Sometimes it’s the first sentence that does the trick. In ‘The Only Story’ (2018), a novel by Julian Barnes, it goes like this: “Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less? That is, I think, finally, the only real question.” There you sit, in your cosy rocker, ready to take the first sip of a hot cinnamon tea. If you thought you were off for an evening of lazy reading, forget it, because by bedtime the worrying will be knee-high.
It’s a classic Barnes novel, so you simply know that if you start reading it, then you’ll read until the last page, without being able to let in more than the occasional interruption (eat, drink, sleep). Moreover, especially in this one, you’ll be heading to a rather wry conclusion. There are indeed a lot of barbs to be encountered while reading ‘The Only Story’.
A young schoolboy, Paul Casey, falls head over heels in love with his much older tennis partner Susan. To make things worse she happens to be married. Disillusion is what’s leering around the corner: “It seemed to me evident that love and truth were connected; indeed, as I may have said, that to live in love is to live in truth.” soon becomes: “I have seen too many examples of lovers who, far from living in truth, dwelt in some fantasy land where self-delusion and self-aggrandizement reigned, with reality nowhere to be found.” Bugger.
So Paul downsizes the expectations he has for his life: “Some people, when they grow old, decide to live by the sea. They watch the tides approach and recede, foam bubbling on the beach, further out the breakers, and perhaps, beyond all this, they hear the oceanic waves of time, and in such hinted outer vastness find some consolation for their own minor lives and impending mortality. He preferred a different liquid, with its own movements and its own destination. But he saw nothing eternal in it: just milk turning into cheese. He was suspicious of the grander view of things, and wary of indefinable yearnings. He preferred the daily dealings of reality. And he admitted that his world, and his life, had slowly shrunk. But he was content with this.”
If he’s content with it, do we have to feel sad? Again a beautifully put Barnes dilemma, one of the many the man has served us throughout the years.
His friend Eric’s story doesn’t turn out better: his girlfriend Ashley got entangled in some guru inspired religious sect and suddenly vanishes from his life: “He had lost his belief in the good intentions of others, and with it the ability fully to give himself over to love.” By the way, in this, he resembles the main character in Jay McInerney’s ‘Bright Lights, Big City’. But more about that brilliant novel soon.
Anyway, Barnes’ opening sentence might contain a truth, as mysterious as it is impossible to solve - and so: eternal. In the end, nobody knows exactly why love too often leads to suffering.
Warmly recommended for those who are fascinated by the strange ways in which Love behaves. Hey - aren’t we all?
(Julian Barnes, ‘The Only Story’, published by Jonathan Cape, 2018.)
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