The Only Story (Barnes)

The Only Story 
Julian Barnes, 2018
Knopf Doubleday
252 pp.

From the Man Booker Prize-winning author of The Sense of an Ending, a novel about a young man on the cusp of adulthood and a woman who has long been there, a love story shot through with sheer beauty, profound sadness, and deep truth.

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.

One summer in the sixties, in a staid suburb south of London, Paul comes home from university, aged nineteen, and is urged by his mother to join the tennis club.

In the mixed-doubles tournament he's partnered with Susan Macleod, a fine player who's forty-eight, confident, ironic, and married, with two nearly adult daughters. She is also a warm companion, their bond immediate.

And they soon, inevitably, are lovers. Clinging to each other as though their lives depend on it, they then set up house in London to escape his parents and the abusive Mr. Mcleod.

Decades later, Paul looks back at how they fell in love, how he freed Susan from a sterile marriage, and how—gradually, relentlessly—everything fell apart, and he found himself struggling to understand the intricacy and depth of the human heart.

The Only Story is a piercing account of helpless devotion, and of how memory can confound us and fail us and surprise us (sometimes all at once), of how, as Paul puts it, "first love fixes a life forever." (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Aka—Dan Kavanaugh
Birth—January 19, 1946
Where—Leicester, England, UK
Education—B.A., Oxford Uiversity
Awards—Man Booker Prize; Gutenberg prize;
   E.M. Forster Award; Geoffrey Faber Memorial
   Prize; Prix Medicis; Prix Femina.
Currently—lives in London, England

Julian Patrick Barnes is a contemporary English writer, and winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize, for his book The Sense of an Ending. Three of his earlier books had been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize: Flaubert's Parrot (1984), England, England (1998), and Arthur & George (2005).

Barnes has written crime fiction under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh. Barnes is one of the best-loved English writers in France, where he has won several literary prizes, including the Prix Medicis for Flaubert’s Parrot and the Prix Femina for Talking It Over. He is an officer of L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

Although Barnes was born in Leicester, his family moved to the outer suburbs of London six weeks later. Both of his parents were teachers of French. He has said that his support for Leicester City Football Club was, aged four or five, "a sentimental way of hanging on" to his home city. He was educated at the City of London School from 1957 to 1964. At the age of 10, Barnes was told by his mother that he had "too much imagination."  As an adolescent he lived in Northwood, Middlesex, the "Metroland" of which he named his first novel.

Education and early career
Barnes attended Magdalen College, Oxford, where he studied Modern Languages. After graduation, he worked as a lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary supplement for three years. He then worked as a reviewer and literary editor for the New Statesman and the New Review. During his time at the New Statesman, Barnes suffered from debilitating shyness, saying: "When there were weekly meetings I would be paralysed into silence, and was thought of as the mute member of staff." From 1979 to 1986 he worked as a television critic, first for the New Statesman and then for The Observer.

His first novel, Metroland (1980), is a short, semi-autobiographical story of Christopher, a young man from the London suburbs who travels to Paris as a student, finally returning to London. It deals with themes of idealism, sexual fidelity and has the three-part structure that is a common theme in Barnes' work. After reading the novel, Barnes' mother complained about the book's "bombardment" of filth. In 1983, his second novel Before She Met Me features a darker narrative, a story of revenge by a jealous historian who becomes obsessed by his second wife's past.

Barnes's breakthrough novel Flaubert's Parrot broke with the traditional linear structure of his previous novels and featured a fragmentary biographical style story of an elderly doctor, Geoffrey Braithwaite, who focuses obsessively on the life of Gustave Flaubert. The novel was published to great acclaim, especially in France, and it established Barnes as one of the pre-eminent writers of his generation. Staring at the Sun followed in 1986, another ambitious novel about a woman growing to maturity in post-war England who deals with issues of love, truth and mortality. In 1989 Barnes published A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, which was also a non-linear novel, which uses a variety of writing styles to call into question the perceived notions of human history and knowledge itself.

In 1991, he published Talking it Over, a contemporary love triangle, in which the three characters take turns to talk to the reader, reflecting over common events. This was followed ten years later by a sequel, Love, etc., which revisited the characters ten years on.

Barnes is a keen Francophile, and his 1996 book Cross Channel, is a collection of 10 stories charting Britain's relationship with France. He also returned to the topic of France in Something to Declare, a collection of essays on French subjects.

In 2003, Barnes appeared as the voice of Georges Simenon in a BBC Radio 4 series of adaptations of Inspector Maigret stories. Other works include England, England, a satire on Britishness and the culture of tourism; and Arthur & George, a detailed story based on the life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his involvement in the Great Wyrley Outrages. His 1992 book, The Porcupine, deals with the trial of a fictional former Communist dictator.

Barnes' eleventh novel, The Sense of an Ending, published in 2011, was awarded the Man Booker Prize. The judges took 31 minutes to decide the winner, calling it a "beautifully written book," which "spoke to humankind in the 21st Century." Salman Rushdie tweeted Barnes his congratulations.

In 2013 Barnes published a "memoir" Levels of Life, about the death of his wife, which is "part history, part meditative essay and part fictionalized biography. The pieces combine to form a fascinating discourse on love and sorrow" (New York Times).

Personal life
His wife, literary agent Pat Kavanagh, died of a brain tumour on 20 October 2008. He lives in London. His brother, Jonathan Barnes, is a philosopher specialised in Ancient Philosophy. He is the patron of human rights organisation Freedom from Torture. (Adapted from Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
Consistently surprising.… It shows a novelist at the height of his powers [and is] a book that quietly sinks its hooks into the reader and refuses to let go.
Robert Douglas-Fairhurst - Times (UK)

Often playful and always elegant, [it] propels us forward, first into joy, and then into despair, and there is no escape from the central story as it becomes bleaker. This intense, taut, sad and often beautiful tale may well be Barnes's best.
Lara Feigel - Spectator (UK)

One to savour.… Emotionally acute, profoundly beautiful, as droll as it is deep.”
Hephzibah Anderson - Mail on Sunday (UK)

Gentle, bleak, and brilliant.… His themes are the big, unfashionable universals—ageing, memory, above all love.
Jon Day - Financial Times (UK)

Barnes’s deeply touching novel is a study of heartbreak.… By revisiting the flow and ebb of one man’s passion, Barnes eloquently illuminates the connection between an old man and his younger self.
Publishers Weekly

Barnes skillfully plays with narrative form, turning the novel into something of a metafiction without making it ponderous or difficult to read.… Absorbing enough to polish off over a weekend, this novel has a place in popular and literary collections.  —Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, Univ. of Minnesota Libs., Minneapolis
Library Journal

(Starred review.) Mesmeric.… The reader drifts along on Barnes’ gorgeous, undulating prose. Focusing on love, memory, nostalgia, and how contemporary Britain came to be, Barnes’ latest will enrapture readers from beginning to end. —Alexander Moran

(Starred review.) [Paul is]…narcissistic, and his rhetoric … often takes on a needy, pleading tone.… But that's by Barnes' design, and it's consistently clear that Paul was in love.… A somber but well-conceived character study suffused with themes of loss and self-delusion.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. The opening line reads, "Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less?" Which would you pick? Do you agree with Paul that this isn’t a fair questions because "we don’t have the choice"?

2. Susan and Paul have a quarter-century age difference, yet he repeatedly insists throughout the novel that neither one of them was taking advantage of the other. Do you agree, or do you think there is an inherent power imbalance between them due to that gap?

3. Games and sports feature prominently throughout the story, whether tennis, golf, or crossword puzzles. How do each of these activities, and the attitudes the characters have toward them, illuminate and illustrate the nature of love as they interpret it?

4. Discuss the character of Joan and her role as Paul’s only true confidant when it comes to his relationship with Susan.

5. Point of view consistently changes throughout the novel, with part one being in first person, part two in second person, and part three in third, second, and first. Why do you think Barnes chose to do this? How did the different perspectives impact the reading experience and influence how you understand Paul?

6. On pages 115–116, Paul presents his theory that memory is like a "log-splitter." How is the nature of memory demonstrated throughout the novel, and do you agree with Paul when he says, "Life is a cross section, memory is a split down the grain, and memory follows it all the way to the end"?

7. As Susan’s alcoholism progresses, she tells Paul she has "a moral disease" caused by her being from "a played-out generation" (page 169). What do you think is the impetus for her drinking, and how do you interpret her repeated insistence that her generation is "played out"?

8. A subsequent girlfriend of Paul’s calls Susan a "madwoman" in an attic (page 186), a reference to not only Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre but also the groundbreaking 1979 work of feminist literary criticism of that title by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. How does Susan fit into the broader tradition of literary housewives? Is she a transgressive feminist, a beleaguered relic of pre–sexual revolution England, or something else entirely?

9. Do you think Paul was right to "hand back" Susan to her daughters, or do you think he abandoned her? How did his decision color your opinion of him?

10. As we see throughout the novel, and as is explicitly discussed in part three, Paul is obsessed with defining love. Discuss what it means when, on page 246, he posits, "Perhaps love could never be captured in a definition; it could only ever be captured in a story."

11. How is marriage represented in the novel, and how important is it that Paul himself never marries?

12. Gordon Macleod is an extremely complex man—something Paul comes to realize only later in life. Discuss the evolution of their relationship, and Gordon’s significance as a man who subscribes to traditional British masculinity.

13. Paul and Susan’s final encounter is, on the surface, anticlimactic, but at its core imbued with deep significance. How did you interpret it?

14. After their first match, when Paul apologizes for causing them to lose, Susan says, "The most vulnerable spot in doubles is always down the middle" (page 9). How does this idea reemerge throughout the novel—that our weakest spot is the space between us and someone else?

15. What is your only story?

(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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