Our Only Story

I tried reading this books couple of months ago, but somehow quickly understood that it was not the right time back at this moment. 

When  I gave it another try few days ago, though, I rediscovered Barnes’ soothing language and gentle narration that leads you not only masterfully in a deep and beautifully presented story but also tackles topics that seem to hinder deep in the reader, carefully buried below layers of self defence mechanisms, probably denial, too.

A good author is an author than can reach those deeply hidden places, bring to light the matters lurking in the shadows and give a chance for overcoming them. An author that does this gracefully and with a cultivated gentleness is one worthy of readers’ love and Julian Barnes is definitely one of those warming stars.

Diving into a relatively banal story-line, Barnes manages to involve the reader in his light philosophical approaches and reflexions. As a friend once said after having finished the book, one wants to underline almost half of the text, because it is so well relatable – on different levels and for people that have experienced different depths of love, I might add.

The Only Story is a book about love. What love is. How it forms one’s life, how it deforms it, how it pre-forms all other subsequent loves, all other coming stories. How love is determined by one’s pre-history. Love, memory, in a lesser extent – identity, transformation and time – the ruthless flow of time that cannot just pass around someone, no matter how much we adore them and no matter what will happen to (or will be left from) us after that.

The Only Story tells the story of a love which is love just per se. It is clear from the beginning that it has no future, it cannot have one – neither in a personal, nor in a social scope. It is a story about how real love is a cataclysmic one. 

But it is also a story of a self destruction. Of observing the total breaking apart of the someone you love. Of how love is unable to prevent them, stop them, help them. Story of seeing the beloved dispersing themselves, losing their identity and thus becoming alienated from you until they are no longer what they used to be. Until you are no longer who you used to be.

Barnes claims that everybody has their story to tell and that it is surely a love one. That, actually, this is their Only Story because everything before it has led to it and everything after it will be marked by it.  A very simple, yet incredibly, ruthlessly profound insight.

***

We tend to slot any new relationship we come across into a pre-existing category. We see what is general or common about it; whereas the participants see – feel – only what is individual and particular to them. We say: how predictable; they say: what a surprise! One of the things I thought about Susan and me – at the time, and now, again, all these years later – is that there often didn’t seem words for our relationship; at least, none that fitted. But perhaps this is an illusion all lovers have about themselves: that they escape both category and description.

*

And when I see pairs of young lovers, vertically entwined on street corners, or horizontally entwined on a blanket in the park, the main feeling it arouses in me is a kind of protectiveness. No, not pity: protectiveness. Not that they would want my protection. And yet – and this is curious – the more bravado they show in their behaviour, the stronger my response. I want to protect them from what the world is probably going to do to them, and from what they will probably do to one another. But of course, this isn’t possible. My care is not required, and their confidence insane.

*

‘After that she took care of her father devotedly. Became interested in dogs. Had a go at breeding them. Learnt how to pass the time. That’s one of the things about life. We’re all just looking for a place of safety. And if you don’t find one, then you have to learn how to pass the time.’

*

Everyone in the Village, every grown-up – or rather, every middle-aged person – seemed to do crosswords: my parents, their friends, Joan, Gordon Macleod. Everyone apart from Susan. They did either The Times or the Telegraph; though Joan had those books of hers to fall back on while waiting for the next newspaper. I regarded this traditional British activity with some snootiness. I was keen in those days to find hidden motives – preferably involving hypocrisy – behind the obvious ones. Clearly, this supposedly harmless pastime was about more than solving cryptic clues and filling in the answers. My analysis identified the following elements: 1) the desire to reduce the chaos of the universe to a small, comprehensible grid of black-and-white squares; 2) the underlying belief that everything in life could, in the end, be solved; 3) the confirmation that existence was essentially a ludic activity; and 4) the hope that this activity would keep at bay the existential pain of our brief sublunary transit from birth to death. That seemed to cover it!

*

Not that pre-history doesn’t matter. Indeed, I think pre-history is central to all relationships.

*

Because at some point everyone wants to run away from their life. It’s about the only thing human beings have in common.’

*

First love fixes a life for ever: this much I have discovered over the years. It may not outrank subsequent loves, but they will always be affected by its existence. It may serve as model, or as counterexample. It may overshadow subsequent loves; on the other hand, it can make them easier, better. Though sometimes, first love cauterizes the heart, and all any searcher will find thereafter is scar tissue.

*

‘We were chosen by lot.’ I don’t believe in destiny, as I may have said. But I do believe now that when two lovers meet, there is already so much pre-history that only certain outcomes are possible. Whereas the lovers themselves imagine that the world is being reset, and that the possibilities are both new and infinite.

*

Whereas it seemed to me, back then, in the absolutism of my condition, that love had nothing to do with practicality; indeed, was its polar opposite. And the fact that it showed contempt for such banal considerations was part of its glory. Love was by its very nature disruptive, cataclysmic; and if it was not, then it was not love.

*

On the one hand – and this is the part to do with the past – love feels like the vast and sudden easing of a lifelong frown. But simultaneously – this is the part to do with the present and the future – it feels as if the lungs of my soul have been inflated with pure oxygen.

*

Then, almost without your noticing it, what is close to the final stage kicks in. You may still desperately want to save her, but at some level of instinct or pride or self-protection, her devotion to drink now strikes you more sharply, and more personally: as a rejection of you, of your help, of your love. And since few can bear to have their love rejected, resentment builds, then curdles into aggression, and you find yourself saying – not aloud, of course, because you find it hard to be overtly cruel, especially to her – ‘Go on, then, destroy yourself, if that’s what you want.’ And you are shocked to discover yourself thinking this.

*

Photographs were useful, but somehow always confirmed the memory rather than liberating it.

*

‘He fell in love like a man committing suicide.’

*

Another thing he had come to understand. He had imagined that, in the modern world, time and place were no longer relevant to stories of love. Looking back, he saw that they had played a greater part in his story than he ever realized. He had given in to the old, continuing, ineradicable delusion: that lovers somehow stand outside of time.

*

He could have gone on, both fooling and torturing himself. He could have gone on, calming her down and reassuring her even when her mind and memory ran in three-minute loops, from fresh surprise at his presence, even though he’d been sitting in the same chair for two hours, via rebuke for his non-existent absence, through to alarm and panic, which he would quieten with soft talk and gentle memories that she would pretend to agree with even though she’d long ago drunk those memories clean out of her head. No, he could have gone on, acting as an emotional home help, watching over her progressive disintegration. But he would have had to be a masochist. And by that time he had made the most terrifying discovery of his life, one which probably cast a shadow over all his subsequent relationships: the realization that love, even the most ardent and the most sincere, can, given the correct assault, curdle into a mixture of pity and anger. His love had gone, had been driven out, month by month, year by year. But what shocked him was that the emotions which replaced it were just as violent as the love which had previously stood in his heart. And so his life and his heart were just as agitated as before, except that she was no longer able to assuage his heart. And that, finally, was when he had to hand her back.

*

What he didn’t – or couldn’t – tell Joan was his terrifying discovery that love, by some ruthless, almost chemical process, could resolve itself into pity and anger. The anger wasn’t at Susan, but at whatever it was that had obliterated her. But even so, anger. And anger in a man caused him disgust. So now, along with pity and anger, he had self-disgust to deal with as well. And this was part of his shame.

*

Because once you had been through certain things, their presence inside you never really disappeared.

*

Love, he had ventured, was like the vast and sudden uncreasing of a lifelong frown.

*

‘In my opinion, every love, happy or unhappy, is a real disaster once you give yourself over to it entirely.’

*

Perhaps love could never be captured in a definition; it could only ever be captured in a story.

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