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The only story
2018
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Author Notes
Julian Barnes was born in Leicester, England, on January 19, 1946. He received a degree in modern languages from Magdalen College, Oxford University in 1968. He has held jobs as a lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary, a reviewer and literary editor for the New Statesmen and the New Review, and a television critic. <p> He has written numerous works of fiction including Arthur and George, Pulse: Stories, The Noise of Time, and England, England. He received the Somerset Maugham Award in 1980 for Metroland, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize in 1985 and a Prix Medicis in 1986 for Flaubert's Parrot, and the Man Booker Prize in 2011 for The Sense of an Ending. He also writes non-fiction works including Letters from London, The Pedant in the Kitchen, and Nothing to Be Frightened Of. He received the Shakespeare Prize by the FVS Foundation in 1993, the Austrian State Prize for European Literature in 2004, and the David Cohen Prize for Literature in 2011. <p> He writes detective novels under the pseudonym Dan Kavanaugh. His works under this name include Duffy, Fiddle City, Putting the Boot In, and Going to the Dogs. <p> (Bowker Author Biography)
First Chapter or Excerpt
1 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. But here's the first problem. If this is your only story, then it's the one you have most often told and retold, even if--as is the case here--mainly to yourself. The question then is: Do all these retellings bring you closer to the truth of what happened, or move you further away? I'm not sure. One test might be whether, as the years pass, you come out better from your own story, or worse. To come out worse might indicate that you are being more truthful. On the other hand, there is the danger of being retrospectively anti-heroic: making yourself out to have behaved worse than you actually did can be a form of self-praise. So I shall have to be careful. Well, I have learned to become careful over the years. As careful now as I was careless then. Or do I mean carefree? Can a word have two opposites? The time, the place, the social milieu? I'm not sure how important they are in stories about love. Perhaps in the old days, in the classics, where there are battles between love and duty, love and religion, love and family, love and the state. This isn't one of those stories. But still, if you insist. The time: more than fifty years ago. The place: about fifteen miles south of London. The milieu: stockbroker belt, as they called it--not that I ever met a stockbroker in all my years there. Detached houses, some half-timbered, some tile-hung. Hedges of privet, laurel and beech. Roads with gutters as yet unencumbered by yellow lines and residents' parking bays. This was a time when you could drive up to London and park almost anywhere. Our particular zone of suburban sprawl was cutely known as "The Village," and decades previously it might possibly have counted as one. Now it contained a station from which suited men went up to London Monday to Friday, and some for an extra half-day on Saturday. There was a Green Line bus stop; a zebra crossing with Belisha beacons; a post office; a church unoriginally named after St. Michael; a pub, a general store, chemist, hairdresser; a petrol station which did elementary car repairs. In the mornings, you heard the electric whine of milk floats--choose between Express and United Dairies; in the evenings, and at weekends (though never on a Sunday morning) the chug of petrol-driven lawnmowers. Vocal, incompetent cricket was played on the Village green; there was a golf course and a tennis club. The soil was sandy enough to please gardeners; London clay didn't reach this far out. Recently, a delicatessen had opened, which some thought subversive in its offerings of European goods: smoked cheeses, and knobbly sausages hanging like donkey cocks in their string webbing. But the Village's younger wives were beginning to cook more adventurously, and their husbands mainly approved. Of the two available TV channels, BBC was watched more than ITV, while alcohol was generally drunk only at weekends. The chemist would sell verruca plasters and dry shampoo in little puffer bottles, but not contraceptives; the general store sold the narcoleptic local Advertiser & Gazette , but not even the mildest girlie mag. For sexual items, you had to travel up to London. None of this bothered me for most of my time there. Right, that's my estate agent's duties concluded (there was a real one ten miles away). And one other thing: don't ask me about the weather. I don't much remember what the weather has been like during my life. True, I can remember how hot sun gave greater impetus to sex; how sudden snow delighted, and how cold, damp days set off those early symptoms that eventually led to a double hip replacement. But nothing significant in my life ever happened during, let alone because of, weather. So if you don't mind, meteorology will play no part in my story. Though you are free to deduce, when I am found playing grass-court tennis, that it was neither raining nor snowing at the time. The tennis club: Who would have thought it might begin there? Growing up, I regarded the place as merely an outdoor branch of the Young Conservatives. I owned a racket and had played a bit, just as I could bowl a few useful overs of off-spin, and turn out as a goalkeeper of solid yet occasionally reckless temperament. I was competitive at sport without being unduly talented. At the end of my first year at university, I was at home for three months, visibly and unrepentantly bored. Those of the same age today will find it hard to imagine the laboriousness of communication back then. Most of my friends were far-flung, and--by some unexpressed but clear parental mandate--use of the telephone was discouraged. A letter, and then a letter in reply. It was all slow-paced, and lonely. My mother, perhaps hoping that I would meet a nice blond Christine, or a sparky, black-ringleted Virginia--in either case, one of reliable, if not too pronounced, Conservative tendencies--suggested that I might like to join the tennis club. She would even sub me for it. I laughed silently at the motivation: the one thing I was not going to do with my existence was end up in suburbia with a tennis wife and 2.4 children, and watch them in turn find their mates at the club, and so on, down some echoing enfilade of mirrors, into an endless, privet-and-laurel future. When I accepted my mother's offer, it was in a spirit of nothing but satire. I went along, and was invited to "play in." This was a test in which not just my tennis game but my general deportment and social suitability would be quietly examined in a decorous English way. If I failed to display negatives, then positives would be assumed: this was how it worked. My mother had ensured that my whites were laundered, and the creases in my shorts both evident and parallel; I reminded myself not to swear, burp or fart on court. My game was wristy, optimistic and largely self-taught; I played as they would have expected me to play, leaving out the shit-shots I most enjoyed, and never hitting straight at an opponent's body. Serve, in to the net, volley, second volley, drop shot, lob, while quick to show appreciation of the opponent--"Too good!"--and proper concern for the partner--"Mine!" I was modest after a good shot, quietly pleased at the winning of a game, head-shakingly rueful at the ultimate loss of a set. I could feign all that stuff, and so was welcomed as a summer member, joining the year-round Hugos and Carolines. The Hugos liked to tell me that I had raised the club's average IQ while lowering its average age; one insisted on calling me Clever Clogs and Herr Professor in deft allusion to my having completed one year at Sussex University. The Carolines were friendly enough, but wary; they knew better where they stood with the Hugos. When I was among this tribe, I felt my natural competitiveness leach away. I tried to play my best shots, but winning didn't engage me. I even used to practise reverse cheating. If a ball fell a couple of inches out, I would give a running thumbs up to the opponent, and a shout of "Too good!" Similarly, a serve pushed an inch or so too long or too wide would produce a slow nod of assent, and a trudge across to receive the next serve. "Decent cove, that Paul fellow," I once overheard a Hugo admit to another Hugo. When shaking hands after a defeat, I would deliberately praise some aspect of their game. "That kicker of a serve to the backhand--gave me a lot of trouble," I would candidly admit. I was only there for a couple of months, and did not want them to know me. After three weeks or so of my temporary membership, there was a Lucky Dip Mixed Doubles tournament. The pairings were drawn by lot. Later, I remember thinking: Lot is another name for destiny, isn't it? I was paired with Mrs. Susan Macleod, who was clearly not a Caroline. She was, I guessed, somewhere in her forties, with her hair pulled back by a ribbon, revealing her ears, which I failed to notice at the time. A white tennis dress with green trim, and a line of green buttons down the front of the bodice. She was almost exactly my height, which is five feet nine if I am lying and adding an inch. "Which side do you prefer?" she asked. "Side?" "Forehand or backhand?" "Sorry. I don't really mind." "You take the forehand to begin with, then." Our first match--the format was single-set knockout--was against one of the thicker Hugos and dumpier Carolines. I scampered around a lot, thinking it my job to take more of the balls; and at first, when at the net, would do a quarter-turn to see how my partner was coping, and if and how the ball was coming back. But it always did come back, with smoothly hit groundstrokes, so I stopped turning, relaxed, and found myself really, really wanting to win. Which we did, 6-2. As we sat with glasses of lemon barley water, I said, "Thanks for saving my arse." I was referring to the number of times I had lurched across the net in order to intercept, only to miss the ball and put Mrs. Macleod off. "The phrase is, 'Well played, partner.'" Her eyes were grey-blue, her smile steady. "And try serving from a bit wider. It opens up the angles." I nodded, accepting the advice while feeling no jab to my ego, as I would if it had come from a Hugo. "Anything else?" "The most vulnerable spot in doubles is always down the middle." "Thanks, Mrs. Macleod." "Susan." "I'm glad you're not a Caroline," I found myself saying. She chuckled, as if she knew exactly what I meant. But how could she have? "Does your husband play?" "My husband? Mr. E.P.?" She laughed. "No. Golf's his game. I think it's plain unsporting to hit a stationary ball. Don't you agree?" There was too much in this answer for me to unpack at once, so I just gave a nod and a quiet grunt. The second match was harder, against a couple who kept breaking off to have quiet tactical conversations, as if preparing for marriage. At one point, when Mrs. Macleod was serving, I tried the cheap ploy of crouching below the level of the net almost on the centre line, aiming to distract the returner. It worked for a couple of points, but then, at 30-15, I rose too quickly on hearing the thwock of the serve and the ball hit me square in the back of the head. I keeled over melodramatically and rolled into the bottom of the net. Caroline and Hugo raced forward in a show of concern while from behind me came only a riot of laughter, and a girlish "Shall we play a let?," which our opponents naturally disputed. Still, we squeaked the set 7-5, and were into the quarter-finals. "Trouble up next," she warned me. "County level. On their way down now, but no free gifts." And there weren't any. We were well beaten, for all my intense scurrying. When I tried to protect us down the middle, the ball went wide; when I covered the angles, it was thumped down the centre line. The two games we got were as much as we deserved. We sat on a bench and fed our rackets into their presses. Mine was a Dunlop Maxply; hers a Gray's. "I'm sorry I let you down," I said. "No one let anyone down." "I think my problem may be that I'm tactically naive." Yes, it was a bit pompous, but even so I was surprised by her giggles. "You're a case," she said. "I'm going to have to call you Casey." I smiled. I liked the idea of being a case. As we went our separate ways to shower, I said, "Would you like a lift? I've got a car." She looked at me sideways. "Well, I wouldn't want a lift if you haven't got a car. That would be counterproductive." There was something in the way she said it that made it impossible to take offence. "But what about your reputation?" "My reputation?" I answered. "I don't think I've got one." "Oh dear. We'll have to get you one then. Every young man should have a reputation." Writing all this down, it seems more knowing than it was at the time. And "nothing happened." I drove Mrs. Macleodto her house in Duckers Lane, she got out, I went home, andgave an abbreviated account of the afternoon to my parents. Lucky Dip Mixed Doubles. Partners chosen by lot. "Quarter-finals, Paul," said my mother. "I'd have come along and watched if I'd known." I realised that this was probably the last thing in the history of the world that I wanted, or would ever want. Excerpted from The Only Story by Julian Barnes All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
Fiction/Biography Profile
Characters
Paul (Male), Joins the tennis club after his first year of college; has a love affair with Susan
Susan Macleod (Female), Married, Mother, Tennis partner of Paul's; falls for Paul
Genre
Fiction
Coming of age
Literary
Psychological
Topics
Love
Marriage
Devotion
Memory
Setting
London, England - Europe
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Trade Reviews

  New York Times Review

IF ENGLISH LIFE, as Lawrence Durrell was fond of saying, is by and large a "long, slow toothache," then Julian Barnes is now perhaps its principal dentist. Over a period of more than 30 years, he has returned again and again to certain lugubrious and exacting English themes: suburban conventions, coming-of-age anxieties and the enigmas of bourgeois love. From his first novel, "Metroland," to "The Sense of an Ending," which won the Booker Prize in 2011, Barnes has applied a melancholy drill to a patient still confined to the chair. One could argue that in "The Only Story," Barnes's new book, he is taking his cue from Flaubert, as he did in his bestknown work, "Flaubert's Parrot." The older woman in this novel, 48-year-old Susan Macleod, stands in for Madame Arnoux of "A Sentimental Education," and 19-yearold Paul Casey could be seen as a version of Frederic Moreau. They are, after all, eternal archetypes. The revolutions of 1848 in Flaubert's novel become in Barnes's work the multiple revolutions of the 1960s, not least the sexual revolution. A passing reference to a Private Eye cartoon of Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home situates the crucial action of the novel in the years 1963-64, a fateful era in Britain's own cultural upheavals. Flaubert stated that he wanted to write the moral history of his generation, to excavate passions that he declared were, despite the romantic pretenses of French society, "inactive." Barnes has set out to do much the same. "The Only Story" is justas pessimistic, with about the same satirical temperature and measuring the same ironic distance from what at first seems to be a love story that might generate some erotic heat. But "In the Mood for Love" this is not. In a small town in suburban Surrey, Paul meets Susan at the local tennis club, where they are assigned to be partners in a doubles tournament. Susan is married, with two daughters, and as Mrs. Robinsons go she is shy but ironic, seemingly insouciant but grimly trapped in a sterile marriage to Gordon Macleod, a nondescript British Empire type who is given all the most charmless attributes of both his generation and his race. The generation being that of World War II, described here as "played out" and traumatized, exhausted and sad, with no hint of the Greatest Generation mythology that has benefited its American counterpart. If one thinks back to the semi-forgotten satire of the British '60s, shows like "That Was the Week That Was" and the "Beyond the Fringe" skits helmed by Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett, the first thing that is striking is the delicious comic tension between the wartime generation and the generation that followed. The comedy is driven by the onetime solidity of archaic British types: Colonel Blimps and academics with plummy accents, cap-tipping proles and Middle Englanders with lips so stiff they can hardly talk. But that seemingly solid tapestry of social orders melted away into nothingness almost overnight. Barnes sets his tale in its twilight, among what he calls "furrow-dwellers," the torpid English middle classes, but he refrains from deriving much comedy from it. His Gordon Macleod is a drunken brute who slams his wife's face into the doorjamb. Narrating the first section of the novel, Paul is filled with rage for this hateful caricature of a man, though this is entirely unsurprising since nothing complex or sympathetic is offered on behalf of the luckless and cuckolded Gordon. It might have occurred to Paul at some point that a 19-year-old doing the deed with your wife under your own roof might inspire a little chagrin, but Paul is himself - and purposefully, I think - a self-righteous adolescent who never quite sees it this way, for all his grandstanding about his own shame. When asking himself, in retrospect, how much he understood about love at 19, he intones, "A court of law might find - " No, sympathy and vitality are reserved for the women in Paul's telling, and indeed the author's. There are shades here of Sarah, Graham Greene's heroine in "The End of the Affair." Susan is, without question, the character linchpin of the novel, and she is rendered touchingly. Miraculously, she shines through her lover's philosophizing about love and memory, about which he has little original to say. She has spirit. The young man and older woman begin a hesitant and fumbling sexual liaison whose sacrilegious tenderness is, however, never quite incarnated by Paul's recollection of it. Take her ears, at which he marvels. In an early moment of their lovemaking, he remembers: "It wasn't until we were in bed and I was rummaging and rootling around her body, into every nook and cranny, every overexamined and underexamined part of her, that, crouched above, I swept back her hair and discovered her ears." One wonders at his language here. Rummaged and rootled? Was she really enjoying such a feverish examination? This makes him sound like a stamp collector going over his latest finds rather than an awestruck adolescent losing his virginity. But this is Barnes's point, I assume. "Strange as it may seem," Paul implausibly reflects just before the episode of the ears, "I never reflected on our age difference." Teenage boys do lose their cherries to much older women (and they do so in the garden suburbs south of London), but it's rare that they never reflect on doing so with a woman nearing 50 with a husband and two daughters in tow. Nor do they tend to set up house with them. Still one could argue, after all, that this is the Emmanuel Macron story, with the cruel difference that Paul goes on to become not the leader of a major European nation but an obscure loser after eloping with his mistress and utterly failing to live happily ever after. For the darkness of the story only invades you in its last hundred pages. Years later, Paul settles down alone in the countryside to run something called the Frogworth Valley Artisanal Cheese Company and acquires a taste for reading lachrymose agony columns in the local newspaper. He also bakes. He not only loathes the memory of Susan's husband but most men to boot, finding them boastful, oafish and predatory, both beastly and comical. As for himself, he is by his own account an "absolutist for love." In other words, he is somehow less human than the man he still hates. As "The Only Story" proceeds, Barnes slips in and out of the first-, second- and third-person voices. Sometimes, but not always, with subtle effect. Near the beginning of the second section, which explores Paul and Susan's uneasy cohabitation, the slip into the second person heralds a nice gearshift into Paul's self-questioning; Barnes has a skillful command of tone and its moral implications, when he chooses to exert it. In the more hardened third person at the end of the book, the narrator has Paul recall a public service ad about AIDS in which it is suggested that when two people have sex they have sex with all their previous partners, and at once the ruminations become interesting. In that voice, the novel seems to find the right distance from its subject. I like the way Paul gradually forgets the very body he had overly fetishized, even the ears. "Things, once gone," we are told, "can't be put back; he knew that now. A punch, once delivered, can't be withdrawn. Words, once spoken, can't be unsaid. We may go on as if nothing has been lost, nothing done, nothing said; we claim to forget it all; but our innermost core doesn't forget, because we have been changed forever." Of which we can say that this is both true and beautifully put. As Paul opines, "In love, everything is both true and false; it's the one subject on which it's impossible to say anything absurd." Which isn't true, but I like it anyway. There is much food for self-contemplation on the part of the generation that came to maturity in the 1960s, and it's a popular theme among British novelists born in the 1940s. But it has proved difficult to pull off. Love isn't the only story, as it turns out, even if, as Paul insists, "first love fixes a life forever." Barnes is aware of this, but to relate in some way the dark sides of the cultural revolution of the '60s and that of his coming-of-age story he would have had to let his characters emerge a little more from Paul's perspective and the look-at-me-inthe-dock exegesis of his poor treatment of a woman he never really understands. Here and there, all the same, Barnes's rapier wit flashes and glitters. At one point in his decline, Paul gets "punitively drunk to the point of sudden rationality." What a delicious phrase that is, and how much more Paul might have delivered on it. ? LAWRENCE OSBORNE'S latest novel is "Beautiful Animals."

  Publishers Weekly Review

Barnes's deeply touching novel is a study of heartbreak; like his Man Booker Prize-winning The Sense of an Ending, it includes fading reminiscences, emotional complications, and moments of immeasurable sadness as an aging Englishman remembers his first and only love. Bored 19-year-old Paul meets 48-year-old Susan at the tennis club when they pair up for mixed doubles. She has a husband and two daughters older than Paul, but it is the 1960s, Paul's first summer home from university, and he is impervious to social correctness, parental disapproval, or long-term consequences. Paul and Susan share a satiric view of their suburban surroundings that turns into a secret romance, then a not-so-secret affair. Together they move to London, where, over the next decade, Paul studies law and becomes a law office manager while Susan deteriorates into alcoholism and depression. Fifty years later, Paul looks back on the relationship in an account strewn with unanswerable questions and observations about the nature of love. As painful memories mount, Paul's narration switches first to second person and then builds more distance by settling into third person. By revisiting the flow and ebb of one man's passion, Barnes eloquently illuminates the connection between an old man and his younger self. 75,000-copy announced first printing. (Apr.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Summary
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. <br> <br> 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. <br> <br> 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.<br> 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. It's 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."
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