Annotations of Pain: First Love in “The Only Story”

Thomas J. Millay finds Julian Barnes’s “The Only Story” a perplexing, profoundly enjoyable story about the phenomenology of love.

Annotations of Pain: First Love in “The Only Story”

The Only Story by Julian Barnes. Knopf. 272 pages.

ADMIRING READERS already know that Julian Barnes can do British teenage drama perfectly; he has demonstrated as much in Metroland (1980) and the Man Booker Prize–winning The Sense of an Ending (2011). Barnes reanimates the yearnings, the certitudes, and the ignorance that are part and parcel of youth using a retrospective voice that is by turns hilarious and tender while never stooping to condescension or simply reinhabiting naïveté. Fans will not be surprised, then, to find that The Only Story — being a British teenage romance — is a perfectly accomplished book, with no missteps, inconsistencies, or obvious shortcomings. But is it any more than that? Is Barnes, after the bold performance that was The Noise of Time (about the life of Dmitri Shostakovich), just playing it safe?

In terms of topic, perhaps. But not in the way that topic is handled, not in the least. The Only Story stakes bold claims and provokes surprising questions that demonstrate Barnes is anything but resting on his laurels.

He states the novel’s thesis, via narrator Paul, on the opening page this way:

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.

As Paul’s story unfolds, it becomes clear that it’s about love in general and first love in particular, which, the book argues, is the only story we really have to tell about ourselves.

Such a claim certainly illuminates other beautiful, haunting novels, such as Patrick Modiano’s The Black Notebook. But is Barnes’s story of Paul and his lover Susan intended to be a cautionary tale about how enervating it is for human beings when romantic love becomes their only story? Or is it a tragedy? Is Barnes saying that people are doomed to first love being their only significant story even if that love is paltry, contingent, and messy, as it is with Paul and Susan? Barnes seems mostly to subscribe to the latter proposition, though with a significant modification: their love may seem paltry — younger man meets older woman, complicity is established, love is consummated, marriage falls apart, love fades, alcoholism endures — but it’s not actually paltry at all, because the story of these two romantics embodies human love as affectionate attention to detail.

Consider teeth, for example. Paul says of Susan’s,

I must tell you about her teeth. Well, two of them, anyway. The middle front ones at the top. She called them her “rabbit teeth” because they were perhaps a millimeter longer than the strict national average; but that, to me, made them the more special. I used to tap them lightly with my middle finger, checking that they were there, and secure, just as she was. It was a little ritual, as if I was taking an inventory of her.

It’s difficult not to smile at this slightly ridiculous but entirely believable romantic gesture. Her teeth show up throughout the first part of the novel, until they are, in heartbreaking fashion, lost. If Barnes has something to say here, it’s that little things like affection for teeth are the signum et res — the sign and the reality — of true love.

There’s an illuminating contrast, however, between Paul and Susan’s story and that of Shostakovich in The Noise of Time. Is the latter’s love for his spouse not all the more poignant, interesting, and sustainable precisely because she is not his only love? Isn’t it his passion for music that made Shostakovich an appealing lover in the first place? In her brilliant 2017 Paris Review piece “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?” Claire Dederer asks if all artists are not monsters in some sense given that selfishness is always involved in the finishing of a work. Provocative as such a question is, couldn’t the opposite case also be made? Namely, that the lover with no project of her or his own is the real monster, because lack of interest in the cultivation of self results in a subjectivity so dull that any captivating romantic love with such a person is out of the question. Given the choice between Shostakovich and Paul, who would not choose the former?

This is no condemnation of Barnes, of course, since the questions, doubts, and hesitations registered above all stem from the interaction between his books. This is surely a sign of richness, and it is the particular virtue of The Only Story to openly pursue a thesis that other works of his call into question.

Paul’s love story may not be all that interesting, but Barnes’s analysis of it certainly is. As in his other works, the author applies a scalpel to human consciousness to expose his protagonist’s intentions, beliefs, and neuroses with astute observation. Part one of the novel is in first person, part two in second, part three in third, and these different voices correspond to different stages in Paul and Susan’s relationship: the birth of love, the death of love, and the aftermath of love. Each part has its moments of enchanting, psychologically descriptive prose, such as this musing of Paul’s from the first section:

She laughs at life, this is part of her essence. She laughs at what I laugh at. She also laughs at hitting me on the head with a tennis ball; at the idea of having sherry with my parents; she laughs at her husband, just as she does when crashing the gears of the Austin shooting break.

The great 19th-century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard famously wrote, “It is quite true what philosophy says, that life must be understood backwards. But that makes one forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards.”

In the first part of this narrative, Barnes holds to both of these truths, managing to write in such a way that all the provisionality of Paul and Susan’s love is maintained despite the retrospective framework. Here, for example, Barnes turns from philosophical reflection to immediate celebration all in a few lines:

You might ask how deep my understanding of love was at the age of nineteen. A court of law might find it based on a few books and films, conversations with friends, heady dreams, aching fantasies about certain girls on bicycles and a quarter-relationship with the first woman I went to bed with. But my nineteen-year-old self would correct the court: “understanding” love is for later, “understanding” love verges on practicality, “understanding” love is for when the heart has cooled. The lover, in rapture, doesn’t want to “understand” love, but to experience it, to feel the intensity, the coming-into-focus of things, the acceleration of life, the entirely justifiable egotism, the lustful cockiness, the joyful rant, the calm seriousness, the hot yearning, the certainty, the simplicity, the complexity, the truth, the truth, the truth of love.

The reader can imagine the old Paul writing the first three sentences and the young Paul writing the fourth, the latter declaiming the nature of love in the kind of passionate outburst that is only possible when 19. The use of first person only reinforces this immediacy.

The same sort of immediate/reflective dynamic is also present later in the narrative, as in this section that showcases more of Barnes’s wry humor:

I said I never kept a diary. This isn’t strictly true. There was a point, in my isolation and turmoil, when I thought writing things down might help. I used a hardback notebook, black ink, one side of the paper. I tried to be objective. There was no point, I thought, in merely venting my feelings of hurt and betrayal. I remember the first line I wrote down was:

All alcoholics are liars.

This was, obviously, not based on a huge sample or broad research. But I believed it at the time, and now, decades later, with more field experience, I believe it to be an essential truth about the condition. I went on:

All lovers are truth-tellers.

Again, the sample was small, consisting mainly of myself. It seemed to me evident that love and truth were connected; indeed, as I may have said, that to live in love is to live in truth.

And then the conclusion to this quasi-syllogism:

Therefore, the alcoholic is the opposite of the lover.

This seemed not just logical, but also consistent with my observations.

One can’t help but laugh at Paul’s attempts to reason things out. But clearly there is a futile effort to get a handle on one’s life here that is deeply sad. Paul’s youthful attempt at an objective diary is, as Barnes puts it, “the annotation of pain.”

The elegiac tone of the third part of the novel perfectly fits Paul’s damaged state. Barnes describes his “slowly acquired calmness,” the gradual exhaustion of his love for Susan, and the transient nature of his romantic availability even long after they’ve split. Paul has lost the ability to offer himself to others and has only intermittent, superficial friendships: “It was what he wanted; more to the point, it was all he felt able to sustain.” A small, perfectly crafted récit illuminates the wounded self that is left in love’s wake:

He was at ease with the world, watching other people’s lives develop. No, that was too grand a way of putting it: he was observing the young get cheerfully drunk and turn their minds to sex, romance, and something more. But though he was indulgent — even sentimental — about the young, and protective of their hopes, there was one scene he was superstitious about, and preferred not to witness: the moment when they flung away their lives because it just felt so right—when, for instance, a smiling waiter delivered a mound of mango sorbet with an engagement ring glittering in its domed apex, and a bright-eyed proposer fell to bended knee in the sand […] The fear of such a scene would often lead him to an early night.

Paul does not envy the young; no, he feels compassion for their plight. He knows how that one moment, the leap, when an irrevocable declaration of love is made, can be a devastating mistake, leaving the impassioned lover to wonder for the rest of his days if he has squandered the fragile and singular gift of his only life on this earth.

Each part of The Only Story possesses its unique voice and memorable descriptions. Taken as a whole, the novel provides a kind of phenomenology of love as it unfolds in human consciousness in its different stages: development, dissolution, and remembrance. It is a perplexing, profoundly enjoyable read, even for readers who ultimately reject Paul’s thesis about the only story.

At times, accomplished novelists take on fairly banal plots just so they can show what they can do with them (think, for example, of John Banville’s The Infinities). This is one of those plots, and — through his precise attention to the marvels of love and his perfect stylistic accompaniments to each state — Barnes has once again shown himself capable of transforming the mundane and ephemeral into the lyrical and lasting.


Thomas J. Millay is a PhD student in Theology at Baylor University. His fiction has been published in the Blotter.

LARB Contributor

Thomas J. Millay, PhD, is a Senior Research Fellow at the Hong Kierkegaard Library, St. Olaf College, and the author of You Must Change Your Life: Søren Kierkegaard’s Philosophy of Reading (Cascade Press, 2020) and Kierkegaard and the New Nationalism (Lexington Press, 2021). His fiction has been published in The Blotter and his poetry in Earth & Altar.


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