I’ve never quite been able to define why I find English novelists so compelling, so engaging, so smart, but I do. Three of the finest writers of the century, Iris Murdoch, Barbara Pym, and Anita Brookner are all gone now, though they leave a vast legacy of astonishing fiction. Still alive and writing are A.S. Byatt, her sister Margaret Drabble, Pat Barker, Ian McEwan and the slightly younger Tessa Hadley and Jo Baker. Rachel Cusk, too, is in excellent form with the third novel in her recent trilogy (“Kudos”) and the always fascinating—and slightly melancholy– Julian Barnes has returned with “The Only Story”, one of his finest novels to date.
Barnes is a wise man, a writer of exemplary maturity. In “The Only Story”, he proposes that everyone has one great love, and that said love will determine pretty much how each of us will view other relationships throughout our lives; that first one is the determinant of how we respond (or don’t) to others we love. And that love is usually early in our lives (much like our very first apartments remain, in memory, our most important). Nineteen-year-old Paul, just home from his first year of college, who perceives the upper-middle class family and village where he comes from with the eye for hypocrisy so common to that age, meets Susan, a 48-year old married woman with two children nearly Paul’s age, as they accidentally become tennis partners at the local tennis club (for which Paul evinces his disdain). Their relationship rapidly becomes sexual; Paul spends an inordinate amount of time at Susan’s house, often staying for dinner and sleeping on the living room couch. His relationship with Susan’s boring husband, and Susan’s, too, are horrifyingly fascinating. The husband, who occasionally punches Paul in frustration, is obviously hoping that this affair will peter out and his boring suburban life with his wife will resume. But that’s not what happens.
Susan and Paul move in together in London, and Barnes’ psychological understanding of Susan’s guilt, her inability, really, to commit to either Paul or to her old life, forms the backdrop of their years together. Susan is winsome and witty, frequently asking Paul to “give her a chance”, which he continually does, though, over time, she begins to drink herself into a stupor. Young Paul is really thrown for a loop by her increasing drunkenness and despair, but he stays with her far longer than one would expect, trying to get and finish his college education while they live off Susan’s money. (Paul doesn’t yet understand the importance of money in how one chooses to live; Barnes handles such topics with subtlety and empathy). Susan also has one woman friend back in the village, who’d once run off with a well-off man only to be unceremoniously dumped, but she’s the character with the wit and wisdom–and cynicism–to be the wise friend to both Susan and Paul, together and separately; this woman is one of the best secondary characters in recent fiction. Her bitterness and cynicism are what sustain her.
The last third of this remarkable novel, this study in the psychology of character, of love, of need, of trauma, is the most fascinating, as Paul looks back on his days with Susan–who never does get better–and the reader become privy to how this relationship may well have ruined Paul for other relationships later in his life. Living with an alcoholic cannot be easy, but at l9, Paul uses every available strategy and tactic to “save” Susan until he is barely able to save himself. “The Only Story”, then, is Paul’s story (less so, Susan’s ) and the ways in which he remembers Susan and their time together, in writing full of aphorisms on Julian Barnes’ part, is absolutely stunning. Memory, of course, is often the stuff of novels, and Barnes has Paul not remembering the small things, like weather, that lovers are allegedly supposed to remember; the nearly minimalist style of Julian Barnes is perfect in this oddly moving story. The last third builds in passion and in sadness and in empathy for all. By using the first third of the novel as current, and the second half as the time these lovers live together, and the third as Paul’s adult memories of this relationship and how it basically ruins all his future relationships with women, is brilliantly structured and becomes amazingly powerful as we, the readers, begin to place ourselves in our own “only story”, which is Barnes’ intention as well.
“The Only Story” is a novel for adults, for people who’ve lived a bit. Julian Barnes is in his sixties, to be sure, having lived much on his own, and he presents “The Only Story” as a hymn to young love, whose chorus, at the end, is almost Greek in intensity and lost passion.