Tuesday 17 July 2018

Love, lies and loss in this devastating masterpiece

Fiction: The Only Story, Julian Barnes, Jonathan Cape, €16.99

Julian Barnes in his North London study:
Julian Barnes in his North London study: "I have worked in this room for 30 years. It is on the first floor, overlooking the tops of two prunus trees… The room itself has always been painted the same color, a bright, almost Chinese, yellow, giving the effect of sunlight even on the darkest day…"
The Only Story by Jullian Barnes

Anne Cunningham

In his 2011 Booker prize-winning novel The Sense of An Ending, Julian Barnes wrote about damaged people, and in particular about people who will do whatever they must to avoid further damage. "And those are the ones who are ruthless, and the ones to be careful of," he wrote.

Seven years and two novels later his words read like an obscurely prophetic summary of The Only Story, his 13th novel.

Love and damage are familiar themes for Barnes, ever since he made a case for Emma Bovary in his wonderful 1984 novel, Flaubert's Parrot.

But in Barnes's world, the damaged ones don't drink weedkiller and die horribly like Emma Bovary, they Keep Calm And Carry On, doggedly maintaining stiffness of upper lip and doing whatever is necessary to dodge the crushing shame of survival. Central to this survival is the inaccuracy of memory, another seam Barnes likes to mine again and again. Here, as in several previous novels, the survivor is rarely a hero.

In the early 1960s 19-year-old student Paul meets 48-year-old married Susan at the village tennis club and a passionate affair ensues. When Paul's mother confronts him early on, he treats her to an extra dollop of his habitual, corrosive disdain.

With equal measures of cockiness, naivety and contempt for his fellow "furrow-dwellers", Paul believes he is "an absolutist" when it comes to love, and that nothing - including Susan's husband - can stop him.

After a vicious assault on Susan by her drunken husband, the lovers leave for London, where Susan has enough "running away" money to buy a fixer-upper in Peckham.

Over the next 10 years or so, Barnes describes the gradual disintegration of the relationship with unflinching detail. Paul continues in college, graduates, gets a job. Susan stays at home, slowly becoming even lonelier than she was in the suburbs and descends into alcoholism.

Paul is faced with re-evaluating his theories about love being eternal and capable of transcending all obstacles - of love being, as Shakespeare put it, "an ever-fixed mark/That looks on tempests and is never shaken".

This is, essentially, what he has believed for his whole - young - life. But he now begins to waver in his conviction that he can survive his own particular tempest, protracted and worsening all the time, with his devotion to Susan intact.

The narrative voice shifts here from first person to second person. The "I" of Paul's younger self becomes the "You" of Paul at roughly 30 years of age. (Later it will become the "He" of the third person as Paul looks back over his life in old age.)

This shift works beautifully in distancing Paul from the horror of Susan's decline, and indeed the horror of his own durability. He has succeeded in almost removing himself from his own life story. At very considerable cost.

"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."

In that first summer, free-spirited Susan, in a rare moment of gravitas, reveals how she feels about life. "The thing you have to understand, Paul, is that we're a played-out generation... We went through the war," she says.

Even so, young and smitten Paul observes: "She laughs at life, this is part of her essence. And no one else in her played-out generation does the same." This turns out to be a case of there being none so blind as those who will not see.

During their years in London, Paul begins to see Susan more clearly, and finds his situation alarming. The smiling, blithe spirited, devil-may-care Susan slowly emerges into sharp focus and he discovers that "beneath her laughing irreverence, there lies panic and pandemonium". He tries to prevent their boat from sinking, in his naive belief that love conquers all. But of course it doesn't.

CS Lewis once wrote: "We read to know we are not alone." This is an utterly devastating masterpiece of a novel.

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