Here’s a sentence almost any of us would be happy to have written, an aphoristic nugget that can hold its own with Oscar Wilde or La Rochefoucauld: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.” Some of its brilliance lies in its rhythm, its strong iambic beat. But that little packet also encapsulates an entire attitude toward the spiritual life, a very English attitude that now seems a historical relic; something Victorian, like Matthew Arnold in “Dover Beach,” mourning the receding Sea of Faith. There’s no exalted note of sadness here, though, and instead it’s wan and wry and rueful, as though the writer’s unbelief were neither desperate nor contented; just an itch his prose might scratch. It’s pithier than Arnold, and funny, clever even as it looks sincere—opposing qualities that are made to march in step.
The words belong to Julian Barnes, and stand as the opening sentence of Nothing to Be Frightened Of (2008), a book-length essay whose title is a double-entendre. Death is nothing to be frightened of; it’s also the nothing that frightens. Barnes writes that he has never been to a “normal” church service, only the trinity of baptisms, funerals, and weddings, and worries away at the question of how an irreligious man can face his own mortality. He looks to figures like Montaigne and Stendhal for answers, but his most regular interlocutor is his older brother, Jonathan, an academic philosopher who figures here as the eccentric Mycroft to his junior’s attention-grabbing Sherlock. Offered that first sentence, Jonathan’s response is tersely unforgiving: “Soppy.” Though of course it’s Julian who has allowed his brother’s judgment in.
Large matters handled lightly, weighty questions entertained entertainingly: that’s Barnes’s special province. The sincerity is never less than lapidary, the cleverness never mere cleverness. Or…almost never? That’s been the question ever since Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), his third book and the one that made his name. Barnes’s oeuvre is large, varied, and uneven, and it includes a few novels I’ve never been able to finish. Talking It Over (1991) is one of them, with its alternating first-person testimonies of the three sides in an adulterous triangle; England, England (1998) is another, a fantasia in which the Isle of Wight gets turned into a theme park repository of the nation’s cultural clichés. High-concept, both of them, stunts one might sell in an elevator pitch.
But at his best Barnes’s cleverness depends on his sincerity, in a way that makes him the most essayistic of contemporary novelists, the one most comfortable in feigning a form of direct address. He allows his narrators to seem as if they are speaking to his readers themselves, asking questions and then playing with their terms, flipping them over like rocks to see what’s underneath. That has led to an uncanny continuity between his novels and his nonfiction, a continuity in voice and even at times in form. So in reading The Only Story, his sixteenth work of fiction, I thought more of Nothing to Be Frightened Of than I did of the Booker Prize–winning The Sense of an Ending (2011), with which this new tale shares a bit of plot; and more of Levels of Life (2013), his harrowing account of widowerhood, than of either.
Look at how The Only Story starts, with its sentences clipped and its opening paragraphs spaced out on the printed page like entries in a notebook:
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.
You may point out—correctly—that it isn’t a real question. Because we don’t have the choice. If we had the choice, then there would be a question. But we don’t, so there isn’t. Who can control how much they love? If you can control it, then it isn’t love. I don’t know what you call it instead, but it isn’t love.
Most of us have only one story to tell. I don’t mean that only one thing happens to us in our lives: there are countless events, which we turn into countless stories. But there’s only one that matters, only one finally worth telling. This is mine.
The only question, the only story, and maybe we should think here as well of The Only Problem (1984), a late Muriel Spark novel that rewrites the Book of Job; “suffer the more,” as indeed Barnes’s characters will.
A summer in the early 1960s, and at nineteen Paul Roberts is home and bored in London’s outer suburbs after his first year at Sussex University. Eventually his mother pushes him out to the local tennis club, a place full of nice young women, all bent on luring him into “an endless, privet-and-laurel future.” He’s got the right manners but doesn’t believe in any of it, and then one day he’s paired with a woman called Susan Macleod for a “Lucky Dip Mixed Doubles tournament.” She’s at the end of her forties, with daughters older than he is, and unhappily married to a man named Gordon, who hits a golf ball “as if he hates it.” Hits other things too, as we’ll eventually learn. Paul gives her a ride home after they lose their match, and soon he’s driving her everywhere; nothing’s happened yet, but there’s already a sense of complicity between them, “which made me a little more me, and her a little more her.”
“You’re a case,” she tells him, amused at how much he cares about losing, and then makes it a part of his name: Casey Paul, as in “Don’t give up on me just yet, Casey Paul.” Those words will echo, as much a part of his memory as the green buttons on her white tennis dress. “First love fixes a life forever,” he later says, and Susan will tell him that everyone has a love story. It may be a disaster, but it’s nevertheless “the only story,” something that happens to us all. Or as Johnson’s Dictionary puts it, in words that provide Barnes’s epigraph, “Novel: A small tale, generally of love.”
Yet Paul also warns his imaginary audience—okay, us—that we shouldn’t try to understand this particular novel too quickly. For Mrs. Macleod is no Mrs. Robinson. She tells him that “every young man should have a reputation,” and the one he acquires with her will, it’s true, get them both kicked out of the tennis club. This is her first affair, however, her last one too, and she remains a bit girlish, charming rather than seductive; “Forehand or backhand?” she asks him, when they’re first faced with a double bed.
Soon he starts spending his days at her house, eating dinner with her husband and daughters, who pretend not to notice. Sometimes he even brings his college friends along; Susan’s a good hostess, and likes cooking for a crowd. Nineteen, twenty, twenty-one: Paul runs their first years together as though it were one glorious summer, a single season in his memory. At the same time he tells us that it’s no simple interlude. It is instead his life—or rather it becomes his life on the day she tells him to drive her to London, her face muffled in a scarf, and not to ask any questions. Later he learns that the trip was to the dentist—Gordon has smashed her face into a door and snapped her front teeth. And later still the two of them will move to the city. Susan has long had a “running-away fund,” and it’s enough to cover their costs while Paul trains as a solicitor.
“Sex is the area where moral decisions, moral questions, most clearly express themselves; it’s only in sexual relationships that you come up against immediate questions of right and wrong.” So Barnes said in an interview some thirty years ago, and certainly it looked that way in his early fiction, in Metroland (1980) or Before She Met Me (1982), the well-turned conventional novels with which his career began. The Only Story suggests something more complicated. Decisions, choices, questions, consequences: Paul’s affair with Susan will let him in for all of them, and yet right and wrong seem curiously irrelevant here. Things happen, and you live with them, or try to, until you can’t.
Though perhaps Paul’s naiveté might stand as culpable in itself, as if youth were a moral error. The boy exults in their move to London—he believes, as a song of the day puts it, that all you need is love. It takes years for him to understand how much Susan has given up for him: her home and her children, her world. But it’s hardly taken all her energy, and she can’t bring herself to get a divorce. Instead she starts to drink, and during the decade they spend together her free-spirited mind will become as if moth-eaten. Meanwhile Paul himself will pass “from total denial of the fact that she drinks to total comprehension of why she might do so.” The only thing is, she hardly drank at all with Gordon.
Conventional. Barnes’s early work certainly was, but that’s not a word one often uses about him. The 1980s were the English novel’s best decade since the 1920s, a moment of invention that began with Midnight’s Children (1981) and ended with The Remains of the Day (1989), and Barnes himself wrote two of its strongest books: the strange cocktail called Flaubert’s Parrot and the even odder A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (1989). The first took as its narrator a retired doctor called Braithwaite, an Englishman obsessed with the work and life of the French novelist: with Emma Bovary’s eyes, say, or the effect of syphilis on literary history. Not that Braithwaite fooled anybody. His story is more affecting than it looks at first, but some parts of the novel seem rhetorically indistinguishable from nonfiction, and his obsessive Francophilia is Barnes’s own. As for A History, it is what it says, from Noah’s Ark to the afterlife, and with a woodlouse as one of its main characters, munching away through the ages and undermining human civilization from within.
Those are still the books on which his reputation rests. But I’m fond as well of the stories about France collected in Cross Channel (1996) and of The Noise of Time (2016), his recent historical novel about Shostakovich, in which a timid man sits in judgment upon himself. His art criticism is especially fine. The essays gathered in Keeping an Eye Open (2015) provide a theoretically rigorous account of the nature of representation itself, but are nevertheless written in an entirely accessible style. Levels of Life ends with an account of the loss to cancer of his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, and yet begins with nineteenth-century ballooning. It hangs together—though how? Anyone reading from book to book will wonder how a single writer could take on such a range of subjects and forms. What binds them to one another? Or as the old deflating question puts it, who is he when he’s at home?
In Flaubert’s Parrot Barnes gave these words to the recently widowed Braithwaite:
Part of love is preparing for death. You feel confirmed in your love when she dies. You got it right. This is part of it all.
Afterwards comes the madness. And then the loneliness: not the spectacular solitude you had anticipated, not the interesting martyrdom of widowhood, but just loneliness. You expect something almost geological—vertigo in a shelving canyon—but it’s not like that; it’s just misery as regular as a job.
Decades later he quoted those lines in Levels of Life, having first read them at his own wife’s funeral. He wonders if he might in 1984 have been “predicting my own probable feelings” rather than imagining the “correct grief” for his character, but few readers will worry about that. What hits us instead is the way in which these simple sentences are made uncanny by their context, the way a plain style becomes the most flamboyant of gestures. The sincerity of the words and the cleverness of their reuse seem wedded together in despair. Or maybe I should say that time has made those words sincere, made them something more than the mask through which a rather fusty character once spoke.
Yet that’s hardly all Barnes has had to say about love. The half chapter of his History—he calls it “Parenthesis”—is cast as an essay in which a man imagines his sleeping wife and tries to measure the nature of both marriage and truth. The very title of Before She Met Me suggests its narrator’s obsession with his spouse’s past; The Sense of an Ending explores the erosions of time, the grayness of a life in which deep passion never quite arrived.
Barnes has always been interested in that only story, and stands, in his early seventies, as a great anatomist of the pains and complexities of romantic love, a writer whose best passages are a match for the French masters he admires. His new novel takes up a tale buried within The Sense of an Ending, in which an affair between a middle-aged woman and a much younger man is both off-center and determinative. We never in that novel see the two of them together on the page, and the book’s pallid narrator doesn’t learn of their relationship until both parties are long dead. Here that affair is all we have. Paul’s friends and Susan’s daughters are nothing more than names; his parents seem placeholders and her husband a cartoon villain. That’s less a flaw than an indication of how closely locked the two of them are in each other; once they leave their suburban village for London their lives grow more narrow and the novel itself rather frighteningly claustrophobic.
Much of the pleasure in The Only Story comes from the wit and verbal precision that Barnes allows his narrator. At one point Paul and his mother enjoy the recriminations of “an English silence—one in which all the unspoken words are perfectly understood by both parties,” and at another he tears off on a page-long summary of everything he doesn’t like about adults, from their “assumption of knowing better if not best” to “the way they weren’t interested enough in me.” Such observations seem separate from his life with Susan, however, and a recurring image draws us deeper into the book’s emotional core. She hides her bottles, lies about where she goes, and lives with an “ever present” sense of shame, even as she pretends that everything’s fine.
They have good days, when it seems as if all might be well; and then bad months. Doctors don’t help, even when Paul can get her to one, and she refuses the religiosity of AA. At times he hates her, even as he knows that in some way he’s done this to her, that their relationship has destroyed her. Then one day he sees himself as if at an upstairs window out of which Susan has somehow climbed, holding on to her wrists and trying to pull her back in. Yet “her weight makes it impossible…. It is all you can do to stop yourself being pulled out with her, by her….You are stuck there, the two of you, and will remain so.”
Paul worries that his strength will fail, he’ll let her drop; but at the end of the novel he wonders if it was the other way around. Maybe she pulled him out after her. They tumble down together, he loses himself as well as her, and Barnes uses an especially inventive formal device to reinforce our sense of the damage. The Only Story maintains the journal-like format with which it began; the blocks of type grow longer and some even sprout into scenes, and yet none of them runs for more than six pages. Paul often interrupts himself to think about the operations of memory or to qualify a judgment, and most pages here come with a break or two. Beyond that Barnes divides the novel into three parts. The first and longest defines the affair’s early days; the second moves to London, a decade in which time seems to stop; and the third covers their later years, after the affair is over and Paul has handed Susan back to her daughters. That’s how he thinks of it—handing her back. He tries to save himself by giving up the only person he has ever loved.
Yet there’s more to that tripartite division than this summary suggests. It happens so gradually that one barely notices it, but the narrative voice in the second part slips from first-person to second. I thought at the start that this was a way to indicate the habitual course of Paul’s thought and days: “You understand that in certain, very limited circumstances, she needs the small lift of a small drink.” Then I realized that his first-person voice had dwindled away, that even in his account of a particular moment Paul had started to live in the second person, as though he were outside himself. It was still a surprise, though, to begin the novel’s third section and find that the voice had switched once more: “He had kept a little notebook for decades now. In it he wrote down what people said about love.” It’s as if he’s become ever more dissociated from himself, his very “I” hollowed into nonexistence, a casualty of the choices he made when young. Though choice, as this book’s first paragraphs remind us, is exactly the wrong word for an absence that has hardened into all he’s got.
First to second to third—Barnes’s switch from voice to voice is at once understated and dazzling. Which perhaps sums him up, the dazzle lying not in the shimmer of individual sentences so much as in the curves and vaults of his structural decisions. Those decisions embody the psychic consequences of this love affair in a far more vivid way than do any details of its plot, and they do something else as well. They speak to his characteristic formal daring. Barnes takes chances, and his books don’t always work; this one does. But of course The Only Story is not, as a title, quite accurate. Paul believes that “it was his final duty, to both of them, to remember and hold her as she had been when they were first together.” It’s not the only story, it’s his story, his memory, his questions. Should we hope for Susan’s version?