"Most of us have only one story to tell"
Julian Barnes's new novel The Only Story returns to familiar literary territory, following last year's The Noise of Time is which Barnes explored the life of composer Dmitri Shostakovich in a fictional biography. The protagonist in The Only Story is Paul a characteristically Barnesian soul who, as an older man, reflects on a largely unfulfilled life. For The Only Story, Barnes choses a quote from Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) as the epigraph "Novel: A small tale, generally of love".
The novel is made up of three parts. The first, told in the first person, takes place in the 1960s and sees 19 year old Paul meet and fall in love with a much older woman, Susan, who he meets at the village tennis club. Scandal rocks this Metroland commuter-belt village where an uncomplicated social system exists; "For each ailment there was a simple remedy". In spite of this the relationship develops and Susan leaves her husband, Gordon, and moves up to London to live with Paul in a flat.
In the second part, years pass and the age difference between the two becomes more pronounced as Paul is mistaken for Susan's lodger or nephew on a number of occasions. Over time Susan succumbs to steady and profound alcoholism which Barnes describes vividly but never bitterly thanks in part to Susan's gin-soaked friend Joan who honesty articulates the loneliness of being the older 'other' women. When Joan becomes widowed by her yapping dogs your heart breaks. Paul stands by Susan stoically; "We don't talk about our love; we merely know that it is there, unarguably, that it is what it is".
The third section is perhaps the most successful. Told in the third person Paul reflects on his own personal story and on the nature of love itself; "Perhaps love could never be captured in a definition; it could only ever be captured in a story". Just when you're beginning to wonder whether we need another novel about a older white male looking back on his life you remember that this is Julian Barnes who writes irresistibly prose with emotional accuracy that's rare to find in modern literature.
The Only Story is actually a story about four people; Paul, Susan, Joan and Gordon who have all failed in love in one way or another but isn't that the point? As Paul notes, then crosses out and re-writes, "It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all".
Dr Johnson's description remains intact, The Only Story is very much a small tale, generally of love.
The Only Story by Julian Barnes published by Jonathan Cape, 224 pages.
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