Julian Barnes’s slim, grim new novel, “The Only Story,” will remind fans of “A Sense of an Ending,” which won the Booker Prize in 2011. Like that elegiac novel, his new book concerns an older man who looks back with a pained sense of culpability at a relationship in his youth. Perhaps for some authors of a certain age — Barnes is now 72 — doleful nostalgia becomes the only story.
The narrator, Paul, confesses at the opening that he’s been ruminating on a life-shaping experience for decades: Fifty years ago when he was a clever college boy home for the summer, he started an affair with Susan Macleod, a 48-year-old married woman at the local tennis club. “It was a matter of some pride to me,” Paul confesses, “that I seemed to have landed on exactly the relationship of which my parents would most disapprove.”
The fact that, in the throes of passion, he’s thinking of his parents suggests the limits of this 19-year-old boy’s maturity. While living at home, Paul spends a lot of time dreading the dead hand of adulthood. Early in the novel there’s a two-page aria on the horrors of older people: “the spectacles they wore and the spectacles they made of themselves, the drinking and the smoking, the terrible phlegmy racket when they coughed, the artificial smells they applied to conceal their animal smells, the way the men went bald and women shaped their hair with aerosols of glue, the noxious thought that they might still be having sex,” etc. etc. Like any healthy young man, Paul knows with complete certainty that he will never succumb to these humiliations, even if he is dating a woman old enough to be his mother.
Their relationship sounds scandalous — “Cougar Town” reimagined by Flaubert — but Paul is quick to squelch such titillation: “You might think: French novels, older woman teaching ‘the arts of love’ to younger man, ohh la la. But there was nothing French about our relationship, or about us. We were English, and so had only those morally laden English words to deal with: words like scarlet woman, and adulteress.”
The very Englishness of their affair lends the whole encounter an extra layer of tweedy oddness. Barnes emphasizes that Paul’s erotic adventure takes place in a suburb of London in the 1960s, a realm that not only represses sexual behavior but even the terms of censure. Paul frequently has dinner with Susan and her family. He sleeps over on the living room sofa. He even helps her ghastly husband in the garden. Except for a few furious outbursts, “an English silence — one in which all the unspoken words are perfectly understood by both parties — prevailed.”
This could have been nothing more than an embarrassing summer of sentimental education, but their love for each other is more complicated and lasts much longer, which accounts for the dark shadow it casts. What began for Paul as an excitingly transgressive romance devolves into a grueling effort to rescue the woman he loves from depression and alcoholism. That ordeal cauterizes his heart, but, what’s worse, it inspires such banal realizations as, “Loving one another does not necessarily lead to happiness.”
It feels heretical to confess, but for all Barnes’s writerly skill, I couldn’t help feeling like the aliens who appear in “Stardust Memories” and tell Woody Allen, “We like your movies, particularly the early, funny ones.” Where’s the biting wit of “England, England” or the knowing irony of “Love, Etc.”? By contrast, “The Only Story” is so full of grieving sighs that it practically hyperventilates.
While the early parts of the novel contain striking vignettes about Paul’s naivete — his passion, his earnestness — the plot’s forward motion soon stalls in ruminations on the nature of love, the loss of innocence and the unreliability of memory. There’s a staleness to these themes that’s only partially camouflaged by Barnes’s elegant style, the way an expensive cologne might distract us, for a time, from the mustiness of a well-appointed sitting room. Indeed, despite its brevity, there’s something claustrophobic about “The Only Story.” That feeling may be consistent with a young man’s self-absorption — what Barnes calls “the entirely justifiable egotism” — but 50 years later, Paul seems to have done nothing but accumulate more and more sophisticated ways to declaim his remorse, his sadness, his suffering.
Susan, the antique object of his devotion, remains a vague, pathetic presence in the novel. That’s doubly disappointing because she’s potentially more interesting than Paul, yet another privileged man who got burned on love despite being such a nice guy. “Perhaps love could never be captured in a definition,” Paul thinks. “It could only ever be captured in a story.”
Perhaps, but not in this one.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and host of TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
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By Julian Barnes
Knopf. 253 pp. $25.95