I made the mistake of introducing myself to Philip Roth by reading one his later work. Indignation, a 2008 novel, drew on some of Roth’s familiar themes—Jewish identity, American identity, relationships—but it had none of the spark I was hoping for. It felt like an older man’s attempt to imagine himself back into first love. Fortunately it didn’t put me off picking up American Pastoral a few years later and discovering there a very different writer.
In the early sections of Julian Barnes’ Man Booker Prize-winning The Only Story, I wondered if I had made the same mistake. Barnes has had a long and successful career as a novelist with twenty-three books under his belt and this was my introduction to him. The set-up was ominous—an older man remembers his first love through the lens of age. “Nowadays the raucousness of the first person within him was stilled. It was as if he viewed, and lived, his life in the third person. Which allowed him to assess it more accurately, he believed.” (193)
You might think the assessment would be a bit clinical. You’d be wrong.
Barnes is a deceptively gifted writer. Everything reads off the page as if it were effortless for him to put it there in accessible, insightful, beautiful prose. It’s only later that you realize how much structure he has created and how masterful his movement through it is. And the story he has woven is far from an old man’s dispassionate musings. It is a meditation on love—what it is and what it is not.
The story begins in the London suburbs in the summer of 1963 as the 19-year-old Paul Casey begins a scandalous affair with 48-year-old Susan Macleod, a married mother of two who becomes Casey’s mixed doubles partner and a bit more. He’s young, insolent, and heedless of anything beyond her. She’s breezy, self-deprecating, and seemingly isolated, content to carry on a relationship with a boy almost thirty years her junior.
The first of the book’s three sections gives us Paul’s first-person account of the relationship. In the first blush of the affair, he can’t see anything beyond the world-opening goodness of what he feels.
There was already, just in the way we sat in the car, before she said a few laughing words and then walked off up her driveway, a complicity between us. Not, I insist, as yet a complicity to do anything. Just a complicity which made me a little more me, and her a little more her. (12)
Susan is more opaque in this first telling. She does try to warn him that she is more complicated than he imagines.
“Things aren’t what they look like, Paul. That’s about the only lesson I can teach you.”…
“But you’re what you look like, aren’t you? You’re exactly what you look like?”
She kisses me. “I hope so, my fine and feathered friend. I hope so for both our sakes.” (68-69)
We can see already, in the early stages, that there will be more to this story. His idealization of her (“She can probably turn base metal into gold, I think”) will come up against some hard edges. His own deficiencies will come to the fore. But it is early and “first love always happens in the overwhelming first person. How can it not? Also in the overwhelming present tense. It takes us time to realize that there are other persons, and other tenses.” (85)
In the second section the narration slips into the second person. By the third section it is in the third. Paul and Susan leave town, families, and reputations behind and go to set up house in London. They live off of boarders in the attic and the little money Paul eventually makes as a solicitor. And love, of course, but that becomes increasingly more difficult as they begin to keep secrets and old wounds come back to haunt. Paul attempts an heroic stance as her codependent savior when Susan’s battles with alcoholism begin, believing, even as he sits with her in a psychiatric waiting room, that he is winning because his relationship with Susan “is more fascinating, more complicated and more insoluble” than those of his friends. (155)
An image enters his head. He is hanging out a window, holding on to Susan by the wrists. He can’t let her go because she will fall. He can’t pull her up because he is stretched too far out the window. It’s an image that the rabbi and therapist Edwin Friedman mined in his Friedman’s Fables in 1990. Eventually you have to let go or you both die. Whether that happens is still open for debate as the book ends.
“Susan had pointed out that everyone has their love story,” the older Paul remembers. “Even if it was a fiasco, even if it fizzled out, never got going, had all been in the mind to begin with: that didn’t make it any the less real. And it was the only story.” (227)
The Only Story offers many short definitions of love. Paul even keeps a journal of his favorites with most of them crossed out because they turned out not to be so in his experience. But in the end it is not a definition but a story that must be shared. Your story. And somewhere in your one and only story is an element of what love really is.
There are things I wanted more of in Barnes’ book. More context for the characters. More of Susan’s perspective. More of Susan’s family. But there was enough. Enough to see that this little book is a gem and a treasure and that Barnes has still got it.