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On Taking Love Seriously; or, a meandering review of Julian Barnes’s The Only Story (with spoilers)

“Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less?” So begins Julian Barnes’s most recent novel, The Only Story (2018), before the narrator acknowledges that it is actually not a real question, “because we don’t have the choice. 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” (3). A few weeks ago, when I was rereading Philip Sidney’s extremely long prose romance The New Arcadia and bemoaning to myself the fact that we don’t take love seriously anymore, not like Sidney did in the sixteenth century, I was forgetting about Julian Barnes, who is basically obsessed with love and has been for his entire career (almost four decades now).

But mostly, I think I’m at least a little bit right. In so many of our stories—novels, movies, television—love is either a product (as in the wildly successful Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise), a plot device, or a joke. Love provides a convenient happy ending that the audience has been trained to accept as the tying up of a loose end instead of the unraveling of a new one. People in love are stupid and irrational, and the suffering they experience is their own damn fault for feeling too much.

And so it struck me how interested Sidney is in the experience of love, what it feels like to fall in love. So much attention to step-by-step progressions of love in the characters Pyrocles and Philoclea, so many exemplary stories of what true love looks like, so much conversation among the characters about love, even a story about suffering in love told to illustrate Cupid’s vindictiveness toward those who refuse to love. But over and above all, Sidney conveys a sense of love not as foolishness but as something that must be respected because of its power. Pamela warns her sister Philoclea that “virtue itself is no armour of proof against affection,” and the tale provides numerous examples of characters whose lives and plans are changed beyond recognition by the sudden experience of love. Instead of treating these characters as ridiculous, Sidney suggests that this is just the way it is: love is more powerful than individual will, and sometimes that works out well, and sometimes it doesn’t.

And so it is in the world that Barnes creates in The Only Story, which begins in the late 1960s in Surrey. In Part One, he creates an unlikely pair of lovers: 19-year-old Paul, home from university for the summer, who meets and falls in love with Susan, the 48-year-old married woman with whom he is randomly matched for a doubles tennis match at the local club. Barnes painstakingly chronicles the progression, development, and experience of love so carefully that it seems at first that his whole point is about love. Why must there be the age gap? I think because most people would consider these lovers to be ridiculous, a matter of laughter like so many stories in which the person in love is the butt of the joke. But here, the love is never anything less than real, total, and life changing, and by the end of Part One, when they move together to a small house in London, it reads like a happy ending:

We were together—under the same roof, that is—for ten or more years. Afterwards, I continued to see her regularly. In later years, less often. When she died, a few years ago, I acknowledged that the most vital part of my life had finally come to a close. I shall always think of her well, I promised myself.

And this is how I would remember it all, if I could. But I can’t. (100)

If you were to stop reading before that last sentence, it would be just as though you had seen a performance of Into the Woods Jr., which cuts out the entire second act of Sondheim’s brilliant and heartbreaking tale of suffering in order to have a happy-ending play that children can perform as their parents coo proudly, because Barnes’s novel is not a love story about an unlikely pair of lovebirds but an exploration of the cost of love, measured in suffering.

I read because there is so much I don’t understand, and the only way to become a compassionate person is to understand more and better, at least a little bit. I tell people that the thing of most value that I got from reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest was some ability to imagine what it’s like to be an addict—the horrific, phantasmagoric scene of Mt. Dilaudid, with the leaked-out piss damaging the finish of the wood floor, the smell of the shit that had escaped, Pamela Hoffman-Jeep’s broken bones, and all of it predicated on Fackelmann’s choice to tackle Mt. Dilaudid even though doing so meant certain death at the hands of the man he had double-crossed. Coming at the end of the novel, though, after hundreds of pages of addiction, suffering, and overcoming and not overcoming addiction, the scene was horrifying but not incomprehensible.

Halfway through Part Two of The Only Story, I thought of Infinite Jest. “Ah, now I can imagine what it’s like to love an addict,” I thought. Because after they move together to London, Susan becomes an alcoholic and destroys her mind. And Paul loves her, because he loves her. In Part Three, Paul—now an old man whose heart was “cauterised” by this first and only love—collects sententious sayings about love and mulls over whether they are true or false; one that he finds true is “In my opinion, every love, happy or unhappy, is a real disaster once you give yourself over to it entirely” (245). Part Two is as painstaking a description of the disaster into which their love brings them as Part One was of the experience of first love. At the end of this section, it seemed to me that the book was “about” what it’s like to love an addict.

But the quality that makes literary fiction literary—as I will someday argue in print, unless I don’t—is its rich propensity to become allegory. It’s not just a story, but a story that can broaden out to be about my life, or about life in general. Paul, looking back from the vantage point of the present day, describes his life after Susan in the third person: with his “cauterised” heart, he attempts to keep a good distance between himself and the women he dates, and he mostly succeeds. Love is a dangerous force, as dangerous as it was when people created the god Cupid to explain this thing that overtakes us; as powerful as it was in Sidney’s Arcadia, when it turns the previously virtuous Queen Gynecia into a fool when she falls in love with Pyrocles, who is already in love with Gynecia’s daughter Philoclea. The upside of love is that you have a partner with whom to share your suffering; the downside is that double the amount of suffering enters your life: your own suffering and the suffering of your beloved. Paul will not make that mistake again: “the key was: ‘Once you give yourself over to it entirely.’” You don’t have to, and Paul won’t, ever again.

We believe in love, don’t we? And because we believe in love, Paul’s loveless life after Susan seems an unhappy ending. But we believe in giggling baby Cupid love, not malicious Cupid-of-the-lead-arrow love. But both of these are true metaphors for the experience of true love. Another of Paul’s favorite aphorisms—“In love, everything is both true and false; it’s the one subject on which it’s impossible to say anything absurd” (201) calls to mind Barnes’s interest in “fabulation” (see A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters [1989] and also p. 170 of The Only Story) and also the “Chronology” chapter of Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), in which he provides three chronologies of Gustave Flaubert’s life: the chronology of triumphs, the chronology of failures, and the chronology of what Flaubert himself wrote about his life at various points. If you flick the lens a bit, ignore some parts and overemphasize others, a happy story can become an unhappy one, and vice versa. Everything we see, every moment we experience, is colored by who we are in that moment, and we lie to ourselves as much as we lie to others, without even knowing it.

Per Anaximander, I will never read this book again in the same way, but I hope that I will always be as interested in love, take it as seriously, as Barnes does.

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