BOOKS: Ju­lian Barnes’s The Only Story. Emma Glass’s Peach. Colin Dray’s Sign.

The Saturday Paper - - Contents - Ju­lian Barnes

Ju­lian Barnes is the de facto nov­el­ist lau­re­ate of the English post­war mid­dle classes. Across his hand­ful of nov­els and many short-story col­lec­tions, he has held a mir­ror to the world of mid­dle man­agers and pro­vin­cial bankers, treat­ing their myths and mo­rals as end­lessly sub­tle fas­ci­na­tions, en­folded mys­ter­ies that re­quire ex­pli­ca­tion of the most care­ful kind.

He has been a satirist of their snob­bery and fear­ful­ness of so­cial dis­grace, a recorder of the shushed in­ti­ma­cies of their mar­riages and in­trigues and a gen­tle critic of their philis­tin­ism. Al­though he is him­self Oxbridge, Fran­cophile and lit­er­ary es­tab­lish­ment, his pref­er­ence as an au­thor is to bur­row into the sub­ur­ban world from which he rose, and to cel­e­brate, in his am­biva­lent way, the qual­i­ties of cir­cum­spec­tion, un­der­state­ment and lack of pre­ten­sion.

His lat­est novel, The Only Story, is an el­e­gant, some­what blanched ru­mi­na­tion – chilly, even by the pulled-back stan­dards of Ju­lian Barnes – on the per­ils and com­pli­ca­tions of ro­man­tic love. It is in its way both an ar­tic­u­la­tion of the lim­its of a bour­geois sen­ti­men­tal­ity and an apol­ogy for the self­in­ter­est­ed­ness that ul­ti­mately trumps it.

What is it, this book seems to ask, that men and women de­sire more than any­thing in the world? Is it to love and to be loved in re­turn? Not quite, not only:

“That’s one of the things about life,” says Joan, a fig­ure who func­tions as or­a­cle and part-time agony aunt. “We’re all just look­ing for a place of safety.”

And it is the jour­ney to­wards an ac­cep­tance of this uni­ver­sal truth that Paul, the book’s nar­ra­tor, turns into the only story he, or we, can credit.

At 19, Paul falls madly in love with Su­san, a mar­ried woman old enough to be his mother. For a stretch, they live as neigh­bours and se­cret lovers in a quaint lit­tle sub­urb called the Vil­lage. He chauf­feurs her around town, and some­times on longer trips, and every­one pre­tends not to no­tice. Then her nasty-bit-of-work hus­band forces the lovers to make a dash for Lon­don.

There it all be­gins to un­ravel. Su­san starts booz­ing and quickly moves to all-out al­co­holism. Paul, cling­ing gamely to the fan­tasy that love con­quers all, is her lover and nurse for as long as he can be. Even­tu­ally some­thing snaps. He hand­balls Su­san, now in­valided, back to her fam­ily and abruptly flees the coun­try.

The story is told from the per­spec­tive of age as Paul looks back on life in search of mean­ing. The first part of his nar­ra­tive, de­scrib­ing life in the Vil­lage, is writ­ten in the first per­son. The sec­ond part, de­scrib­ing Su­san’s de­cline, al­ter­nates be­tween first and sec­ond, as though Paul is con­sciously zigzag­ging be­tween at­tach­ment and de­tach­ment. And then the third part – sur­prise, sur­prise – is a third-per­son anal­y­sis of how a tragic first love has shaped all that fol­lows.

These shifts in the nar­ra­tive voice can some­times be dis­con­cert­ing, par­tic­u­larly the shift to sec­ond per­son. Paul’s ad­dress to his younger self inevitably seems to im­pli­cate his opin­ions and rev­e­la­tions in the reader’s con­scious­ness: But if you think these are the only cat­e­gories of sex that ex­ist, you find you are mis­taken. Be­cause there is a cat­e­gory that you had not known to ex­ist, some­thing that isn’t, as you might have guessed had you heard about it be­fore, merely a sub­cat­e­gory of bad sex; and that is sad sex. Sad sex is the sad­dest sex of all.

The sad­dest sex, the sad­dest story: Ford Ma­dox Ford, eat your heart out. Is it in­sen­si­tive to say this is self-ev­i­dent to the point of ba­nal­ity, an elab­o­rate cliché?

The Only Story has a com­pa­ra­ble struc­ture to Barnes’s The Sense of an End­ing, which won the Booker Prize in 2011. The two nov­els are in fact kiss­ing cousins. Their nar­ra­tors are cut from more or less the same cloth, the ac­tion in both books re­volves around an af­fair be­tween an un­der­grad­u­ate and an older woman, and there are fre­quent ver­bal echoes and rep­e­ti­tions.

This shuf­fling of shared ma­te­rial be­tween books is a call­ing card for Barnes; it as­so­ciates with his en­dur­ing in­ter­est in the im­per­fect and par­tial na­ture of mem­ory. It also sug­gests, more prob­lem­at­i­cally, a kind of end­less doo­dling or day­dream­ing, as though his books and sto­ries were ev­i­dence of a shrugged-off de­sire to write a larger, more am­bi­tious, more overtly form­less work, lyri­cal and dis­cur­sive and re­ca­pit­u­la­tive.

Not that the two books are in­ter­change­able. Whereas The Sense of an End­ing keeps the rev­e­la­tions com­ing un­til the end, sug­gest­ing an op­ti­mism of the never-too-old-to-learn kind, the sense of the end­ing of The Only Story is gloomy in­deed.

Some of the de­scrip­tive pas­sages of life in the Vil­lage in the 1960s are very bright, and his por­trait of Su­san’s hus­band has par­tic­u­lar sharp­ness and vi­tal­ity, but the book maun­ders on, the nar­ra­tive mech­a­nism slowly run­ning down. Barnes sketches – wryly, skele­tally, coolly – the quiet life Paul has led since aban­don­ing the sick woman to her bot­tle: he makes cheese, he avoids in­ti­macy, he guards his place of safety and he calmly awaits his end.

There is, none­the­less, a grace­ful cur­va­ture to the wind­ing stair of this desul­tory tale to end all tales, and Barnes is never less than elo­quent as he leads us to the dy­ing of the light. There is no rage, only a kind of melan­choly shad­ing into numb­ness as Paul re­flects on the fact that his love failed the ul­ti­mate acid test and that maybe it would have been bet­ter had he not loved at all – or not so much.

It is cu­ri­ous, this tri­umph of de­spon­dency. Per­haps The Only Story sig­nals Barnes’s post-Brexit loss of faith in the or­di­nary denizens of his beloved Metroland, the vot­ers gulled by prom­ises of a dif­fer­ent kind of place of safety? Per­haps this is not an apol­ogy for mid­dle-class self­in­ter­est­ed­ness so much as a state­ment of dis­il­lu­sion­ment?

But, no, that is too much for this in some ways rather slight novel to bear, a novel that is at the very least com­pelling in its re­fusal to be com­pelled. JR

Jonathan Cape, 224pp, $32.99

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