Julian Barnes: The only story, review


Dear readers of my blog,

when on holiday for most of last month I had leisure to read and write on books I had received as gift, some of which I am going to keep, while there are others that do not fit into any of my collections. All the same, I want to place on record my view of them, perhaps recommend them to you as worth your while.

Julian Barnes is an English writer many people have continued to praise to me. A friend of mine has also written several essays on him which I was privy to peruse before publication, so he was a familiar name when his novel The only story arrived in a birthday parcel.

Here are the publication details:

Julian Barnes, The only story, London: Vintage, 2019 (2018). 216 pp.

ISBN 987-1-52911-066-1

You will find out about the price yourself. Allow me to recommend your local bookseller!

Reading this gripping yet saddening novel, I immediately realized its qualities while regretting that I would most certainly, as mentioned in my teaser, not start collecting Barnes works just now.

In three parts, it is told first from the point of view of the youthful protagonist, Paul, who at nineteen meets a married woman almost thirty years his senior at a mixed doubles tournament of the local tennis club he had joined for the summer after his first year at university.

While the story is told in the second and third person in parts two and three, Barnes is never pedantic, allowing, for example, the first person narrator to return when he last visits Susan shortly before her death.

In terms of narrative technique as well as in terms of observing English society as still determined by prewar values in the 1960s up to the present day, this is a brilliant sample of Barness art. As with other English novelists, however, the very fact that he pitilessly chronicles and anatomizes English society, so that is in fiction what it has seemed to me in fact for a long time, absolutely hopeless, that is, makes me unwilling to read another book written in the same vein any time soon.

The only story is a novel written from the point of view of the white English majority who had come out of the war with the maxim “Do not mention the war”. Some of the other taboos mentioned in the narrative such as the demise of the British Empire have never ceased to preoccupy the many minorities who have arrived in Britain since the 1950s – sometimes even invited to help out by the likes of Enoch Powell, as a dear friend from York tells me, when there was a need for nurses from the Caribbean.

In a sense, this is not only a novel telling the only love story Paul ever experienced in his life, it is also the story of how memories, shaky and changeling entities, rewrite both personal life stories and the collective memory of a while country. Having given all for the survival of Great Britain in the war, this generation was on the losing side thereafter, as it is put in the novel, just as Paul who had given all for Susan was unable to find another partner after he had “handed her over” to her daughters when her drinking habit had become a burden he could no longer handle.

I must say that while I admire Barnes versatility as a novelist I prefer to reread writers like Wilde, Ford Madox Ford, Aldous Huxley or George Orwell who were right in predicting what would befall the English – unless they would one day learn to pay more attention to history.

Do not hesitate to point out your own views on such matters to me,

all best wishes,

Jörg W. Rademacher

Baltrum, 19th July 2019, revised at Leer, 31st August 2019




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