The Only Story, by Julian Barnes, Jonathan Cape, 213 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-1767330696
Halfway through Julian Barnes’s novel The Sense of An Ending, which won the Booker Prize in 2011, its ageing narrator, Tony, ruminates matter-of-factly about the course of his existence so far:
And that’s a life, isn’t it? Some achievements and some disappointments. It’s been interesting to me, though I wouldn’t complain or be amazed if others found it less so. Maybe, in a way, Adrian [a friend who committed suicide] knew what he was doing. Not that I would have missed my own life for anything, you understand.
Tony’s plain-speaking, undeceived tone is typical of Barnes’s protagonists, and recognisable too as a kind of house style in much of English postwar fiction. Imbued with a Larkinesque quiet desperation, it is this voice that, along with the mid-century suburban settings he favours, makes Barnes seem such a quintessentially English writer.
Yet the limited version of Englishness these elements represent can make them problematic territory on which to build a contemporary novel, a difficulty Barnes has previously addressed by stressing the unreliability of his characters’ memories and views of the past. Sometimes he employs the reasonable, unpretentious tone in order to undermine it later, and for every conformist Tony there is a maverick Adrian ready to reject or unsettle the assumptions of the middle class world they come from. After the passage above, for example, the second half of The Sense of An Ending revisits Adrian’s story and the context of his death, and in the process transforms Tony’s neutral complacency into a state of troubled unrest.
In much of Barnes’s best work, including his debut, Metroland (1980), the Booker-shortlisted satire England, England (1998) and The Sense of An Ending itself, this questioning of narrative credibility is a ploy that works very well, though it can lend itself to parody, as John Crace showed in his Guardian “Digested Read” of the latter book:
I could go on, but as I can sense you might quickly tire of the flatness of my prose, the absence of any emotion and the repetition of the unreliability trope, I propose to keep this short. I did eventually sleep with Veronica, after we had split up, but it wasn’t very satisfactory for me … There’s not much to say about the next 40 years … But the one thing I have never forgotten is that I am almost catatonically disconnected.
In reality though, Barnes is not at all the resigned, disengaged suburbanite whose voice he often ventriloquises. On the contrary, as might be guessed from novels such as Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), which also made the Booker shortlist, and A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (1989), he is a Francophile, a metropolitan intellectual and an eloquent Remainer, whose London Review of Books article “Now People Will Hate Us Again” was one of the most heartfelt responses yet to the post-referendum xenophobia of Little Englanders.
His new novel, The Only Story, returns again to Barnes’s familiar mid-century commuter-belt terrain, but the current political moment can perhaps be sensed in the form of a much greater uncertainty than usual in his depiction of that world. Unreliable memory here seems to have been superseded by a more serious forgetting (akin to what David Andress calls “cultural dementia” in his recent book of the same name) as that historical territory recedes further into the past. The question is whether this uncertainty is intentional, and one of the book’s themes, or not.
As with The Sense of An Ending, The Only Story starts with a philosophical question, not this time the one posed by Camus about whether suicide is justified, but instead whether “it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”. Or, as the narrator, Paul, puts it, more expansively, in the book’s opening lines: “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.” It is one which puts some pressure on the intensity and credibility of the doomed romance that follows.
Also echoing its predecessor, The Only Story hinges on an affair between a young man and a much older woman, in this case teenage student Paul and the unhappily married Susan Macleod, a mother of two in her late forties, both of them discontented residents of what is identified vaguely as “The Village”, a “zone of suburban sprawl” in the stockbroker belt.
After their meeting at the tennis club during his holidays from college, Paul and Susan become a regular sporting pairing and then, gradually, something more. With time, Paul, to his parents’ dismay, virtually moves in with Susan and her family, eating with them, chatting with her teenage daughters and spending equable hours doing the crossword with her cartoonishly grotesque and – it turns out – violent husband, the spring-onion-chomping Gordon (or “Elephant Pants”, as the lovers call him), who appears to be older again than his discreetly restless wife.
As Paul and Susan edge into their grand, and scandalous, passion (enough to get them expelled from the tennis club at any rate), Paul turns out to be more careless about its details than we might expect:
“I don’t remember when we first kissed. Isn’t that odd? I can remember 6-2; 7-5; 2-6 … I can’t remember when or where we first kissed, or who made the first move, or whether it was both of us at the same time. And whether perhaps it was not so much a move as a drift … All I can tell you is that it was – by the modern speed of things – a long time before we first kissed, and a long time after that before we first went to bed together.”
He’s right: it does seem odd, and implausible, that he doesn’t, even at a remove of many years, recall how such a life-changing and unusual relationship got going. This is the same Paul who later proclaims, when he has detached Susan from her family and the two of them have moved to London, that “Work would be something I jogged along with; love would be my life.”
Perhaps Barnes is showing the reader that when Paul is at his most confident and passionate, he is also at his least observant and comprehending. With time will come a greater distancing from his feelings, as is demonstrated by the book’s most effective device: the switch, in the course of its three sections, from first- to second- to third-person narrative. When, as the novel nears its close, we hear Paul, now middle-aged and solitary, reflecting on the end of the affair, and of his sex life in general, it is no longer his voice that is doing the talking:
“Sex involved two people. Two persons, first person and second person: you and I, you and me. 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.”
Paul’s difficulty in remembering his early days with Susan seems to tie in with the absence of convincing or original detail about the context of their affair in a society that Barnes has previously written about with authority. There is an untypical vagueness and broadness about the characterisation, from Joan, Susan’s gin-swilling, dog-loving, broken-hearted spinster friend, to Paul’s disengaged parents and college mates. It is hard to locate the source of their inauthenticity, but it is as if Barnes no longer quite trusts his historical material.
In general, Susan, as she begins her rapid, and entirely unforeseen, descent into alcoholism in the second section, is an embodiment of this uncertainty, the book’s maverick, self-destructive element. Never quite believable, her startling decline is nonetheless disturbing, with her elusiveness summed up early on by her “disappearing act” into a chintz sofa, her patterned dress camouflaging her presence. Much later, having finally been left by Paul, who can’t cope with her delusions and decline, she metamorphoses with terrible rapidity into a defenceless old woman who is unable to recognise people or remember her past.
But what is at the root of Susan’s desperation and lack of identity? There are muted hints of sexual abuse by her uncle, followed by the later explosive violence of her rejected husband, who knocks her front teeth out by smashing her head into a door. Gordon was also, it turns out, her second choice of suitor after the first was lost in the war. (The war haunts Susan more than Paul has realised. “We’re a played-out generation,” she tells him. “All the best ones went.”)
Then, having bought a house in London for herself and Paul with her “running-away fund”, Susan finds herself stuck in an aimless domestic role, without work or purpose, reduced to nicking nips of whisky from the tenant’s supply and watering down the bottle afterwards.
It is difficult not to read some further meaning into the passivity of the older woman, who, from Paul’s viewpoint, contains a long and partly hidden past that doesn’t include him. Even her rather twee private language and endearments (“Whatski?” she asks of her lover, whom she calls “Casey Paul” and tells not to be a “crosspatch”) seem to be something retrieved from a different and distant era.
The portrait of Susan’s strange brand of alcoholism is sometimes more like one of Alzheimer’s, with its forgetfulness, random calling out of the emergency services and lack of recognition of Paul. Very quickly, she entirely loses her bearings, and when Paul has a dream about holding her out of a window by the wrists, it is uncertain whether he is saving her or she is dragging him after her.
What is clear is that Susan has been mistreated by men, and has few resources once she takes the decision to leave The Village. Her apparent powerlessness and its causes are not lost on Paul, who fears what the alternative might be to the understated world he was brought up in:
One permanent effect of his exposure to the Macleod household had been a distaste for angry men. No, not distaste, disgust … There was a hideous false virtue to anger: look at me, angry, look how I boil over because I am so filled with emotion, look how I am really alive (unlike all those cold fish over there) … look how I am going to prove it by grabbing your hair and smashing your face into a door. And now look what you made me do! I’m angry about that too!
In The Only Story, unreliable memory is replaced by something more frightening, an inability to locate a believable history. In his previous suburban novels, Barnes’s protagonists kick mildly against their dull, monochrome backgrounds; in this one, the kicking-against has punishing consequences, and the safety of the cartoon-like English suburbs can never be recaptured
In a sudden break-out from his trapped life with Susan, Paul uses the “running-away fund” to move temporarily into a Marble Arch hotel, from where he starts to visit prostitutes. The experience leads him to a conclusion typical of a Barnes character, which provides one answer to the novel’s opening question:
The location and the transaction are the exact opposite of all you have previously imagined love and sex to be. Still, it is fine for what it is. Efficient, pleasurable, emotion-free … You begin to wonder ‑ not for the first time in your life – if there is something to be said for feeling less.
In the past, one of the main criticisms of Barnes’s work was that he is too intellectual, more interested in ideas than in living characters. In The Only Story though, the game of unreliable recall is played with less confidence and definition, and is replaced by a general atmosphere of loss. In his New Yorker review of another recent Brexit-era novel, Ali Smith’s Winter, the critic James Wood points to Smith’s brilliant image of family trees, like piled-up baskets of bones, weighing down the living characters at their base, as if they are supporting the burden of history. In Barnes’s novel too, the effort of remembering and authenticating the past, even unreliably, seems to have become burdensome, a task too complex to complete.
Giles Newington is a freelance journalist and former assistant literary editor of The Irish Times.