Noted

by Ju­lian Barnes Jonathan Cape; $32.99

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - by He­len El­liott

It’s an old story. A love story. Paul is 19, laz­ing about, “vis­i­bly and un­re­pen­tantly bored”, at his par­ents’ home over the long univer­sity va­ca­tion. His mother pays his sub­scrip­tion to the lo­cal ten­nis club so he goes, pri­vately sneering at all the bor­ing Hu­gos and Caro­lines he will meet. But at the Lucky Dip Mixed Dou­bles tour­na­ment Paul is paired with Mrs Su­san Macleod, “clearly not a Caro­line”. Mrs Macleod is 48. She is the same height as Paul, tall for a woman; her hair is pulled back by a rib­bon and she is wear­ing a white ten­nis dress with a green trim. Talk­ing to her, Paul is sur­prised at what comes out of his mouth, and she re­turns his re­marks with the same wit and style with which she plays ten­nis. At the end of the match he gives her a lift home – and con­tin­ues to do so. Noth­ing hap­pens at first, “not a touch, not a kiss, not a word”. Yet all lovers know that in this new­est and old­est story there are no words for the com­plic­ity that is un­der­stood even when it is un­ac­knowl­edged. What is uni­ver­sally ac­knowl­edged is Ju­lian Barnes’s author­ity in de­scrib­ing the cir­cum­scribed heart of an English male in a cer­tain pe­riod. The Only Story be­gins more than 50 years ago, at the height of the sex­ual rev­o­lu­tion, and con­tin­ues through the next decade, trac­ing the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Paul and Su­san. The nar­ra­tion frames the story ret­ro­spec­tively as the pivot for Paul’s life, also pro­vid­ing metic­u­lous ex­pan­sion of and con­stant re­but­tal to every ac­tion. Only through his love af­fair with Su­san can Paul’s later or­di­nary life be­come in­tel­li­gi­ble to him. That satir­i­cal, sneering young man – rude to his par­ents while ac­cept­ing their money, cars and com­forts, ea­ger to be seen as su­pe­rior to ev­ery­one be­cause of his clev­er­ness – is a vic­tim of the Stend­halian coup de foudre, the blow to the heart where re­cov­ery is not pos­si­ble. And the same must be said of Su­san. We get Su­san fil­tered through Paul’s (mainly) af­fec­tion­ate mem­ory. It’s a por­trait of a vivid woman of her time and class, her life dic­tated by his­tor­i­cal forces. With her se­crets, her grace, her for­ti­tude and the charm of a tem­per­a­ment sus­cep­ti­ble to joy, Su­san is ex­actly what Paul’s nar­row English heart re­quires to ex­pand and flour­ish, to be in­structed in ten­der­ness and the de­light of gai­ety. The im­print of Su­san is for a life­time. Is love the only story? Is it still love when it be­comes an af­flic­tion? This un­set­tling novel, stud­ded with the ex­pected epi­gram­matic ob­ser­va­tions, is an elo­quent in­di­ca­tion that for some peo­ple there is in­deed no other story but that of lov­ing and be­ing loved. In the process of be­com­ing our­selves there are some peo­ple we can­not get over, re­gard­less of in­ten­tion or de­sire.

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