“Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less? That is, I think, the only real question.” This opening probe of this novel by Julian Barnes is in fact not, as his narrator Paul points out, really a question at all “because we don’t have the choice … who can control how much they love?” Rather, it is the starting point for a meditation in novel form of the power, scope, longevity, pain and exhilaration of love. And this, Paul claims, is the “the only story” that most of us have to tell.
If the act of reading is an active interrogation of the text, as some critical theory claims, I would suggest that for many people the interrogation in this book starts on page one. Is our love story really the only story we have to tell? “I don’t mean that only one thing happens to us in our lives: there are countless events which we turn into countless stories. But there’s only one that matters, only one finally worth telling.”
Really? Reader, you must decide for yourself, but I beg to differ.
This premise overhangs the book and, obviously, provides the title.
The narrative framework for Barnes’ meditation is the story of Paul and Susan.
On holiday from university, 19-year-old Paul is urged by his mother to join the local tennis club to alleviate the suburban boredom. There he meets Mrs Macleod, in her 40s and old enough to be his mother, and falls in love with her, as she does with him.
Susan is married to Gordon, an overweight golfer who is somewhat of a caricature. She calls him, at least half-affectionately, Mr Elephant Pants, but the marriage has to all extent and purposes died, with no sexual contact for years.
Somewhat improbably, Susan invites Paul and his friends into her house and Paul into her bed, apparently tolerated, bar the odd fit of violence, by Gordon.
This is a book in three sections. I have to say that in my view the first is the strongest.
Bringing The Reader In
It may be unusual for a young man to fall for a very much older woman but it is certainly not unheard of (President Macron anyone, with a wife two decades older than him?) and it is apparently paralleled by events in Barnes’ own life.
And much of this section is really quite touching, as they forge their own jokes, armour themselves against the world’s disapproval and, of course, become erotically more deeply attached. It finishes with Susan leaving her husband and moving to London with Paul, where they co-habit for the next “10 or more years”. But the section concludes ominously: “And this is how I would remember it all, if I could. But I can’t”.
In the second section, Barnes shifts the voice of the narrator. No longer entirely first person, the reflective passages interspersed among the narrative are now written in the second person, as if Paul is telling the story to or about himself: “You feel you had nothing to do with the break-up of the Macleod marriage; you were just the outsider who pointed out what would have been obvious to anyone. Yes, you fell in love with her; yes, you ran away with her; but that was the consequence, not cause.”
The effect is also to make the reader complicit in this act of self-deception – this is you, you are involved, you were there.
The Perplexity Of Memory
Susan starts a steady decline into acute alcoholism. Paul, now training to be a solicitor, leaves her in care and opts for a life of watching television, restaurant meals and occasional prostitutes. In short, he blanks.
The third section opens – third person narrative this time – with Paul crossing out quotes about love from “great novelists, television sages” that he has written down but no longer believes to be true.
“The raucousness of the first person within him was stilled. It was as if he viewed, and lived, his life in the third person. Which allowed him to see it more accurately, he believed.”
Well yes and no. Some of what he sees is more accurate, some of it is not. The truth of memory, a recurring theme of Barnes’ writing, is that it is unreliable.
No Easy Answers
The Only Story is at one level a very impressive book. Technically it is, as you would expect, highly accomplished. Barnes writes elegantly and eloquently with a precision that is only matched by Ian McEwan.
I quite like the fact that it is in many ways a provocative book and an unsettling one that refuses, right until the end, to come up with pat answers: “as for redemption, it’s far too neat, a moviemaker’s bromide”.
But I also found it very bleak. Paul is never, even in the early stages, an appealing character. You can just about forgive the crass brashness of youth but his insensitivity and naivety grates.
And in the final sections there is only bleakness and despair, however beautifully expressed.
As a reader, I was never sure that I cared sufficiently about either character to be pulled into their story. And if this was their, and by implication our, “only story” – then, “no thanks!”
The Only Story
Author: Julian Barnes
Publisher: Jonathan Cape, literary fiction