The Only Story ~ Julian Barnes

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersI think I came at this, the latest novel from one of my favourite authors, Julian Barnes, from the wrong direction. No one who knows me will be the slightest bit surprised to hear that I latched on to the word ‘story’ in the title and assumed that the key element here would be a tying of the concept of story to the way in which we live our lives.  And, to a certain extent that is a concern addressed by the narrative that Barnes relates.  However, when Barnes talks of the ‘only’ story what he is specifically referring to is a love story.

Everyone has their love story. Everyone. It may have been a fiasco, it may have fizzled out, it may never even have got going, it may have been all in the mind, that doesn’t make it any less real… Everyone does. It’s the only story.

The love story that Barnes goes on to relate is that of Paul and Susan, a couple who meet during one 1960s summer when nineteen year old Paul, home from university, decides to kill some time at the local tennis club.  He is paired with Susan for a mixed doubles tournament and the friendship that develops between them quite quickly blossoms into a much more serious relationship. However, to Paul’s nineteen Susan is forty-six and married with two adult daughters. The much older Paul, who narrates this story, recognises that to the reader this might seem problematic, even an error of judgment (the tennis club committee, which blackballs them both, clearly has even stronger feelings about the matter) but asks for a more sensitive understanding of the situation.

Perhaps you understood a little too quickly; I can hardly blame you. We tend to slot any new relationship we come across into a pre-existing category. We see what is general or common about it; where as the participants see – feel – only what is individual and particular to them. We say: how predictable; they say: what a surprise!

Well, however we may categorise Paul and Susan’s relationship, it not only continues, it absolutely thrives, even under the grumpy and sometimes violent auspices of Susan’s sexually estranged husband and eventually, Paul having completed his university course, they move into their own property as he begins his training to become a solicitor. But, while Paul is content with the situation, Susan begins to show signs of strain.  Her health, both physical and mental, starts to crumble and Paul is forced to question how wise, how stable, their relationship is. He is even forced to question its very foundation – the love which he believes to be the basis of everything else.

The older Paul who narrates the story would, I am sure, maintain that his love never falters, but it certainly changes and one aspect in particular that changes is the way in which he positions himself in relation to his actions as he retells his ‘only story’. At one point he asks

do all these retelling bring you closer to the truth of what happened, or move you further away.

In narrative terms he certainly distances himself further from the story of his and Susan’s relationship the further he moves from that initial attraction.  Thus, the story is split into three sections.  The first tells of those early years and the narrative choices reflect Paul’s observation that

first love always happens in the overwhelming first person. How can it not? Also, in the overwhelming present tense:

the narrative voice and tense of that initial section echo that.  The older Paul, however, is astute enough to recognise that it takes us time to realise that there are other persons, and other tenses and as the relationship begins to alter so, in the telling of the second and third sections, he distances himself further and further away from the both the action and from Susan, moving through a well controlled second tense in the middle of the text and then into third person, past tense in the final part until, as an elderly man, he can reflect on their time together from the distance of a limited third person narrator, who is well aware that in his recall of their relationship he may also be an unreliable narrator.

There has been much discussion in the press as to the merits of this novel, in particular in comparison to his award winning The Sense of an Ending. I thought that that was a magnificent work and while I find much in this new book to admire, it didn’t affect me in the same way as the earlier novel.  In part this may be because I didn’t agree with his basic premise.  If we do each only have one story to tell (and this is a proposition that Elizabeth Strout also puts forward in My Name is Lucy Barton) then I don’t think it is always a love story.  My primary story would be about me as a teacher because teaching pretty much defines who I always have been and who I still am.  Teaching is as natural an activity to me as breathing is to most other people.  The Only Story feels to me like a very personal response on the part of the author, possibly growing out of his own experience. Nevertheless, it is an extremely well crafted novel with many of those beautifully turned phrases and astutely authentic observations which are the hallmark of Barnes’ style as, for example, when he speaks of an English silence – one in which all the unspoken words of perfectly understood by both parties. So, while for me, this may not be quite his best work, it is still Barnes writing at the top of his game and I very strongly recommend it.

With thanks to Random House and NetGalley for making this available for review.

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16 thoughts on “The Only Story ~ Julian Barnes

  1. I’m with you – I don’t think everyone’s story is a love story either. I suspect you’re right about it arising from his own experiences – his book about the death of his wife made it pretty clear that he felt completely bereft as if the only thing of importance had passed out of his life. Perhaps this is him trying to address that same experience from a different, more fictionalised, direction. He does write beautifully, even though I’m often not overly drawn to the subjects he chooses.

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    1. I haven’t read the autobiographical book but that was certainly what was in my mind but I would read his fiction whatever the subject, I think, simply because he writes better than almost anyone else I read.

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  2. Barnes’ “The Noise of Time” was one of my books of last year and I was happy to be reminded of just how good his writing it. I’m moving on to “The Sense of an Ending” soon and although I agree that anyone’s story is going to be very personal, I may look out for this too just to appreciate the prose! 🙂

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  3. Oh the perils of fast reading – I thought I read that Paul ‘decides to kill someone at the local tennis club’ and was quite shocked that the tennis club only blackballed him and Susan. So I had to backtrack and read it properly!

    Seriously, I do like the sound of this book – I thoroughly enjoyed The Sense of an Ending, so even if this is not quite up to that standard I think I’d like it. I like the idea of exploring your responses as your perceptions change with the distance of time and the unreliability of your memories.

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    1. Ha – I made exactly that mistake too, Margaret! And was just thinking how ludicrously tolerant tennis clubs of the 1960s must have been!
      What a splendid review though Ann, I really like the way you discussed the narrative and that alone makes me want to read it. Thank you! 🙂

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      1. I think this is a novel that you will really enjoy, Helen. Apart from looking at the way in which Barnes uses the structure to support the ideas he is exploring, you will very much appreciate the quality of the prose.

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    2. I had to go back and check just what I’d written, Margaret, but I can see how the mistake happened. It isn’t only when you’re reading. I was using voice activation yesterday to dictate some lecture notes about the dating of ‘The Winter’s Tale’ and said “For most of the time over the last three years the theatres had been shut”. I leave you to imagine what the computer made of that last word. I know I complain about some of the RSC’s productions but I’ve never been tempted to go quite that far! Do read this, I think you will enjoy it.

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  4. What a very thoughtful and comprehensive review, thank you. By coincidence, I have A Sense of an Ending from the library at the moment. It is ages since I read anything by JB so I am looking forward to it – more so following your endorsement. And I had planned to move on to The Only Story – will definitely do that now. And in another coincidence, I was interested in your passing reference to Lucy Barton. I adore everything by Elizabeth Strout, and very much enjoyed Lucy B. One of the other library books I have out at the moment is Anything is Possible – very much looking forward to that too! 🙂

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    1. I recently re-read both Lucy Barton and Anything is Possible one after the other, Liz, for a book group meeting. Having initially read them separately when each was first published, it was fascinating to come to them in such close contact. If you have time you might want to give Lucy Barton a quick re-read first.

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      1. Your comment arrived with perfect timing! I was due to start AiP yesterday, but instead have picked up LB, with the aim of reading both this week – thanks so much for the tip! 🙂

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  5. I love what you say about love not being the only story. I feel that too, especially for women: love may be the story of our young lives but as we get older they expand. I have to catch up with The Sense of an Ending before I read this one. Julian Barnes is always good, but he isn’t quite my favorite. He’s a great critic, though.

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    1. I felt that this was a novel that grew out of his own experiences, Kat. I suppose that it could be argued that as it is either first person or told from Paul’s narrative point of view it might be said to be his opinion that love is the only story rather than Barnes’, but I’m not convinced by that argument even though I’m the person making it.

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