The Only Story

By Julian Barnes, Random House Canada, 224 pages

Julian Barnes’s latest novel is for the person who likes to listen to sad songs after a breakup. The Only Story hurts while it comforts.

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This is Barnes’s 13th novel, coming after The Noise of Time in 2016, which was a quiet follow-up to his 2011 Man Booker Prize-winner, The Sense of an Ending. All three are short works, but only The Only Story fits Samuel Johnson’s definition of a novel, given in this book’s epigraph: “A small tale, generally of love.” Because of the way Barnes tells it, engaging with the themes of storytelling, memory and love, The Only Story feels much larger and worthy of attention from more than the broken-hearted.

The novel is divided into three parts. It begins in the early 1960s in a suburb of London. Though Barnes switches among first, second and third person, the narrator is always understood to be Paul, who at the start of the story is at the end of his first year of university. He is 19. At a tennis club, he is paired in doubles tennis with Susan. She is 48. And she’s married, not happily, to Gordon, a man who “seemed to be cross with life.” Susan and Gordon have two almost-adult daughters.

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What happens in Part One is predictable from the set-up. Early on, Paul says, “nothing” happens between them except “a complicity which made me a little more me, and her a little more her.” So they fall in love, and by the end of the first section, they run away to live together in London.

No, they don’t live happily ever after.

Now living in a house purchased with Susan’s “running-away fund,” their relationship begins to strain. They have different ideas about what love is for, and Paul’s idealistic view clashes with Susan’s burgeoning drinking problem. Before long, Paul calls her for what she’s become: an alcoholic. His attempts to get her help fail and his love for her begins to fade: “Of course, you still love her, and tell her so, but in plainer terms nowadays.”

As their relationship degenerates, lies and suspicion replace honesty, and Paul comes to realize that Susan’s deteriorating mental state has begun to have an effect on him – she is “triggering [his] own version of panic and pandemonium.” That’s when he decides to call it off. He moves out of the house and begins to live his own life.

The final section, told mostly in third person, deals with the narrator imagining an alternate history between Paul and Susan – one that didn’t involve an affair with her, but marriage to one of her daughters – and catches up on Paul’s career and love life after he left Susan. She’s now confined to a hospital, and by any objective measure, Paul’s not doing so well either.

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In contrast to where the characters end up, Barnes’s writing is exceptional. The Only Story has many sentences worth underlining. The author is skillful in presenting love clichés without eliciting the groans. Rather than a gimmick, switching between points of view serves the novel well, and fits snugly with the novel’s storytelling theme.

Barnes’s protagonists earn our sympathy even if their act of adultery is not laudatory. They’re believable and if you begin to have doubts, Paul’s recurrent rationalizations keep you on his side. Explaining the couple’s compatibility, Paul says, “Yes, she is older; yes, she knows more about the world. But in terms of – what shall I call it? The age of her spirit, perhaps – we aren’t that far apart.”

How is Susan’s turn to the bottle explained? Paul says, “Not that pre-history doesn’t matter. Indeed, I think pre-history is central to all relationships.” Susan’s “pre-history” is a combination of child abuse, the death of her first, true love, and the anger and violence of her husband. The result, by the novel’s conclusion, is that Paul wasn’t “suffering from a rescue fantasy with Susan. On the contrary, he suffered from a rescue reality.”

But the rescue, as we see, fails, and in the process, Paul suffers, too. His relationship with Susan creates an obsession: He keeps a notebook with quotations about love, which he reviews from time to time in order to cross out ones he doesn’t believe are true any longer. Each time he does this, he’s left with two or three “temporary truths,” ones that he’ll probably cross out in his next review. Ultimately, he doubts that the notebook is effective: “Perhaps love could never be captured in a definition; it could only ever be captured in a story.”

And maybe here is where Barnes makes a mistake in his carefully told novel: Has he gone and congratulated himself for writing a story that captures what love is? Not really. He’s right that love is a mystery, but to get to the truth of the narrator’s lament – to get to the truth of The Only Story – you need to ask what are all those sad love songs really about? Heartbreak.

So it’s the same with this novel. A couple of pages before the cold conclusion, the narrator explains why Paul never married: “It was a question of what heartbreak is, and how exactly the heart breaks and what is left of it afterwards.” Sometimes, all you’re left with is a story.

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Michael Czobit is a writer and critic.