Are we made by what we read? I believe so. While I do try not to read only fictions and not just fictions of a certain genre, I particularly enjoy reading general fictions that are centred around certain themes such as memory and the unreliable nature of human memory. One of my favourite writers is Julian Barnes whose prose is elegant, prolific and easy to get into the rhythm of.
Julian Barnes is back in his element talking about love and the memory of youth in The Only Story. This is how the novel begins:
‘ 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, 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. ‘
The story is about Paul's first love and it has lifelong consequences. It begins in the first person’s voice.
‘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.”
At nineteen, Paul falls in love with Susan Macleod, a married woman who is almost three decades his senior. He is home for three months at the end of his first year at university. His mother suggests that he may like to join the tennis club. He is competitive at sport without being unduly talented. There is a Lucky Dip Mixed Doubles tournament and he is paired with Mrs Susan Macleod, thus begin his acquaintance with her and they become more than tennis buddies.
Paul was at the age when the one thing that he was not going to do with his existence was end up in a suburbia with a tennis wife and 2.4 children, and watch them in turn find their mates at the club. When he accepted his mother’s suggestion and offer to sub him for a membership at the tennis club, it was ‘in a spirit of nothing but satire’.
The Only Story moves from the first person’s voice to second person’s voice and then onto the third person’s voice and back to the first person's voice in the end.
‘ As an adolescent, he had longed for more complication. And life had let him discover it . At times, he felt he had had enough of life’s complications .’
‘He always remembered what she had said to him after they left Joan’s house that day. Like most young men, especially those first in love, he had viewed life – and love – in terms of winners and losers. He, obviously, was a winner; Joan , he assumed , had been a loser, or more likely, not even a competitor. Susan had put him right. Susan had pointed out that everyone has their love story. Even if it was a fiasco, even if it fizzled out, never got going, had all been in the mind to begin with: that didn’t make it any the less real. And it was the only story .’
As you get older, you know that life is both happy and miserable. I often feel protective of my daughters, afraid of their expectations about love and disappointments and life’s complications. But then they have to do the growing up and figure things out on their own.
I believe that it is better to have loved and perhaps suffer for loving someone than never to have loved for fear of getting hurt.
The Only Story is a sad love story. It is not tragically sad, it is just sad, it is about the passing of youth and the human heart.While it is a fiction, the observations about how the human heart and mind work are apt. The writing is simply engaging as the story unfolds. Everyone has a story to tell, what is yours?