Making sense of love

Karthik Shankar | Updated on June 08, 2018 Published on June 08, 2018

Julian Barnes’s latest novel, The Only Story, explores how love can become an all-consuming emotional vortex

Is love meant to last? What if true love means eternal suffering? These are the simultaneously trite and reflective questions posed by Julian Barnes, the prolific literary luminary in his 13th novel, The Only Story. I’ll admit upfront that I’m not the biggest fan of the Booker-prize winning novelist, whose writing is admirably adroit but which nonetheless keeps me at a distance.

Barnes’s mastery over prose makes him one of the rare literary authors who dominates bestseller lists. He has a way of universalising existential crises, arrested development, and romance, while simultaneously making these banal rites of passage mythic, grand, intimate, and full of blemishes.

Like many of Barnes’s works, The Only Story takes place in a white-collar stockbroker-dominated suburbia called The Village. Nineteen-year-old Paul is sheltered, apolitical, malleable, and virile. During a three month-long summer break after his freshman year at college, he joins the local tennis club on his mother’s insistence. She is eager to get him out of bed and into the arms of a potential girlfriend. Paul instead falls for the married Susan Macleod, his 48-year-old tennis partner, and mother of two. He starts joining Susan and her husband for suppers, even staying over at her house, his age blinding him to this amorous impropriety. This is no sweet summer courtship, however, but a rocky relationship that unfolds over a decade.

Despite the Oedipal nature of Paul and Susan’s romance, there are no alluring novelistic touches to it. Susan isn’t a chirpy manic pixie dream girl nor a housewife well-versed in love-making and doling out sage advice. She is portrayed as ephemeral; a woman who, despite all her hyperreal flaws, has been concocted in Paul’s memories. She is a fascinating character, indeed and only as the years go by does it become apparent to Paul that she is deeply lonely and damaged. He becomes her only solace and escape from her suburban domestic prison. She tells him that she belongs to a ‘played-out generation’. Yet, for Paul, her unfussy willingness to treat him like a peer and her inability to put on an adult act seems an exception to everything her generation stands for. However, when they finally elope, Paul is saddled with the ramifications of her debilitating alcohol habit.

Love is the only story. One wonders if that is meant to be a veracious statement by Barnes or an ironic rejoinder about how love can become toxic and all-consuming. As the novel constantly reminds us, Paul’s affair with Susan is an emotional vortex, not a casual, youthful rite of passage.

The Only Story expands a fleeting but vital subplot from Barnes’s earlier novel,The Sense of an Ending, about a college boy dating a much older married woman to mixed results. It also features an elderly male protagonist looking back at his life. The novel has a three-act structure, delineated not only through time shifts but also a first, second as well as third person narrative. Barnes’s self-referentiality is initially welcoming, drawing you in with the promise that the novel is not going to embark on a string of dreary clichés. But the performative rhetoric of someone always calling to attention their flaws while never actually changing soon proves exhausting. One groan-inducing line notes that, “[I]t was as if he viewed, and lived, his life in the third person.”

Barnes’s ability to distance the reader from his characters can work stupendously as it did in his earliest successes, such as Flaubert’s Parrot, chock-a-block with literary references, and England, England, a droll, satirical delight. If The Only Story can be a difficult novel to love, that primarily has to do with Paul himself, impenetrable in ways that impede our emotional connection to him. Admirably, there is little self-pitying to be found in Paul’s ruminations even when he gets saddled with difficult circumstances and behaves in understandably selfish ways. Barnes immediately removes the goal posts of likeability in the opening page itself: “To come off worse might indicate that you are being more truthful. On the other hand, there is the danger of being retrospectively anti-heroic: making yourself out to have behaved worse than you did can be a form of self-praise.” This is a noble sentiment but when the entire novel is structured to centre Paul’s desolation, not Susan’s self-destructive tendencies, our narrator’s narcissism feels off-putting.

In an essay for The New Yorker, Barnes writes about how frequently the Spanish press asks him questions about the influence of Tom Sharpe, the satirical and bawdy English novelist, on his works. Barnes wonders if there is something lost in translation when it came to his works in Spanish. There could be a similar effect when it comes to the cultural context around Barnes’s work in English itself.

Is it possible that Indian millennials like me are distanced and less enamoured of the much-feted English author’s repressed white upper-class English routine and allusions to Gustave Flaubert’s work? Possibly.

The Only Story feels like a model home, an ordered architectural marvel with little life. “I think there’s a different authenticity to memory, and not an inferior one. Memory sorts and sifts according to the demands made on it by the rememberer,” Paul reflects. Yet, if there is something his recollections of Susan are missing, it is the anarchic untidiness of domesticity.

The Only Story Julian Barnes Jonathan Cape/Penguin Random House Fiction ₹699


Karthik Shankar is a writer and editor based in Chennai

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Published on June 08, 2018
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