the bulk of the period, and the third part is in third person (“he”, “they”) describing the end. It is as though, except for the very last few paragraphs where the narrator is again “I”, the narrator becomes more remote from his lover as time passes, even in the way he expresses himself. And of course, end it does, because Barnes constantly foreshadows and hints at that it lasts only about ten years.

Plodding towards disenchantment, ten years on

How and why it ends, though, is perhaps the most interesting part. Precisely how, I will leave to you to read for yourself. Barnes’ writing is always precise, lucid and flowing. Every word is carefully chosen, not one sore thumb sticking out in the mellifluous body of text. That made me keep reading every word of every one of the 254 pages of the story, not even skipping forward. What happens during those ten-plus years? Not much, actually, apart from the fact that the couple gets kicked out of the tennis club where they meet to play in mixed doubles, and that she, “Susan Macleod”, aged 48, becomes an alcoholic.

This is important: The narrator, a feckless guy pretty chuffed with the intensity of the romance, and dreading the responsibilities of adulthood (and therefore is in denial), has to deal with the difference in age between them, but he also has the torment of being with an alcoholic. (Note that I say “being with”, not “loving”, since one of the questions that he constantly has, is whether he stays because he loves her and because love is everything, or whether he stays because he feels guilty.) The two of them relentlessly plod on towards predestined disillusionment, ending up with having “sad sex”, the worst kind of sex in the world.

Scenes from an affair

Still from Scenes from a Marriage, directed by Ingmar Bergman.

It is a portrait of an affair, with the same sort of intimate, revealing, and humiliating details as can be seen in Scenes from a Marriage, the 1973 Swedish Television miniseries written and directed by Ingmar Bergman, and starring Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson. That TV series, later recut into a film, was the first popular portrayal in film of the feminist movement, and was almost documentary in its portrayal of the politics of a modern marriage. I recall the scene in which the character played by Liv Ullmann, “Marianne”, shouts at her ex-husband, “Johan”, about her frustration at being seen as a sex object:

“Marianne: I felt inadequate at work and at home, and I was a washout in bed too. I was hedged in by all the griping and endless demands! Goddamn you! Was it so strange that I used sex for leverage? I was outnumbered, having to fight you, both sets of parents and society! When I think about what I endured, I could scream! I tell you this: never again! You sit there whining about conspiracies. Well, it serves you right! I hope you’ll have it rammed down your throat that you’re a useless parasite.

Johan: You’re being utterly grotesque!

Marianne: So what? That’s what I’ve become!” (quote from Scenes from a Marriage)

Well, in this novel it is Susan who sits at home, playing tennis occasionally or visiting a friend, or having sex with her “fine and feathered friend” and toy boy, Paul, the narrator. The crunch comes when Susan moves in with Paul, who is at university. She is at a loose end, does nothing all day, and is unable to tell a solicitor the reason she wants a divorce. So she just stays married to her abusive alcoholic husband, and stays in the affair. And so it goes. One can hardly blame her for drinking. Barnes does not indicate exactly when this is set (the characters discuss the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 in South Africa, so it must be after that), but it is probably, like Scenes from a Marriage, set in the 1970s, when decent middle-class British women just didn’t do things like openly have affairs and initiate divorces.

“Slowly, over the next weeks and months, you begin to understand that it [Susan’s divorce] is not going to happen, not ever. She is strong enough to love you, strong enough to run off with you, but not strong enough to enter a court of law and give evidence against her husband about the decades of sexless tyranny, alcoholism and physical attack. She will not be able – even via her solicitor – to ask the dentist to describe her injuries. She cannot attest in public to what she is able to admit in private.” (p.126)

Accurate depiction of alcoholism

The novel’s themes, of an age-inappropriate affair, and alcoholism, ring true. As with many other novels in which the characters are drug users, drunks, criminals, or insane, I wondered, if they were particularly well described, how the author would know. In Barnes’ case, I really do wonder how he knew, how he could get so deeply into the mental workings of this guy’s mind. How could he describe so precisely and accurately Susan’s descent into alcoholism? Either he did a great deal of research and spoke to many people, or he knew and loved someone like that, or he is just a superbly skillful writer.

Having myself had a long relationship with someone who drank much too much, I recognized all the signs, all the behaviours, the reasoning, and the stages. I remember being in my twenties, desperately in love, and phoning up an Alcoholics Anonymous helpline to ask what I should do. What they said I should do was, “hand him back”, “give him up”, “let him sink”, “save yourself”, etc. And that’s what Paul learned as well – almost verbatim.

So, when I read here about Paul’s struggle to handle Susan’s drinking, I had a strange sense of withdrawal. Having been in that situation, I could not bear to read more about it. I knew how it would go and how it would end, as it almost always does. Other readers have written about how amazingly emotional and dramatic, and tragic, they found the story. It just didn’t sit that way with me.

So, fair warning to readers who have been there and experienced that (not only someone else’s drinking but the type of affair as well) Barnes’ writing will pierce those thick calluses you have developed over your emotional scars and make you relive it all over again.

A small-village mindset

Beyond the themes, the motifs that Barnes employs, Susan’s rabbit front teeth, her pretty ears, golf, the tennis club, the pub where they go for drinks and the dinky little car in which they drive about, represent the trappings of middle-class life in a little village in Britain. Everything is cosy, covered up, denied, and repressed. Paul and Susan move out of this conservative fishbowl of a lifestyle, but take their culture with them in their heads. Paul becomes a dissatisfied, self-doubting man – unloved because he can never again commit to anyone.

The worst of this situation is that Susan is Paul’s first love and his first real lover. And he believes with the fervour of the newly converted that this first love will be his only love – a big mistake for both parties. As Jane Austen expressed so insightfully in a letter to her niece, Fanny Knight, way back in 1814: “What strange creatures we are!…Oh! dear Fanny, your mistake has been one that thousands of women fall into. He was the first young man who attached himself to you. That was the charm, and most powerful it is.”

His career goes nowhere, he roams the world, working as an expat office manager, and eventually realizes that all that love he felt was pretty much hokum.

“And by that time he had made the most terrifying discovery of his life, one which probably cast a shadow over all his subsequent relationships; the realization that love, even the most ardent and the most sincere, can, given the correct assault, curdle into a mixture of pity and anger.” (p.207)

Barnes’ very first novel, Metroland (1980), deals the themes of idealism and sexual fidelity, and has the three-part structure that became a common recurrence in his work, as in this one. In The Only Story, Paul remembers (or tries to remember) his life and his “only story” – his affair with Susan. The title of the book refers to the comment that Susan makes:

“But don’t ever forget, young Master Paul. Everyone has their love story. Everyone. It may have been a fiasco, it may have fizzled out, it may even have got going, it may have been all in the mind, that doesn’t make it any less real. Sometimes, it makes it more real. Sometimes, you see a couple, and they seem bored witless with one another, and you can’t imagine them having anything in common, or why they’re still living together. But it’s not just habit or complacency or convention or anything like that. It’s because once, they had their love story. Everyone does. It’s the only story.” (p.43, 44).

This is a critical comment – the main idea of the novel. And it is made right at the start of the book, at the start of the affair. But Paul does not remember, until much later. Susan’s “only story” is not about him and her – it’s about her and her husband, “Gordon Macleod”, or perhaps the man who died young, “Gerald”, who she loved before she married Gordon Macleod. Paul doesn’t realize that she is not talking about him and her. The fact that she could think this way is inconceivable to him, as inconceivable as the fact that Gordon Macleod is a real person with real feelings. Susan becomes Paul’s only story and that sad, guilt-racked story is all he ends up with. Lordy. How depressing.

The only story or the only book?

Some people say that every writer has only one story in them, one story that they retell in every novel they write. And if that one story is a success, then the others that are more of the same, are also successes. But in the end it is just one story in different novels. And this is my question about this novel – it is so like Julian Barnes’ other post-modern novels about relationships, in form, character, setting, motif, theme, etc., that I wonder, is the idea of an “only one love story” not his only story too? In this novel, as in others, he writes about the subjectivity and impenetrable nature of knowledge and the illusory nature of the truth. These are themes that he delves into deeply in this novel, at times pages of just conjecture, repeated, chapter after chapter.

Julian Barnes (Photo from: jrbenjamin.com)

He had one great love in his life, his wife, Pat Kavanagh, who died in 2008 (well, only one that he has expressed to the world, being a very private person.) Was she the source of his one story, and his only story? As I said, the degree of personal truths and facts that authors insert into their fictional works vary from all to nothing, and a review is not about the author, but about the novel, but still…

Paul’s asides – his frequent digressions into wondering whether he remembers right, whether he knew or understood the situation or not, whether he acted like a coward or not, whether he was guilty of anything that made the situation worse, whether it was love or not, and if it wasn’t love, what is love?, all of that – seem to be the rumination and worries of a Man of A Certain Age who is looking back over his life and feeling somewhat bitter and quite over the whole love-and-romance-thing. Barnes is now 72. He is as craggily handsome as ever, his career is flourishing, he oozes charm in public. He has a voice that sounds like honeyed money. Who knows if he has someone to come home to. I hope that this novel was just pure fiction, a master painting a picture that is true to life, but still only a picture, made up, no relation to the man himself. Because if it weren’t just fiction, how sad would that be?

(And on that note, I am putting The One Story aside and hope to read something rude, funny and romantic next.)


More about Julian Barnes

Here is an interesting interview by Charlie Rose, dated Wed., May 25, 2016, during which Julian Barnes introduces his novel, “The Noise of Time”, and explains a bit about his writing process.

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