Book review: The Only Story, by Julian Barnes

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Paul and Susan meet at a tennis tournament, at their village sports club, when they get randomly paired together. He is “only nineteen”, is not interested in British politics at all and “dislikes and distrusts adulthood”; she is blond, in her forties, has prominent front teeth and looks beautiful in her white tennis dress. They both seem to instantly know they will fall in love with each other. What they don’t seem to know, is that this love will destroy their lives.

When opening this book, leave aside all of your assumptions of what this story will be about. Embrace it without expectations. This is not a story where a boy who falls in love with a woman who could be his mother. Where she then teaches him the arts of love. Where he eventually grows up and looks back at the love affair with nostalgia. This is a book about the destructive power of relationships. Indeed, from the very first line, Barnes doesn’t hide that the characters of this book will be suffering because of love: “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.”

Perhaps you picked up this book because of its title: it’s short, it’s absolutistic – it indubitably means there’s only one story worth telling. This is a recurrent theme throughout the whole book: Susan’s story is the only story that will characterise Paul’s existence forever. “Everyone has their love story,” she explains to her young lover, “Everyone. It may have been a fiasco, it may have fizzled out, it may never even have got going, it may have been all in the mind, that doesn’t make it any less real. […] Sometimes, you see a couple […] and you can’t imagine them having anything in common, or why they’re still living together. But it’s not just habit or complacency or convention or anything like that. It’s because once, they had their love story. Everyone does.”

What is peculiar and fascinating about Barnes’ The Only Story, is the honesty of the narrator’s voice. Paul tells the story of his love for Susan exactly as he remembers it, because he thinks “there’s a different authenticity to memory, and not an inferior one. […] Memory prioritises whatever is most useful to keep the bearer of these memories going.” This way, Paul’s memory itself becomes one of the main characters – we follow the story not simply through him, but through his memory. And Paul is not afraid to admit that his memory can sometimes be faulty. He has no interest in focusing on details such as the food he ate, the clothes he wore, the name of the village he and Susan lived in, or the subject he studied at university. “I’m remembering the past,” he says, “not reconstructing it.”

At the same time, we witness some extraordinary moments of intimacy between Paul and Susan, which are described with precise and vivid details. For example, when the two move together to a small flat in London, which Susan has managed to buy, Paul’s account of their nights together is sweet, funny and exquisitely real: “The notion of lovers falling blissfully asleep in one another’s arms resolved itself into the actuality of one lover falling asleep on top of the other and the latter, after a certain amount of cramp and interrupted circulation, gently shifting out […] I also discovered that it wasn’t only men who snored.” Julian Barnes is, indeed, the master of delicate descriptions.

Unfortunately, this idyllic life that Susan has always dreamt – this life that Paul has chosen to be his forever when he’s only nineteen – will not last long, and Paul will have to choose if he’d rather love the more and suffer the more, or love the less and suffer the less.

This heart-breaking, tender novel reminds us that we all have one story worth telling, and that is the only one that matters.

About the reviewer

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Anna Maria Colivicchi was born and raised in Rome. After a BA in Italian Literature, she is now pursuing a Master’s in Writing at the University of Warwick. In her writing, she seeks the extraordinary in the ordinary, focusing on the details of everyday life.

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Bath Spa University receives funding to develop creative writing in local schools

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Arts Council England is set to award Bath Spa University with £600,000 in funding to develop creative writing education in schools across the South West of England.

The grant is from the Creative Writing in Schools fund, and will support a three-year project called The Creative Writing Education Hub.

This project will be led by the university in partnership with Bath Festivals and the National Association of Writers in Education. The project aims to link nationally recognised writers with hundreds of schools in the region.

Bath Spa University

Bath Spa University

As part of the project, children aged eight to 14 will be given workshops by professional writers, thereby helping them to write and expand their imagination.

Alongside the programme, a series of workshops for teachers and writers will run concurrently to the schools programme, thereby helping to try and develop new approaches to teaching creative writing.

Participating schools will receive support to achieve an ‘Artsmark Award’, and pupils will receive help to achieve an ‘Arts Award’.

Phil Gibby, South West area director for Arts Council England, said: “We believe that every child and young person should have the opportunity to experience the richness of arts and culture and this funding will give more young people the chance to engage in and enjoy producing and showcasing their own creative writing.

“The consortium boasts some of the South West’s expert educators, researchers and writers whose joint leadership will make for a strong and unique programme of work.”

Bambo Soyinka, creative director of the project, said: “Creative writing should be part of every child’s education as it develops imaginative thought, language and literary skills.

“The Creative Writing Education Hub will introduce school pupils from varied social and cultural backgrounds to the joys of creative writing and will enable young people to learn alongside professional writers.

“Over the next three years we will be researching and testing best practice models for creative writing education.

“We will share our findings through innovative events, workshops and digital platforms, to guide and inspire teachers, pupils and creative writing tutors.”

Bath Spa University is one of two lead applicants awarded a grant from the Creative Writing in Schools fund.

The other successful applicant, First Story, will use a grant of £600,000 to bring professional writers into secondary schools serving low income communities.

This fund targets the North and the South West because these are areas outside London where creative writing opportunities for children and young people could be improved.

Analysis

Professor Wu says: “Projects like this are absolutely crucial in a society increasingly devoid of imagination – and a stunted ability to think outside the box. Evidence suggests that creative writing – and, indeed, creativity and art in all its myriad forms – can improve a child’s enjoyment and attainment in English language and literature.”

“What is more, by encouraging children to think creatively, we encourage them to look at the world in new and interesting ways, which is critical for human society as a whole. Just think of those wise words of Albert Einstein: Logic will take you from A to B, but imagination will take you anywhere.”