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.