Julian Barnes, Julian Barnes. I remember reading The History of the World in 101/2 Chapters in eleventh grade and thinking “WHAT. Writing can do this?! This is ah-mazing.” Ever since I’ve been a defender. A devotee. (see: The Noise of Time and A Sense of an Ending). And I started out with The Only Story thinking the same thing. Ah ha! More magic from Barnes.
And don’t get me wrong, despite my foreboding opening paragraph, this is a great book. It’s just… bleak. The story follows a May-December romance of 19 year old Paul Casey and 48 year old Susan MacLeod. I don’t want to say too much about their relationship, because the pacing of the novel reveals and hides and reveals in purposeful and impactful ways. I’ll say that the story is as much about the hazards of memory, and the way the stories we tell ourselves about our life inevitably and irrevocably shape them, sometimes with our knowledge, often without.
And this is where the novel is at its best: playing around with memory, purposefully reflecting on how the story of this romance has played out on future relationships and experiences, messing with narration and tone and reliability in ways that are interesting and engaging.
It’s also fan-fabulous (fantastic and fabulous) in the small, particular scenes of Paul and Susan. There are many of these – an illustration of how memory works in episodic, non-linear ways. The scenes are full and gesture to the bigger and the wider, while giving substantial depth, too.
It’s all made terrible (or was for me anyway) by the way the novel kept coming back to taking this very particular story and making it universal in emphasizing that everyone has their love story, and that there can be essential truths about love that every reader/person will understand. At one point Paul, who has been collecting adages about love over his lifetime, shares these in the narrative itself, and it reads like an exhausting trip through a card aisle, or the overwrought wedding speech of an uninspired best man/maid of honour. At another point Paul is overwhelmed with anxiety realizing that every particular term of endearment bestowed on a lover, has, in another place and time, already been offered. That there is nothing unique about love, or about your individual experience of it, even while it feels – and is for you – the only story of your life. And then realizes he will die. And die without ever having escaped this only story (and realizing, young, that the best – and worst – period of his life has already happened to him).What a bummer. And what a way to drive home how fleeting (and ultimately meaningless?) our humble experience and existence must be.
So it’s not that I expect or believe any different: life is meaningless, and you/I will die, too. Just that I hate confronting such things especially when reading beautiful novels by beautiful authors. How dare this novel, and my darling Barnes, demand I engage with these essential truths. You’re much better off watching Netflix. (Ha ha).