Julian Barnes: The Only Story

I tend to mix up some of the middle-aged white male Anglo-Saxon writers. Philip Roth with Saul Bellow, Updike with DeLillo, Martin Amis with Will Self, David Foster Wallace with Brett Easton Ellis. I have read some of their books, mostly in my youth, but I would not make great efforts now to seek them out (Saul Bellow is perhaps the one I remember most fondly out of the lot). One writer I do not confuse with any of the above is Julian Barnes. I haven’t loved all of his books, but he is more often a hit than a miss for me, even though he too can go on a bit about midlife crisis and middle class problems. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that – quite a few readers are in that category, including me, so can relate to all that! – it’s just bad when those are the only kind of books to get published or to win prizes, when they become (forgive the pun) The Only Story. But hopefully all that is changing now!

I admired it but was ever so slightly disappointed by Barnes’ previous novel, the reimagining of three key moments in Shostakovich’s life, but here he goes back to familiar territory, an older man musing on the loves and choices of his youth. 19 year old Paul falls in love with an older married woman – they settle down to live happily ever after, but things don’t work out like that. That’s the story in a nutshell, but it doesn’t do justice to that beatiful sense of yearning, of missed opportunities, of gaining wisdom but losing passion.

Barnes has such insight into human beings, into those stories we tell ourselves, the justifications we use, but is bitingly honest about what lies underneath. At times, it can feel like an extended meditation about regrets and growing older, but it’s full of quotable passages and tangential rants (which nevertheless suit young Paul well).

What did I dislike and distrust about adulthood? Well, to put it briefly: the sense of entitlement, the sense of superiority, the assumption of knowing better if not best, the vast banality of adult opinions, the way women took out compacts and powdered their noses, the way men sat in armchairs with their legs apart and their privates heavily outlined against their trousers, the way they talked about gardens and gardening…… their docile obedience to social norms, their snarky disapproval of anything satirical or questioning, their assumption that their children’s success would be measured by how well they imitated their parents, the suffocaitng noise they made when agreeing with one another…

It seemed to me, back then… that love had nothing to do with practicality; indeed, was its polar opposite. And the fact that it showed contempt for such banal considerations was part of its glory. Love was by its very nature disruptive, cataclysmic; and it if was not, then it was not love.

I didn’t realize that there was panic inside her. How could I have guessed? I thought it was just inside me. Now, I realize, rather late in the day, that it is in everyone. It’s a condition of our mortality. We have codes of manners to allay and minimise it, jokes and routines, and so many forms of diversion and distraction. But there is panic and pandemonium waiting to break out inside all of us…

… by that time he had made the most terrifying discovery of his life… the realization that love, even the most ardent and the most sincere, can, given the correct assault, curdle into a mixture of pity and anger. His love had gone, had been drive out, month by month, year by year. But what shocked him was that the emotions which replaced it were just as violent as the love which had previously stood in his heart.