We know, immediately, that the title of Julian Barnes’s latest novel is a lie, whatever it refers to: there can’t be an “only story”. In the world as we now understand it, there can only be versions, perspectives, voices, narrative structures. Anything pretending to be other would surely be a fake, an attempt by the teller of the story to gain control. Such monolithic, unassailable accounts – untrue ones, in other words – belong to figures such as Stalin, the louring presence behind Barnes’s last novel, The Noise of Time.
A qualification arrives swiftly, courtesy of Paul Roberts, the latest of Barnes’s ageing male narrators to be engaged in rueful retrospection. In each person’s life, he asserts, all the stories eventually resolve to “only one finally worth telling”. And, unsurprisingly, he proposes to tell us his own.
There is a degree of throat-clearing, some noodling around to establish the terms of engagement (“one other thing: don’t ask me about the weather”), and then we are straight into it, “it” being the story of Paul’s relationship with a woman nearly 30 years his senior, from its genesis 50 years ago in Surrey’s stockbroker belt to its last encounter. Predictably, judgement comes quickly: from Paul’s parents, outraged by the fate befalling their 19-year-old son and only child; from the residents of “the Village” (shades of The Prisoner), with its etiquette-bound golf club and neat privet hedges; and, more wrongfootingly, from the reader.
What manner of story are we reading? Not one, present-day Paul tells us, in which a young man is initiated into the arts of love. Nor is it one that seems likely to conform to the spirit of satire in which Paul agrees to join the tennis club, where he meets 48-year-old Susan Macleod. The young man’s tale – the backchat to authority figures, the youthful swaggering with pals that mildly recalls the friends of The Sense of An Ending – is not going to survive without severe undercutting. It was, he tells us with a kind of breezy mateyness, “a time of cock-vigour so insistent that it forbade examination of what such vigour was for”.
Cocks, vigorous or otherwise, are the least of it; Paul and Susan’s relationship is not particularly or overtly sexual, and the parts of her anatomy that most beguile him are her ears, her teeth, her grey-blue eyes (it’s possibly an over-reading to suggest Susan’s hybrid irises are an echo of Emma Bovary’s changing eye colour as discussed in Flaubert’s Parrot, but if so, it seems a nicely Barnesian one). Their conversation doesn’t shatter the earth, but proceeds on touchingly familiar, jokey terms, with nicknames, private slang and shared moments of subversion. Their excursions include driving to some woodland, or visiting Susan’s friend Joan.
Everything tells us that it cannot last. Something also suggests – in a different way than it would were it an older man and a younger woman – that it should not last; that it is a transgression of the sort that in myth or fairytale would have to be expiated.
But, boy, does Barnes pull a fast one. The novel turns and heads off in an entirely different direction, one of such sadness and mystery that the disorientated reader feels as though rules are being broken, as if something approaching a con is being perpetrated. Around halfway through the narrative we are no longer in the territory of doomed first love, or flouted social mores, or rites of passage, but in a dark tangle of addiction, violence, abuse, mental disarray, non sequitur. “Where have you been all my life?” Susan asks Paul, half-comically, but with an increasing note of desperation.
It is immensely powerful. The perspective shifts, not between characters, but between Paul’s ability to centre himself in his own – or only – story and his estrangement from it. He recounts his life in the second, and then the third person. Tenses flit, locations become less fixable, more muzzy and interchangeable; the aphorisms that he seeks to marshal to his aid – fragments shored against a ruin that’s already happened – seem less and less useful, and more and more like a sort of mocking chorus.
This idea of a dissolution of any stable viewpoint has long been discernible in Barnes’s work. In the territory of personal relationships, it powers his novels of infidelity and self-deception – Talking it Over and Love, Etc – which follow the same characters a decade apart. These stories are united by their characters’ preoccupation with settling both their accounts of events and their accounts with one another. Always in the background lurks the possibility of being cuckolded, not by a person but by one’s own misapprehension of the status quo.
Yet Barnes’s later works – novels and non-fiction – have refined this theme to a more exquisite and painful realisation of what cannot be controlled: the arrival of irrevocable loss and consequent grief. “The anger wasn’t at Susan,” remarks Paul, “but at whatever it was that had obliterated her.” In The Only Story, what has obliterated her is Paul’s desire to tell his tale, and Barnes’s acquiescence with that; we don’t, and we can’t, hear directly from her.
If this sounds implausibly or unattractively abstract, Barnes does add hints of a social and historical dimension: Susan is convinced that she is a member of “a played-out generation” in which the best people – in her case, her brother and her fiancé – have been subtracted by the Second World War, leaving “the lesser ones” to battle on as best they can. But she is drawn towards disappearance herself: in a recurring image, Paul remembers her sinking into a print-upholstered sofa, camouflaged by her print dress. Later, post-catastrophe, he records the process of forgetting – “the losing of a face” that makes her further inaccessible. It is, in fact, less of a total disappearance than a shrinkage. Susan’s identity becomes obdurate, resistant to interpretation, compounded by the buried traumas of her past – fleetingly described childhood sexual abuse and a stunted, painful marriage. A functioning human being is replaced by one concerned mainly with fugitive self-protection.
The only story, then, is what we suspect: not the only story there is, not even the only story worth telling, but the only story currently available to the teller. Here, it also appears to operate as a form of rebuke to those who see in Barnes’s work a flippancy and surface cleverness that somehow deflect from the authenticity of “real” emotion. There is absolute devastation in this latest despatch from Barnesland, and it is not something anyone facing up to it could take lightly.
The Only Story
Jonathan Cape, 224pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 24 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How women took power