“There is a kink in the mastering” – The Only Story by Julian Barnes

And so, almost two years to the day after The Noise of Time, we have The Only Story, another novel that will support all of the talk of Julian Barnes’ Philip Roth-like late period flourish of excellent writing. Except, of course, where Roth’s late period flourish seemed driven, at least at the beginning, with the likes of Sabbaths Theater, American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain, by sheer virtuosity, by the exuberant desire to see what a novel could do, Barnes’ late period flourish seems driven by pain. (A fact arguably hammered home by the timely reissue of his translation of Alphonse Daudet’s In the Land of Pain, which coincides with the release of The Only Story – read our interview with Barnes about that here). It’s been impossible, at least to this reader, to read anything since Levels of Life, without glimpsing the struggle of a person moving through a world irrevocably changed by loss.

That line from Levels of Life – ‘You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed’ – is particularly resonant here, in his new book, which is a romance of sorts, the story of a young man and an older woman, a love story that takes place almost fifty years ago, in the stockbroker’s belt, fifty miles or so from London. This is a novel that muses on love, that opens by posing the question:

“Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less and suffer the less? That is, finally, the only real question.”

Love is the only story of the title. And:

“Everyone has their love story. Everyone. It may have been a fiasco, it may have fizzled out, it may never even have got going, it may all have been in the mind…”

But still: it’s the only story that matters. Not only that:

“first love always happens in the overwhelming first person… Also, in the overwhelming present tense. It takes us time to realise there are other persons, and other tenses.”

What’s more,

“Love was by its very nature disruptive, cataclysmic, and if it was not, then it was not love.”

That isn’t to say, however, that Barnes’ latest narrator is a mawkish Hallmark card. The writing dispenses with certain detail (the ‘estate agency business’) early on and we can hear the sharpness of his tongue within a page or two:

“Recently, a delicatessen had opened which some thought subversive in its offering of European goods, smoked cheeses, and knobbly sausages hanging like donkey cocks”

As a result, when he says,

“I’m not trying to spin you a story. I’m trying to tell you the truth.”

we don’t – quite – believe him. We see their love flourish, the love between a young man and an older woman; we see each make sacrifices (she walks away from her marriage, he – well, his relationship with his parents appears to suffer, even as his stock amongst his friends goes up – at least at first); we see them make a home; we see what comes of that. He is quite forward in his forecasting, letting us know, before almost anything else, how long their relationship lasts, and so we are willing spectators to a – what was it he said? “It may have been a fiasco, it may have fizzled out, it may never even have got going, it may all have been in the mind…”

Gradually the love changes, as love has a habit of doing, and we see – well, without giving too much away, we are witness to certain challenges that their relationship has, and in time the corresponding complications of wisdom. This is what grown up love looks like (and notice apropos of love being ‘in the overwhelming first person’, the tense):

“You realise how sympathy and antagonism can coexist. You are discovering how many seemingly incompatible emotions can thrive, side by side, in the same human heart. You are angry with the books you have read, none of which have prepared you for this. No doubt you were reading the wrong books. Or reading them in the wrong way.”

That pain we talked about becomes ever present. We know that our narrator is an older gentleman (someone who can admit to not understanding the young). He tells us:

“memory prioritises whatever is most useful to help keep the bearer of those memories going.”

We can see hear Beckett (I can’t go on). And yet that sits slightly at odds with what the man does, who the man eventually becomes. He has pain. We can see it. He tells us. And yet he is an inverted Bendrix in some ways, embraces the Wildean dictum to kill the thing he loves, figuratively speaking. The pain of love feels true:

“How long will this present stretch of happiness last, you are continually asking yourself. A month, a week, another twenty minutes? You can’t, of course, tell, because it doesn’t depend on you.”

But by the end of the book it towers above the narrator himself like a kind of monument. For a time, The Only Story seems to say, this young man felt something, travelled the highways and byways of love, and when it was done he was done and his life beyond that love – well, it didn’t quite feel like a true life anymore. By which we mean to say that there seems to exist a tension between the older version of the narrator and the younger version of the narrator, that they don’t quite tally with one another, as if the older man seems able to recall the vivid pain a little too easily, and the actions of the younger man (his glib coldness) jar with who he eventually becomes (because he doesn’t seem to lack regret, in some senses).

Which isn’t to say that we didn’t like The Only Story – we liked it a great deal, as you’d expect it’s a book written by a writer at the top of his game. The issue we have is ever so slight, a question of mastering, as if a beautiful song had been ever so slightly over produced, or perhaps it is even more slight than that, as if there is a kink in the mastering. We know that the book says “how many seemingly incompatible emotions can thrive, side by side, in the same human heart” but there is something about the actions themselves, action speaking louder than words, that jars – ever so ever so slightly.

Any Cop?: A dark, nagging love story with pain, madness and despair at its centre. Think of it like The End of the Affair with an inverted Bendrix, driven numb and uncaring by the most passionate of loves.

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