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Monday 11 February 2019

Review: Julian Barnes, The Only Story

At the heart of a melancholy disposition is a divided heart. When experienced, things which are presented to us as opposites - courage and cowardice, calm and panic, love and hate - always turn out to be two faces of the same coin. A melancholy life is one lived in a state of fragile ambivalence.

Julian Barnes presents his love story as an instance of The Only Story, but then twins the first person novel of the first 150 pages with a fifty page third person narrative, as much essay as story, which reviews, rows back, turns on its head, much of what has gone before - at the same time still acknowledging it as the only story. It’s all very well done. Julian Barnes has an even, conversational style of writing; he breaks up the main narrative line with unobtrusive but effective anecdotes, tall stories, and jokes; he doesn’t blind the reader with science or Literature. I read this book with pleasure and quite quickly; it’s very good.

The heart of the matter is the love story which starts out with nineteen year old Paul and forty eight year old Susan, who leaves her husband for her lover, who in turn leaves her - ten or a dozen years later - when he can no longer endure her alcoholism.

We are less used to stories about younger men and older women than vice versa. The etiquette is different. When I once had occasion to google acceptable age differences, I found a mathematical consensus: it was acceptable for an older man to date a younger woman provided she [WA] was at least half his age [MA]  plus seven (WA > = [MA divided by 2] + 7). So a non-sexually discriminatory application of the etiquette would make Susan’s conduct unacceptable by a margin of twelve years: (48 divided by 2 = 24)  + 7 = 31. The result will suggest to some readers that the google consensus does not apply equally to older women and younger men, since even thirty one will appear eyebrow-raising to many readers. But it's academic anyway: he's not thirty one, he's nineteen; the local tennis club rightly expels both of them

I did in fact try to imagine that the novel might have been an inverted, coded version of the love story of an older man and a younger woman, and I am sure Barnes could write its twin, even though he has older Paul professing exaggerated distaste for “those men in their sixties and seventies who carried on behaving as if they were in their thirties”. Paul or the author protests too much at pages 203-204.

The recessional second half of this book reminded me of the one which forms the second half of Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday (reviewed here on  8 June 2017) and also an example of the only story. 

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