March 2018

by Helen Elliott

‘The Only Story’ by Julian Barnes
The meticulous novelist takes on the oldest subject there is

It’s an old story. A love story. Paul is 19, lazing about, “visibly and unrepentantly bored”, at his parents’ home over the long university vacation. His mother pays his subscription to the local tennis club so he goes, privately sneering at all the boring Hugos and Carolines he will meet. But at the Lucky Dip Mixed Doubles tournament Paul is paired with Mrs Susan Macleod, “clearly not a Caroline”.

Mrs Macleod is 48. She is the same height as Paul, tall for a woman; her hair is pulled back by a ribbon and she is wearing a white tennis dress with a green trim. Talking to her, Paul is surprised at what comes out of his mouth, and she returns his remarks with the same wit and style with which she plays tennis. At the end of the match he gives her a lift home – and continues to do so. Nothing happens at first, “not a touch, not a kiss, not a word”. Yet all lovers know that in this newest and oldest story there are no words for the complicity that is understood even when it is unacknowledged.

What is universally acknowledged is Julian Barnes’s authority in describing the circumscribed heart of an English male in a certain period. The Only Story (Jonathan Cape; $32.99) begins more than 50 years ago, at the height of the sexual revolution, and continues through the next decade, tracing the relationship between Paul and Susan. The narration frames the story retrospectively as the pivot for Paul’s life, also providing meticulous expansion of and constant rebuttal to every action. Only through his love affair with Susan can Paul’s later ordinary life become intelligible to him. That satirical, sneering young man – rude to his parents while accepting their money, cars and comforts, eager to be seen as superior to everyone because of his cleverness – is a victim of the Stendhalian coup de foudre, the blow to the heart where recovery is not possible.

And the same must be said of Susan. We get Susan filtered through Paul’s (mainly) affectionate memory. It’s a portrait of a vivid woman of her time and class, her life dictated by historical forces. With her secrets, her grace, her fortitude and the charm of a temperament susceptible to joy, Susan is exactly what Paul’s narrow English heart requires to expand and flourish, to be instructed in tenderness and the delight of gaiety. The imprint of Susan is for a lifetime.

Is love the only story? Is it still love when it becomes an affliction? This unsettling novel, studded with the expected epigrammatic observations, is an eloquent indication that for some people there is indeed no other story but that of loving and being loved. In the process of becoming ourselves there are some people we cannot get over, regardless of intention or desire.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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