THE ONLY STORY
by Jennifer Bryce
This latest novel by Julian Barnes was a slight disappointment compared to the grippingly compelling The Sense of an Ending (winner of the 2011 Man Booker) which, at the time, I described as an account of ‘lurching regret’. Like The Sense of an Ending, The Only Story is concerned with things that can’t be undone and consequences of decisions made in one’s youth. In this case it is the consequence of the person Paul fell in love with at nineteen – that first love that one will never forget. The book examines love. Can one analyse love? Probably not. Paul, the protagonist whom we first meet as a surprisingly confident 19-year-old, keeps a collection of other people’s definitions of love. But his first love (not his first sexual experience) is so overwhelming that it takes over every aspect of his life (as it can). One weakness, I thought, perhaps the only one, was that 19-year-old Paul in 1960s middle class England has an extraordinary amount of assurance for a callow youth. He falls in love with a 48-year-old married woman, and this is what takes over the rest of his life.
Paul walks jauntily into Susan (his lover’s) home, through the front entrance. One time, for fun, he scales the front wall up to her bedroom window. He and, sometimes, his friends, eat and even stay overnight at Susan’s home, which she shares with her husband. There seems to be an element of immature pride in Paul’s conquest of a middle-aged woman: look what I’ve done! But his love for Susan is genuine and he knows that she will always be a part of his life. They do ultimately run away together (from ‘the Village’ to London) but it is not a case of unassailable bliss.
Susan becomes an alcoholic and Barnes has depicted superbly the frustrating stonewall of alcoholism where the addicted person cannot be torn away from the constant need to imbibe more and more, and the hellish spectre of how they are changed. One time, before they had run away together, Paul and Susan are sitting on a floral covered settee, Susan wearing a floral dress that blends with the fabric of the settee covering as though she has partly faded into it. She jokes about it at the time, but that’s what seems to happen: she becomes consumed. There are questions of love and duty. Paul remains living with Susan for as long as he can, but ultimately escapes physically, if not mentally from the woman he loves . . . has loved? ‘He couldn’t save her, and so he had to save himself.’
People might say that Paul’s life is ruined by his years of devotion to Susan. He has a number of relationships but never marries or has children and his work is never central to his life. He does not seem to resent this, or regret the considerable amount of his life devoted to Susan. There was anger, not directed at Susan, but at ‘whatever it was that had obliterated her’. In many ways he seems contented with his ordinary middle class single man’s life, to that extent he did ‘save himself’. As I neared the end of the book, I predicted that it would end with Susan’s death, and it almost does. The last pages describe Susan very close to death, when Paul visits her in an institution for the insane. He sits by her side, but she is too far gone to acknowledge that he is there. Paul considers the actions that one might expect in this situation: say good bye, kiss her … But no. It is back to the ordinary world: ‘On my way out I stopped at reception and asked where the nearest petrol station might be. The man was very helpful.’ We are saved from any predictable cliche.
Yet, Susan is a presence throughout what we see of Paul’s life. After Susan has succumbed to alcohol and then a form of dementia and when Paul is leading a kind of average, uneventful life, thoughts of Susan are interspersed – it’s not just that things sometimes remind Paul of Susan, she seems to be a presence, hovering over his entire life. And in this way, Love is the only story.
Brilliant writing. Barnes deftly changes from first, to second to third person, gradually distancing the reader from the immediate youthful experience of love (first person) to the reflective stance of the older Paul (third person).
Whereas A Sense of an Ending ends with a kind of searing regret, one feels that Paul never regrets his love for Susan.