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Julian Barnes’s latest novel, The Only Story, is a tale of absolute devastation

Barnes leads the unsuspecting reader into a dark tangle of addiction, violence, abuse, mental disarray and non sequitur. 

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
Julian Barnes
Jonathan Cape, 224pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How women took power

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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist