Julian Barnes’ new novel is about the burden of an impossible love
Julian Barnes’ new novel explores the dynamics of desire between a young man and an older woman
Early in Julian Barnes’ wonderful new novel, The Only Story, the narrator, Paul, writes that the affair he is telling us about—the deep, unremitting passion he felt as a 19-year-old boy for Susan, a married woman much older than him—is not in any way related to the Oedipal complex. The famous psychoanalytic theory, put forward by Sigmund Freud at the turn of the 19th century, suggests that all children have a desire for sexual contact with the parent of the opposite sex, and an attendant rivalry with the parent of the same sex. Freud believed that traversing this complex, which occurred in infants of both genders aged between 3 and 5, was essential to the healthy, social development of the mind; he also believed that a trauma at that age involving one or other of the parents could lead to an infantile neurosis that produced varied manifestations later in life.
We are meant to see through Paul’s denial of this psychological underpinning to his attraction to Susan. The disavowal is pitched well, in Barnes’ distinctive elegant, reflective, ovoid style, beginning with a seemingly disingenuous admission to Susan’s daughter, who is around his age, that Susan is “kind of a mother-substitute for me”, and culminating in profuse, near-hysteric paragraphs where the narrator’s otherwise neat reasoning is jettisoned in a mess of contradictions.
Yet, as you read, it sometimes seems that charting the Oedipal complex is, in fact, Barnes’ chief concern. He dealt with cross-generational love in his early novels (Metroland, Flaubert’s Parrot), and in the Booker-winning The Sense Of An Ending, he memorably created another such narrator confused about his own life. But in The Only Story, he fashions a two-way mirror of sorts: On one side, he reflects the internal and external denials that must constitute such a love; on the other side, the long arc of the relationship, the shifting roles within this particular romantic arc, Susan nurturing Paul, Paul steadying Susan, and finally, when the love becomes too weighty, the ultimate separation.
Paul insists throughout the text that “pre-history is central to all relationships”, but fails to explain quite what he means. I believe this line is as careful and crucial as any in the novel. Not history but pre-history; for what is our private pre-history but the years of infancy, the unremembered, unwritten years of our life, the part beyond our memory? It is clear from the outset that Paul dislikes his parents very much: He craves their disapproval, this is his definitive rebellion, but there is little indication, apart from mild class-shame, why he is filled with this inchoate anger.
It is a strange affair, not an illicit love across the age divide in the manner of John Banville’s Ancient Light, where passion is quickly stolen on the sides of roads and in mossy sheds. Paul seems to ditch his own family and enter Susan’s household. It’s never made clear why the husband allows this. She gives him money, which he accepts without any blow to his pride; she takes his friends out on day trips. The sex is elided over, barely there. Susan seems to fulfil the mother role more than any other. Even Paul’s relationship with the husband is strange. He accepts physical abuse, but returns for approval as a son would. Later, when the novel’s central violence is clear, Paul admits freely to wanting to kill him—hint, hint.
Barnes, ever a meticulous stylist, performs a remarkable feat of structure in this novel. It is divided into three parts. The first is a sunny romance of tennis and countryside, the story of how Paul, sexually innocent, falls in love and gets together with this older woman, who is—unlike the typical older woman of fantasy and fiction—herself unschooled in the ways of sex because of an unhappy, agamous marriage. Barnes’ narrator tells this section of his tale in the first-person, giving it intimacy and immediacy, and the words and scenes are light and easily ingested. He ends with a poignant line: “And this is how I would remember it all, if I could. But I can’t.”
The second section is in part an appraisal of the events described in the first, a filling-in of blanks. Here become clear the tensions that prevailed in Susan MacLeod’s household, stemming from an alcoholic, abusive husband who has lost all sexual interest in her. In the last section, their love is finally sundered. Though they have escaped together to nest in London, life, instead of turning into an idyll, becomes gritty and real. Stunningly, Barnes moves often now to a second-person narration, as if in the act of facing the truth Paul must put some distance between himself and these events. As the damage in their world becomes clearer, as Susan’s alcoholism becomes sharper and has escalating impact, the second-person becomes more insistent, and Paul retreats further from his own story.
In section 3, the love is finally sundered. Paul shrinks away from Susan’s problems, unable to handle their weight. She is committed to an institution. Barnes turns now to a third-person narrative, heightening the narratorial dissonance of the second section. In a jarring, distant voice, Paul tells of what comes after this strange love. The inability to replicate that passion, the refusal to hunt for it too hard, the fleeting visits to Susan’s bedside, her sinking state. The three sections, fitted against one another, come to feel like the summoning of a repressed childhood memory, a retreat from innocence. First the ideal version, glowing tenderly. As the sepia filter fades, a darker, troubled remembrance establishes itself. And then, as to us all, the reckoning.
But here’s what I mean by that image of the two-way mirror. These mirrors—which you might have seen used in interrogation rooms in American cop dramas—work by a mismatch of light. When placed between two rooms that are evenly lit, such a mirror reflects back upon either side. But when one side is dark and the other bright, a two-way mirror allows those in the darkness to see through its surface, to look on to those looking at their own reflections.
In The Only Story, we encounter a relationship that could be a rendition of the Oedipal complex: Susan nurturing Paul, Paul steadying Susan, the child turning to parent, the parent to child, Paul then shrinking away, the burden of that first gift weighing too heavily on him. But, through the two-way mirror, some readers will see this formulation turned on its head. Perhaps through this strange, beautifully imagined love story, Barnes was also trying to show a more universal condition: just how much we take from those who give us life, the burden of that great gift, how we draw the best from them, and how much we fail to give back.
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