The Only Story
Julian Barnes is the de facto novelist laureate of the English postwar middle classes. Across his handful of novels and many short-story collections, he has held a mirror to the world of middle managers and provincial bankers, treating their myths and morals as endlessly subtle fascinations, enfolded mysteries that require explication of the most careful kind.
He has been a satirist of their snobbery and fearfulness of social disgrace, a recorder of the shushed intimacies of their marriages and intrigues and a gentle critic of their philistinism. Although he is himself Oxbridge, Francophile and literary establishment, his preference as an author is to burrow into the suburban world from which he rose, and to celebrate, in his ambivalent way, the qualities of circumspection, understatement and lack of pretension.
His latest novel, The Only Story, is an elegant, somewhat blanched rumination – chilly, even by the pulled-back standards of Julian Barnes – on the perils and complications of romantic love. It is in its way both an articulation of the limits of a bourgeois sentimentality and an apology for the self-interestedness that ultimately trumps it.
What is it, this book seems to ask, that men and women desire more than anything in the world? Is it to love and to be loved in return? Not quite, not only:
“That’s one of the things about life,” says Joan, a figure who functions as oracle and part-time agony aunt. “We’re all just looking for a place of safety.”
And it is the journey towards an acceptance of this universal truth that Paul, the book’s narrator, turns into the only story he, or we, can credit.
At 19, Paul falls madly in love with Susan, a married woman old enough to be his mother. For a stretch, they live as neighbours and secret lovers in a quaint little suburb called the Village. He chauffeurs her around town, and sometimes on longer trips, and everyone pretends not to notice. Then her nasty-bit-of-work husband forces the lovers to make a dash for London.
There it all begins to unravel. Susan starts boozing and quickly moves to all-out alcoholism. Paul, clinging gamely to the fantasy that love conquers all, is her lover and nurse for as long as he can be. Eventually something snaps. He handballs Susan, now invalided, back to her family and abruptly flees the country.
The story is told from the perspective of age as Paul looks back on life in search of meaning. The first part of his narrative, describing life in the Village, is written in the first person. The second part, describing Susan’s decline, alternates between first and second, as though Paul is consciously zigzagging between attachment and detachment. And then the third part – surprise, surprise – is a third-person analysis of how a tragic first love has shaped all that follows.
These shifts in the narrative voice can sometimes be disconcerting, particularly the shift to second person. Paul’s address to his younger self inevitably seems to implicate his opinions and revelations in the reader’s consciousness:
But if you think these are the only categories of sex that exist, you find you are mistaken. Because there is a category that you had not known to exist, something that isn’t, as you might have guessed had you heard about it before, merely a subcategory of bad sex; and that is sad sex. Sad sex is the saddest sex of all.
The saddest sex, the saddest story: Ford Madox Ford, eat your heart out. Is it insensitive to say this is self-evident to the point of banality, an elaborate cliché?
The Only Story has a comparable structure to Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, which won the Booker Prize in 2011. The two novels are in fact kissing cousins. Their narrators are cut from more or less the same cloth, the action in both books revolves around an affair between an undergraduate and an older woman, and there are frequent verbal echoes and repetitions.
This shuffling of shared material between books is a calling card for Barnes; it associates with his enduring interest in the imperfect and partial nature of memory. It also suggests, more problematically, a kind of endless doodling or daydreaming, as though his books and stories were evidence of a shrugged-off desire to write a larger, more ambitious, more overtly formless work, lyrical and discursive and recapitulative.
Not that the two books are interchangeable. Whereas The Sense of an Ending keeps the revelations coming until the end, suggesting an optimism of the never-too-old-to-learn kind, the sense of the ending of The Only Story is gloomy indeed.
Some of the descriptive passages of life in the Village in the 1960s are very bright, and his portrait of Susan’s husband has particular sharpness and vitality, but the book maunders on, the narrative mechanism slowly running down. Barnes sketches – wryly, skeletally, coolly – the quiet life Paul has led since abandoning the sick woman to her bottle: he makes cheese, he avoids intimacy, he guards his place of safety and he calmly awaits his end.
There is, nonetheless, a graceful curvature to the winding stair of this desultory tale to end all tales, and Barnes is never less than eloquent as he leads us to the dying of the light. There is no rage, only a kind of melancholy shading into numbness as Paul reflects on the fact that his love failed the ultimate acid test and that maybe it would have been better had he not loved at all – or not so much.
It is curious, this triumph of despondency. Perhaps The Only Story signals Barnes’s post-Brexit loss of faith in the ordinary denizens of his beloved Metroland, the voters gulled by promises of a different kind of place of safety? Perhaps this is not an apology for middle-class self-interestedness so much as a statement of disillusionment?
But, no, that is too much for this in some ways rather slight novel to bear, a novel that is at the very least compelling in its refusal to be compelled. JR
Jonathan Cape, 224pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 3, 2018 as "The Only Story, Julian Barnes". Subscribe here.