The only story, by Julian Barnes


Julian Barnes is a contemporary postmodernist English writer, the prolific author of several essays, books of stories, translations, and numerous highly-acclaimed and prize-winning novels. One quick look at any of his portraits betrays both his English roots and his occupation (writer) - an angular, slim face with a distinguished, philosophical air and severely aristocratic features, a lonesome yet beckoning look in his eyes, the depth of which stimulate to further discovery.

‘We all cheat in a way’, one is tempted to think while visiting his official website, which seems to display a photo of him probably taken 10-20 years earlier. His latest novel, The only story, retrospectively portrays a complex first-love story, the heartbreak that accompanies it and the profound, reverberating impact it has on the subsequent adult self. The first page of the book contains the simple, unassuming dedication “To Hermione”, a dedication seemingly unobserved by many of the book’s reviewers.

The book starts with the excruciating, largely-employed, apparently rhetorical question of love, its depth and intensity, which Barnes invalidates already on the first page, due to what he puts forward as the absence of choice. Despite this invalidation, the first page of the novel has not exhausted its wonders, as Barnes delivers another intriguing, thought-provoking observation: “Most of us have only one story (…) that matters, only one finally worth telling”, which puts forward the question of a life well lived, a life whose only story, if there is only one, should subsequently be worth telling.

From the hazy, unclear and unreliable corner of memory, Paul, the main character of the novel, looks back at his life in an attempt to recount his story. Whereas to the reader the novel might seem primarily the unfolding of a love story, in actuality several threads are intertwined within - a story of coming of age, of adulthood; another of reluctant, long overdue self discovery, tragically ended with a sharp refusal of self-acceptance; a surprisingly distant, yet startlingly close story of society, archetypes.

In its progression, the novel unfolds an apparently common story: the love story of a 19 year old adolescent, Paul, and a middle aged married woman, Susan, in the midst of a traditional, conservative English middle class society. The falling “smack into love” story of Paul is described in the first person, in the overwhelming, tempestuous, all-encompassing present tense of an intense first love/infatuation: naive and unaware, but raw and filled with the acuteness of youth; thus perfectly portraying the immensity, ever-present, and infinity of a self-sufficient universe composed of two. At the beginning, no one else is really present because no one else is required, and the air is limited and tense. There is only space for two, and the ‘outside’ world merely acts as a background.

Society, that unidentifiable, yet ever-present murmur, a noisy background, whose chaotic intensity is ever-increasing, ever-approaching, a slyly infiltrating unstoppable Medusa. One striking feature of the novel is the apparently limited interference of society in their unusual, stereotype-challenging love story. Almost as if it’s existence were not real, but merely the figment of an imagination; present, but mostly distant, serving as the backdrop for the complexity of a love story unravelling almost in vacuum, at its own unrelenting speed and establishing its own direction.

However, as the story progresses, Paul reluctantly discovers the precarity of such a universe: the moment one of the two main pillars starts to shake, the universe loses its ground and vertiginously spins into chaos. In the second part of the novel, the writer brilliantly illustrates this chaotic transition from the intensity to the heartbreak and desolation of love by switching to a mix of first/second persons and other tenses. While this phenomenon occurs naturally, every once in a while as we reach adulthood and periodically access introspection, in Paul’s case it seems to have been activated rather early in life (towards the second part of his relationship with Susan, when he begins to realise the inevitability of its end) and kept activated for the remainder of his years. To this end, the rest of his life (following the end of his love story with Susan) is detachedly rendered in the third person, a mechanism that helps illustrate the importance that young Paul had invested in his relationship as a means of elevating his life to an innovative, unconventional act - a story worth telling.  

Another perspective offered by the novel is the high, often unperceived, responsibility that comes with the transliteration of an ideal love story in an imperfect, eroding reality. In this regard, none of the two protagonists seem prepared for such a responsibility: Paul systematically postpones or even refuses to accept adulthood, while Susan systematically refuses to acknowledge and address the profound implications of separation from family and the influence that societal perceptions have on her. Ultimately, both seem to be confronted with an inability to accept oneself.

The novel portrays a profound and tender love story, heartbreaking in its seemingly unsolvable complexity, as it touches upon eternally valid topics:

The perceived eternity of youth: “For instance, I remember lying in bed one night, being kept awake by one of those stomach-slapping erections which, when you are young, you carelessly - or carefreely - imagine will last you the rest of your life. But this one was different. You see, it was a kind of generalised erection, unconnected to any person, or dream, or fantasy. It was more about just being joyfully young. Young in brain, heart, cock, soul - and it just happened to be the cock which best articulated that general state.”

The skepticism of adulthood, with its lived experiences and seemingly learned lessons: “The fellow was probably in his forties, as lightly drunk as he was, English, genial, unpushy. None of that fake bonhomie you sometimes encountered, the assumption that you must have more in common than you did. And so, they sat there quietly, smiling away, and maybe the lack of false small talk encouraged the man to turn and announce in a level, meditative tone: ‘She said she wanted to rest on my shoulder as lightly as a bird. I thought that sounded poetic. Also, bloody brilliant, just what a fellow needs. Never went for clingy.’ The man paused. Paul was always happy to supply a prompt: ‘But it didn’t work out?’, ‘Two problems.’ The fellow inhaled, then blew the smoke into the scented air. ‘Number one, birds fly away, don’t they? That’s in their nature, isn’t it? And number two, before they do, they always shit on your shoulder.’

The unreliability of memory in old age: “So, that familiar question of memory. He recognised that memory was unreliable and biased, but in which direction? Towards optimism? That made initial sense. You remembered your past in cheerful terms because this validated your existence. You didn’t have to see your life as any kind of triumph – his own had hardly been that – but you did need to tell yourself that it had been interesting, enjoyable, purposeful. Purposeful? That would be pitching it a bit high. Still, an optimistic memory might make it easier to part from life, might soften the pain of extinction. But you could equally argue the opposite. If memory is biased towards pessimism, if, retrospectively, all appears blacker and bleaker than it actually was, then this might make life easier to leave behind.”

The worth one gives to his/her life: “The sadness of life. That was another conundrum he would occasionally ponder. Which was the correct - or the more correct - formulation: ‘Life is beautiful but sad’ or ‘Life is sad but beautiful’? One or the other was obviously true; but he could never decide which.”

In a seemingly contradictory twist, despite his possible apprehension toward it, his story is worth telling precisely because of its ending, it’s perceived failure. It’s a story that teaches us about the power of reflection; the inconsistency of memory and, at times, the inconsistency of reality itself; the impermanence of reality when faced with the highly volatile, yet immutable permanence of the soul. That life is worth living despite its inherent chaos, and that the fight is actually to preserve one’s capacity for observation, internalization, and (self-)reflection. And, why not, one’s predisposition to humor.