It's a love story

Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less?"- Julian Barnes's latest offering, The Only Story, begins with this philosophical question, setting the tone for the rest of the story to unfold. We have 19-year-old Paul, living in "the Village", a stockbroker-belt enclave "fifteen miles south of London", as the narrator. He is home on his university holidays, bored and looking for ways to kill time. His mother suggests that he join the local tennis club, where he meets the 48-year-old Susan Macleod, a married mother of two grown-up daughters. And, there begins the story. A story of love that's at once unbelievable but true. A love that consumes his being like no other. A love that leads him to believe that it is "incorruptible, proof against both time and tarnish ­".  

If, at this juncture, it appears as an unfathomable infatuation, then we are grossly mistaken. After all, it's Julian Barnes, whose expertise in exploring the soaring heights of love, as also the despairing depths of loss, is well known. As the two of them begin their affair, we are hoping against hope that idealistic and naive Paul will grow out of it and look for someone his age. On the contrary, we find Paul getting drawn to Susan so much that he becomes a visible presence in her house at all times.

We meet Susan's husband Gordon, who Paul considers "an exemplar of the kind of Englishman he most loathed. Patronising. Patriarchal. Manneredly precise," as also her two daughters Martha and Clara, who he calls Miss Grumpy and Miss Not So Grumpy. As far as his parents are concerned, they consider him "...only nineteen". And, they all disapprove of his association with Susan. But, "I cared no more about approval than I did about money," says Paul. They are even "cast out of the tennis club like Adam and Eve". Paul takes pride in the fact that his relationship with Susan disregards any known social convention.

This blossoming of their relationship amid the thick air of disapproval makes up the first of the three parts of the book. And is in the first person.

In the second part of the book, narrated in the second person, we find them in London, having dipped into their running-away fund and eloped. Here we find Paul getting serious about his career and studying law as "given that our relationship was going to last a lifetime, I acknowledged that at some point I would have to support her rather than the other way round".

It is here that we witness Susan's slow deterioration into an alcoholic. Her occasional "little nip of sherry" gets uncontrollable. Very soon, she gets all delusional and loses her mind. Paul finds himself dealing with problems he hadn't foreseen. The demands placed on him by love are more than he can handle. "The sense of obligation became internalised. Love was a Duty in and of itself," he realises. He moves in and out of Susan's house. "He couldn't live with Susan; he couldn't establish a separate life away from her". Finding his love for her slowly turning into pity and anger, he tries to move on, but in vain.

Julian Barnes slowly leads us to the third part of the story, narrated in the third person, as Paul is looking back on his life. He is older, wiser. He has handed Susan's charge to her daughter Martha. "...was it an act of courage, or of cowardice?" - he just can't decide. He lives alone. "He knew what they said of him locally: Oh, he likes to keep himself to himself". He wonders about other people's love stories to gain a perspective on his relationship with Susan. Well, as for how the rest of the story evolves, you have to let Julian Barnes lead you. Trust me, you won't be disappointed.

The Man Booker Prize-winning author's flair for writing, sharp wit, and the sensitivity with which the complex subject of love is handled, rivets the unsuspecting reader to the last page in a frenetic pace. It's almost like a rollercoaster ride. There's joy, there's despair, and most of all, there's sadness, as the outlook is bleak. Julian Barnes is so exacting in his description of the highs and lows of Paul's relationship with Susan that it seems like nobody else could have described it better. Or, better still, that nobody else knows love better.

This brings to mind his lines from A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters - "We must believe in it (love), or we're lost. We may not obtain it, or we may obtain it and find it renders us unhappy; we must still believe in it. If we don't, then we merely surrender to the history of the world and someone else's truth."

Pick it up, NOW!

 

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