The spring of 2018 has kicked off with Julian Barnes giving us a new love story, The Only Story, early reviews of which touched upon the obvious similarity with his 2011 Man Booker Prize winning novel The Sense of an Ending. The comparison is apt: two men (Paul in The Only Story and Tony in The Sense of an Ending), now old, look back at their respective lives as they were some 30-40 years ago, attempting to review the decisions that made them the men they are.
Neither of the books is a classic romance, of course. Barnes’s recipe of love-storytelling includes the male protagonist with an odd nature, who, in a world where everyone is trying to fit in, will find every possible way to stand out and away from the ordinary. Inevitably, the character will fail, never winning the game. Obviously, there will be a female protagonist, equally central to the plot, albeit less vocal. And then there’ll be a few friendly, unforgettable characters thrown into the mix with the hope that a plot will emerge.
The Only Story is no exception. And, rather than success, it is the thoughtful chronicling of disappointment in love, mediated by unreliable memory, in the novel that brings it closer to everyone’s lives without necessarily mirroring the events in them.
In a sorry attempt to dodge his parents’ wish of finding a suitable girl to get married to, 19-year-old Paul, a university student, finds himself making friends at the local tennis club with the 48-year-old Susan who (obviously) has a husband and two grown-up daughters.
The narrative is divided into three parts, and even though each is Paul’s own story, each unfolds in a different way to reflect a particular stage in Paul and Susan’s relationship. Part One is a first-person account by Paul, outlining the beginning of his relationship and falling in love with Susan. Part Two is a blend of first and second person narration – the relationship has graduated to the level of real-life maturity and, inevitably, things have started to degenerate slowly.
And Part Three leads into an indifferent and detached third-person narration, where Paul and Susan cannot relate to each other anymore, not as lovers, certainly not as friends, and only, perhaps, as two people who have known each other very deeply.
Barnes also explains his choice of three different reflective narratives in as many words. While in Part One, Paul says: “And first love always happens in the overwhelming first person. How can it not? Also, in the overwhelming present tense. It takes us time to realize that there are other persons, and other tenses…” in Part Three he acknowledges: “But nowadays, the raucousness of the first person within him was stilled. It was as if he viewed, and lived, his life in the third person. Which allowed him to assess it more accurately, he believed.”
This decision to articulate almost everything that goes on in Paul’s mind, assigning sentences to every feeling touched, every emotion experienced, might be the only thing that tells Barnes’s latest novel apart from The Sense of an Ending. In the Man Booker winning novel, Tony’s rambling was more elliptical, making the reader work on deciphering the phrases for meaning. Paul, on the other hand, breaks it down, leaving little room for interpretation. What he says is, in fact, what it is. Still, the texture of his articulation offers an aesthetic experience of reading.
Susan Macleod is not Veronica Ford or even Sarah Ford, who are important supporting characters in The Sense of an Ending. Susan is practically the other protagonist of the novel, Paul’s partner, and the other half that makes The Only Story complete. Therefore, her silence is somewhat unfair.
One can understand perhaps that Barnes does not interfere with individual retellings, that he probably likes to tell a story from one single perspective. But the woman that Susan Macleod is, her unusual romance with 19-year-old Paul – which is not just a matter of sex, perhaps not even a matter of sex – her courageous decision to leave her abusive husband to move in with Paul, and her eventual collapse as an alcoholic, deserves perspective. One wants to know what goes on in her head, her story with Gerald whom she was engaged to before she married her husband, the emotional baggage she’s been lugging around for years and yet doesn’t let young Paul get even a whiff of.
For Paul, it may be the “only” story that remained with him late in his life despite many other occurrences. He starts as a teenager who started an unconventional and scandalous, but not frivolous, relationship with a middle-aged woman, but was too naïve to realize the weight of responsibilities that came with her personal history. It is both touching and tragic to imagine – for we don’t actually see much of it – Susan suffer. It’s heartbreaking to see Paul give up on her.
Susan must too have had her “only” story, and it may or may not have anything to do with Paul.
The sense of another ending
There was a wave of unrest that lasted for days after one finished reading The Sense of an Ending. It was as if Barnes, who had held one’s hand protectively during the entire course of the 160 pages, let go right before the end was near. As a reader, it felt as if you’ve been left to deal with the ending, both literally and figuratively, all by yourself.
The Only Story too takes you to that spot of isolation, but not as abruptly. It prepares you well before the end. Paul’s love, loyalty and responsibility for Susan never lessens, it just fades into a space of detachment.
Physical space no longer matters and all that’s important, all that remains, is the story.
The Only Story, Julian Barnes, Jonathan Cape.