I 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.