A familiar story
Fiction: The Only Story, Julian Barnes, Jonathan Cape, hardback, 224 pages, €23.80
An essayistic novel exploring a violent passion with restraint? Julian Barnes is at it again
We've been here before, but Julian Barnes knows that; just look at the title. "Most of us have only one story to tell," observes the narrator a few paragraphs into The Only Story, his 16th work of fiction. "But here's the first problem. If this is your only story, then it's the one you have most often told and retold..."
Sure enough, veteran Barnes-watchers will recognise The Only Story as an example of a story that he has told and retold across his career: an essayistic novel about love, dealing restrainedly with violent emotion, split into three parts and told by a not-wholly-reliable speaker with a fondness for epigrams and donnish textual hijacks. Over the years, Barnes has moved in and out of different territory - a bio-fiction about Conan Doyle in Arthur and George, the story of an imprisoned dictator in The Porcupine, a bizarre political theme-park comedy in England, England - but this is where he always returns. And by now the landscape is looking a bit familiar.
The Only Story is narrated by Paul, who looks back on his late adolescence in an English Home Counties suburb, known to its inhabitants as "The Village", from the vantage of late life, two hip replacements and a small mountain of wounded cynicism.
His account opens in the 1960s when, chafing against his parents' quiet conservatism but also "unrepentantly" bored, he joins the local tennis club, a place "full of Hugos and Carolines" where he makes a brief attempt to blend in, "leaving out the shit-shots I most enjoyed". Before long, to the frigid disapproval of his parents and the rest of the village, he begins an affair with Susan, an older woman from the club; she's in her late forties, he's 19.
Several features of this early segment - youth recollected in age, Surrey-suburban backdrop, kicking against parental control - recall the settings of other Barnes novels, from his debut Metroland to the Booker-winning The Sense of an Ending. Paul's relationship with Susan is an odd combination of apparent innocence - he stays in the family home, receives instruction on "arse-bendingly boring" crosswords from Susan's husband, claims disingenuously to her daughters that "Susan's a kind of mother-substitute for me" - and quiet contrivance, as the couple attempt unsuccessfully to keep their relationship a secret. "The Village tom-tom speaks of nothing else," says one of Susan's friends.
In the second part, however - ominously prefaced by the suggestion that what went before "is how I would remember it all, if I could. But I can't" - the airy good cheer diminishes.
The couple move to London, where Susan's slight mental instability becomes full-blown alcoholism and confusion, and the novel tracks them both through the years of a relationship on which the lights are slowly going out. Paul also reveals himself as a narrator with a lightly postmodern talent for arrangement: he adopts different pronouns (I, you, he) for the three separate parts of his account, and carefully marshals his apparently confessional story so that its revelations detonate at strategic moments. "There's some stuff I left out, stuff I can't put off any longer," he explains, introducing news of a gruesome hinterland of domestic abuse from which Susan has recently escaped. "I said I never kept a diary. This isn't strictly true," he writes later to introduce another subplot. This method of organisation, again, recalls previous work - most notably Talking it Over and its sequel, in which Barnes produced separate narrators to offer three sides of the same story - but here it feels, increasingly, like a lot of work for a single speaker to do.
Even so, there's plenty of strong material here, handled with quiet humour and bleak sensitivity. Several scenes in the book's second segment, in which the central relationship becomes enmired in alcohol abuse and its gruesome sequelae - fury, paranoia, memory loss - have something of the wounded quietness that Barnes mustered in Levels of Life, a mixture of essay, fiction and memoir, whose final part was an account of "crossing the tropic of grief" after his wife's death. Another repeating quirk of Barnesian style, however, proves more problematic. Paul's opening question in the first paragraph sets the tone: "Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less? This is, I think, the only real question." Love is as close as Barnes comes to a special topic, and throughout his writing he and his characters snap at the reader about it like schoolmasters at a blackboard.
The register is there in A History of the World in 101/2 Chapters ("A couple love each other, but they aren't happy. What do we conclude?"); it's there in Levels of Life ("So why do we constantly aspire to love? Because love is the meeting point of truth and magic"); it's there in The Sense of an Ending ("When love first strikes, there's nothing like it, is there? Agreed?"); it's seeded across the work, each time couched in the same distinctive now-look-here voice. Disappearing into his characters isn't Barnes's style; he keeps the dogs, but he enjoys a good bark himself.
The technique threatens, at times, to capsize this novel. Interior justification of a kind arrives when we learn that Old Paul, ruined by experience, has become the sort of character who might vanish in a pop of surreality if taken from the nourishing Petri dish of a Julian Barnes novel: "He had kept a little notebook for decades now," Barnes writes. "In it he wrote down what people said about love... He assembled the evidence. And then, every couple of years or so, he went through and crossed out all the quotations he believed to be true."
That slightly absurd detail half-explains the hectoring blur in which some passages of the novel exist - "You realise that tough love is also tough on the lover." "[F]irst love always happens in the overwhelming first person. How can it not? Also in the overwhelming present tense" - but it doesn't justify the moments where other people start joining in, too, as when Susan informs her lover: "But don't ever forget, young Master Paul. Everyone has their love story."
True, undoubtedly. But Barnes needs a different one next time.