Julian Barnes, The Only Story

Julian Barnes, The Only Story. Published 2018 by Jonathan Cape, London.

Some of the best parts of this novel are the epigraphs, like the one at the beginning from Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary: ‘Novel: A small tale, generally of love.’

This is ‘the only story’, then: the unlikely love story of Paul, a late-teen university student, and Susan McLeod, a married woman in her forties. But this isn’t The Graduate: she doesn’t seduce him – this is a mutually conceived passion that, not surprisingly, goes comprehensively and terribly wrong.

Barnes Only Story cover

Front cover

That’s the plot, really, and I find I have little more to say about this. I thought some of Barnes’s earlier fiction was among the best of his times, especially Flaubert’s Parrot. A History of the World was spoilt for me by having to teach it to recalcitrant teenagers, but it has some excellent moments, especially the woodworm trial. Woodworm generally, in fact.

I found this one a bit slow. Barnes tries to up the interest by playing in a vaguely postmodern way with the narrative voice: there’s a lot of direct address to the reader and second-person speculation of this kind:

If this is your only story, then it’s the one you have most often told and retold, even if – as is the case here – mainly to yourself.

So what’s the point? It’s not the ‘Call me Ishmael’ buttonholing technique of Melville; we seem to be invited to consider this to be a kind of ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’ confessional, but not a diary or a recording – the narrator even tells us at one point that he did keep a diary for a while, but this narrative is of a different order. What is it then? Therapy, of a Holden Caulfield type? I couldn’t work it out. And saying: ‘I’m not trying to spin you a story; I’m trying to tell you the truth’, rings only too true: there’s not enough story. That it’s the Only Story doesn’t help. The colloquial anti-storytelling mode keeps yielding up the likes of ‘I see where you’re going’ and ‘You think I’m being naïve’ (that ‘you’ is we, the readers, as if in a teenagers’ chatroom, not a novel for grownups).

And that ‘talking to yourself/reader’ trope became wearing after a while, especially when the predominantly first-person vaguely autobiographical voice shifts in part 2 to pretty much full-on second person, ‘You believe her’, etc.

Then in Part 3 an omniscient third-person narrator takes over, with this slightly glib and tricksy justification:

But nowadays, the first person in 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.

The back cover of the dust jacket

The back cover of the dust jacket

This voice reveals to us details like Paul’s keeping another notebook in which he simply records what other people have written about love. Often he crosses these entries out as events in his life, or his modes of thinking, cause him to change his mind about them – hence the rather unattractive cover images on the dustjacket.

I can’t find any particular reason for that narrative voice-shifting, other than the obvious effect it has on perspective on what’s being told – but it’s of little consequence, I find. Mrs TD read this before me and asked me to, so we could discuss it, as she wasn’t sure about her opinion. When I’d finished and told her (briefly) what I’ve written here, she looked relieved, and said she’d had exactly the same reservations about it.

I’m afraid I find Paul’s endless picking over the detritus of this doomed affair and reflections on time, memory, etc. – not much else happens – are of more interest to him as a character than they are to me (or Mrs TD). It’s like having to listen to someone telling you in detail what they dreamt last night. There’s way too much tennis, too, for my taste.

I can’t bring myself to write entirely negatively about such a fine writer. Here are some balancing remarks  that brighten the picture somewhat.

This is an early description of the character who sadly pops up too infrequently, for her portrayal is the best thing in the novel. She’s an eccentric slightly older woman friend of Susan’s, with a sad story of her own to reveal at one point:

She was a large woman in a pastel-blue trouser suit; she had tight curls, brown lipstick, and was approximately powdered.

Moira at her Clothes in Books blog would find plenty to get stuck into with this novel: Barnes has a fine eye for the details of appearances and what they signify about character (like the tennis dress Susan wears when she and Paul first meet; it shouldn’t be sexy, but clearly is for him) – here we get all we need to know about Joan’s shambolic loneliness, which doesn’t conceal her emotional wounds or her sagacity and human kindness.

Now I find I’ve flicked through the whole novel and that was the only passage I’d marked as being well done; there’s one other, but would take too much quotation to do it justice.

 

 

A Chamfort Florilegium

Image of Chamfort from Wikiquote

[Image of Chamfort from Wikiquote]

Florilegium, n. (OED)

…modern Latin, < flōrilegus   flower-culling, < flōr(i)-  , flōs   flower + legĕre   to gather; a literal rendering of Greek ἀνθολόγιον  anthology n., after the analogy of spīcilegium; spiciˈlegium   n.

b. A collection of the flowers of literature, an anthology.  First OED citation: 1647.

Spicilegium; † spicilegy   n.  [Latin spīcilegium] Obs. a gleaning; a collection or anthology.

1656   T. Blount Glossographia,   Spicilegy, gathering ears of corn, gleaning or leising corn.

Latin spīca ear of corn, spike n., occurring in a few words, as Mayne Expos. Lex. (1859) also gives spiciferous, spiciflorous, spicigerous as renderings of modern Latin formations.

David Crystal is our most eminent and readable linguist; his Words on Words is packed full of quotations of linguistic interest – a veritable spicilegium.  A random example sparked off today’s blog post:

I am tempted to say of metaphysicians what Scaliger used to say of the Basques: they are said to understand one another, but I don’t believe a word of it.

(Nicolas-Sebastien Chamfort, 1796, Maximes et Pensées, Caractères et Anecdotes, et petits Dialogues philosophiques, ch. 7.)

[Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540-1609): French scholar born Agen, specialist in classics but spoke 13 languages.  A Calvinist, he was Professor at the University of Leiden and is said to have inspired Dutch scholarship.  This maxim is surely a little harsh on both metaphysicians and the linguistically challenging Basques.]

N. Sebastien Roch de Chamfort (1741-94): French writer, born illegitimately in the Auvergne; his wit, intelligence and charm took him to the upper heights of pre-Revolutionary France, and friendship with Voltaire, Diderot, D’Alembert and other eminent figures of the period; he caught the admiring attention of Louis XV and was elected to the French Academy – though he claimed, with typical contrariness, that he never attended its sessions. He also wrote tales and drama, as well as these maxims (published posthumously).  In a Guardian essay back in 2003 Julian Barnes * had this to say about him (all subsequent quotations are from his article):

Camus thought him the most instructive of moralists, and far greater than La Rochefoucauld; Nietzsche and John Stuart Mill revered him; Pushkin read him and allowed Eugene Onegin to do the same; he is an admired presence in the diaries of Stendhal and the Goncourts; Cyril Connolly, another melancholy epicurean with a taste for aphorism, quoted him at length in The Unquiet Grave. Yet Nicolas-Sébastien Roch de Chamfort (1741-1794) remains virtually unknown in this country.

He began compiling his maxims in the mid-1780s, noting down on small pieces of paper his thoughts, epigrams and repartees on all manner of aspects of human existence, with ‘anecdotes, quotations and scraps of dialogue’, but after his death, before the first publication of his Maximes, some 2000 items were removed and lost.  What remains of this florilegium shows how he differs from La Rochefoucauld, who exempted himself from his own charge that mankind is motivated by self-interest; Chamfort’s  ‘condemnation of humanity includes himself, very specifically: “If I am anything to go by, man is a foolish animal.”’

His maxims often retain their resonance today: here he is on politics –

You imagine ministers and other high officials have principles because you’ve heard them say so. As a result, you avoid asking them to do anything that might cause them to break those principles. However, you soon discover you’ve been hoodwinked when you see ministers doing things which prove that they’re quite unprincipled: it’s nothing but a habit they’ve got into, an automatic reflex.

Chamfort has been criticised for airing misogynistic views, but he has this to say about love and women: “In love, everything is both true and false; it’s the one subject on which it’s impossible to say anything absurd.”

He’s capable, among these dicta, of self-deprecating wit, too: “Having lots of ideas doesn’t mean you’re clever, any more than having lots of soldiers means you’re a good general.”

When the Revolution broke out in 1789 he espoused the Jacobin cause, was among the first to storm the Bastille, spoke in public support of the revolutionaries, and coined slogans: “War upon the chateaux, peace upon the cottages”.  When, as often happens with those who are early supporters of insurrection (especially when they have circulated in the privileged circles of the overthrown regime), he was denounced and imprisoned, and made botched and messy attempts at suicide, succeeding only in blowing out an eye with his pistol, and losing pints of blood when he attempted to slash his wrists, throat and ankles.

Chamfort was ‘various, contradictory, but always stimulating, never one to flatter the reader’s complacency’.  Camus described the Maximes as ‘a kind of disorganised novel’, which leads me to think of them as an extreme precursor of what has recently been called the ‘polyphonic novel’ (Michael David Lukas, ‘A Multiplicity of Voices: On the Polyphonic Novel’ in The Millions, 15 Feb., 2013; Ted Gioia, ‘The Rise of the Fragmented Novel’, Fractious Fiction website, 17 July, 2013).  I intend to return to these two fascinating essays on modern narrative structure in another blog.

*Barnes was reviewing a new edition of selections from the Maximes: Chamfort: Relections on Life, Love and Society, edited by Douglas Parmee, published in 2003 by Short Books, 224pp.

The Parmee selection reviewed by Barnes (photo from Amazon website)

The Parmee selection reviewed by Barnes (photo from Amazon website)

I see on the Amazon website there’s a ridiculously cheap 2012 Kindle edition of Complete Maxims and Thoughts (The Works of Sébastien-Roch Nicolas Chamfort) translated by Tim Siniscalchi.

English translation of 'Maximes', Kindle edition, illustrated on Amazon website

English translation of ‘Maximes’, Kindle edition, illustrated on Amazon website

 

I haven’t checked to see if this is indeed ‘complete’ –  Amazon state that this edition’s print length is 145 pages, which doesn’t sound long enough for completeness; they also have a Kindle edition in French which is free.

An English translation by Deke Dusinberre of Claude Arnaud’s biography (in French) was published in 1992 (second edition) by the University of Chicago press.  It was reviewed in an essay by P.N. Furbank in the New York Review of Books on 25 June, 1992 under the title ‘A Double Life’, who said of the Maximes‘ author that he was

a man fêted and pampered by the grand monde of the ancien régime—the very prototype of pensioned idleness and frivolous salon display—who all the time had been taking secret notes on this monde and bestowing drops of acid upon it. Here, moreover, was a parasite of the “great” who had welcomed the Revolution with open arms, with a euphoria as intense as his fate under it was to be horrific.

Another review, by Neil Ascherson, was published 5 November, 1992 in The London Review of Books; some interesting comments from readers (reproduced on the website) add nuance.

The blurb on the Amazon page for the English Kindle edition has this: “Chamfort”, wrote Balzac in a letter, “put whole volumes in a single biting phrase, while nowadays it’s a marvel to find a biting phrase in a volume” –  a neat chiasmus to end on.