I seem to be developing a Marmite relationship with Julian Barnes. I loved his early work and The Sense of an Ending, but had difficulty with his last novel The Noise of Time. So I approached The Only Story with trepidation.
My stomach sank as I read the first page. The first paragraph poses a question: ‘Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less? That is, I think, finally, the only real question.” A pertinent question to which each of us has our own private answer. My difficulty with the first few pages is the lack of characterization; because it is told in the first person, we do not know who is speaking, there is no context. That of course comes later, and a few pages in its starts to warm up with the description of a tennis match. But ultimately I could not shake the perception that it was Julian Barnes the man speaking, not a fictional character, in the way American authors such as Wolfe and Roth seem to become characters in their own novels.
But this is a lesson in patience. I read on and the story started to come alive as the relationship of Paul and Susan unfolds. A teenager and a woman in her forties; it is first love for Paul but, as The Only Story is told completely from his perspective, we don’t know what it is to Susan. We only know what she tells him, not what she thinks. It is telling that one day after finishing the book, I could remember the name of his character but not hers.
The story is told in three parts: in the first flush of love; in the difficult times that follow, and as Paul looks back in later life. Barnes changes narrative voice from the immediate first person for nineteen-year old Paul, to a combination of first and second in the middle section; and the more distant third person in the final part, symbolic of the passing years and perhaps of pushing emotions and guilt away. The turning points in the novel are the turning points in the relationship, as love turns to familiarity, to duty and becomes a burden. I think the author intends The Only Story as a rumination on the nature of love, when in fact it is an account of a teenager learning that young love does not stay young love.
The writing is beautiful to read, as always with Barnes, but as the story progressed the pace slackened and I grew tired of repetition. I finished it wishing I had felt more engaged with the other characters in the story; Susan’s husband is a peripheral character who behaves oddly, and I would have loved to see more from her caustic friend Joan.
A sad story, but not a new one.
Read my review of The Noise of Time.
‘The Only Story’ by Julian Barnes [UK: Jonathan Cape]
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