“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.” 
Everyone has at least one story to tell: the story of their first love. This is Paul Casey’s. At the green age of nineteen, Paul finds himself at a loose end during a summer break from university. Back at his parents in a leafy Surrey suburb, he decides to join the local tennis club for a little distraction. Boy does he get it. Stumbling into a mixed doubles pairing with a Susan Macleod, there are more hormones than tennis balls flying about on court. Susan is intriguing. She is also 48 years old, married, and mother to girls older than Paul.

Trapped in a loveless marriage with a throwback to the days of British Empire, Susan is tame (read dull) by cougar standards but to Paul she is a life-shaping story waiting to happen. Carrying on such an affair must have its downfalls but ringing disapproval from the locals and expulsion from the tennis club do nothing to dampen the romance. Indeed, for Paul, a little adversity only makes for a better tale to tell his chums. As he confesses, “I seemed to have landed on exactly the relationship of which my parents would most disapprove.”
The Only Story by Julian Barnes cover
Despite Susan’s entreaties to find himself a young lady to go steady with, Paul refuses to leave his Mrs. Robinson. Sticking out the suburban adversities they face is admirable but when the older Paul (who narrates the story) begins to describe the uncomfortable domestic setup the lovers try to create as Paul reaches his twenties, catastrophe lurks. Susan, it turns out, is a drinker. Having split her family apart to be together, she is a lot for a young man to take on as Paul will learn.

Almost forty years on from the publication of Metroland, Julian Barnes finds himself back in the suburbs for more growing pains. The Only Story (2018), however, comes from a more mature writer and there are traces of the melancholy of the old looking back on their youth that was so brilliantly done in The Sense of an Ending. Where that novel was awarded the Booker Prize in 2011, The Only Story has received a more luke warm reception from the critics. Indeed, “luke warm” is a pretty accurate two-word review of the book.

It is always unfair to judge a book against its authors back catalogue, but it is also inevitable. Here we have an older Paul looking back across formative periods of his life; in The Sense of an Ending we had Tony Webster appraising his younger self. But where Tony’s story – despite his resistance to experience - managed to evoke a great deal of suffering and self-deception that amounted to a beautiful rumination on the power of memory to deceive and the melancholy pains of a life viewed from its end, Paul’s feels lifeless by comparison no matter how wildly he attempts to break from his parent’s ‘boring’ generation.

Paul’s telling of his only story is different to Tony’s. Barnes allows his latest creation to slip into indulgences and asides, bringing him closer to the reality of one’s own self-narrative. As he discusses his own storytelling technique, Paul observes that, “there are things I can’t be bothered to tell you.” But there are things he certainly does bother to tell us that are not required for the story’s progression – whole characters, in fact, crop up who serve very little purpose in moving the plot forward. With details sprinkled somewhat haphazardly and characters evolving out of the reader’s sight, there is something very affecting about a story viewed from a narrator who cares only partly about the art of fiction.

Some readers will find this style too dry to be enjoyable, however. For myself, I had forgotten within a few weeks of finishing the book that I had ever read it. I can also recall more lines and details from Barnes’s previous three or four novels than this one, despite having read them some time ago (and my memory being appalling). I am not sure this is a condemnation of The Only Story but I think it does mark it out as a very particular type of fiction. For those that embrace psychological realism, this will be a book to excavate with psychoanalytical detail; for others who prefer a little more artifice in their fiction (and I think I may fall into this camp), The Only Story will be less exhilarating.

Given that the narrative is told in a strongly realist style, the content of the story is groaning with fictional conceit. A young man seducing (and seduced by) an older woman who will offer him a way out of childhood but later cause him no end of questions and regrets, is the sort of plot that could be pulled from countless French novels – Flaubert, one of Barnes’s acknowledged pleasures, would have happily settled on such a plot. Paul would deny it - “You might think: French novels, older woman teaching ‘the arts of love’ to younger man, ohh la la. But there was nothing French about our relationship, or about us. We were English, and so had only those morally laden English words to deal with: words like scarlet woman, and adulteress.” - but it does not have the ring of reality. Or, perhaps it is fairer to say, it smacks of being an exceptional story. By telling the story in such a realistic manner, Barnes creates a problem for himself: the content of the story must be out of the ordinary to keep the reader’s attention but by doing this, the overall tone of psychological realism is compromised.

Despite that, Barnes is at his normal level of technical excellence. His prose is crisp and unobtrusive, even if there are fewer sparkling sentences to admire in this than in some of his recent efforts. Paul’s story is told from the first-person perspective at the novel’s start, but this gives way to second-person, and finally third- as Paul grows more distant from his youthful, vital self. This works nicely and by the end, Paul is detached not just from himself but from the idea of love, which he treats more as a philosophical question than an emotion to be experienced. Love still affects him, however, even if it is observed rather than experienced.
“He was at ease with the world, watching other people’s lives develop. No, that was too grand a way of putting it: he was observing the young get cheerfully drunk and turn their minds to sex, romance, and something more. But though he was indulgent — even sentimental — about the young, and protective of their hopes, there was one scene he was superstitious about, and preferred not to witness: the moment when they flung away their lives because it just felt so right—when, for instance, a smiling waiter delivered a mound of mango sorbet with an engagement ring glittering in its domed apex, and a bright-eyed proposer fell to bended knee in the sand […] The fear of such a scene would often lead him to an early night.”
As much as this is Paul’s story, it is Susan’s too. Indeed, without Susan – with her shy, suburban frustration – there would be no story. She bridges the gap between the “played out” wartime generation and the new, freer youth coming through. There is no happiness with her alcoholic husband but her escape with her young lover proves barely more successful. Her wry witticisms give way to drink-induced slurs, and Paul becomes as useful as her past husband, neither of whom truly understand her.

The fact that Paul is unable to pull Susan from her depression and alcoholism having taken her away from her family, causes him to search his soul. That he is still doing this 50 years after the affair gives the title an ironic bent: is first love the only story, or is it Paul’s only story having allowed it to clip his life beyond opportunity for any further stories of note. Just as he clung to Susan for longer than was sensible in his youth, Paul is guilty of holding onto (and being defined by) his only story for longer than is healthy.

The Only Story is a funny sort of novel. The premise has been so heavily done in fiction as has its period (Paul is a young man who experienced the 1960’s sexual awakening) that its bare bones sound rather trite. But Barnes’s ability to permeate to the foundations of his characters and wrench every last drop of pain from their story lifts the novel. It is an interesting comparison piece to The Sense of an Ending – one protagonist running from youthful love, the other embracing it – but The Only Story never really erupts into anything spectacular and I strongly suspect it will not go down as one of Barnes’s ‘must-read’ efforts.

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