In the beginning there is a question. Irresistible and intriguing and before your eyes move down the page, you are captivated. Could this be the prose rendering of some half-forgotten verses by Mir Taqi Mir? In sheer anticipation, you read on to know in which direction you are being pulled: “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.”

Surely, these are the most remarkable opening lines among recently published novels. The very first sentence is enough to make you realise that Julian Barnes’s new novel, The Only Story, that goes on to dissect aspects of the love-smitten heart with unusual precision and aplomb, is one of its kind, the work of a master at the height of his creative powers. As it catches to perfection the tone of the novel, its brooding, reflective manner, this sentence tells you what to expect. You should be prepared as it will not plunge straight into the meat of the story, but will twist and turn first.

Reminiscent of Barnes’s style in his essays, this is also a gentle reminder that he is not only one of the finest English novelists of his generation, but — with his astute observation and sharp comments — one of the best essayists of our time. Throughout the book the essayist, equipped to analyse closely, shadows the storyteller and parts of the book read like aphorisms on the tribulations of love. Is it the spirit of Mir or Stendhal?

One of the finest novelists of his generation, Julian Barnes writes a novel that is perhaps the saddest novel to have hit the bookstores in a long time

A quote from Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language defines the novel as “a small tale, generally of love,” but seems unnecessary for the story as it plays out on its own terms. Not so much a spoiler but a reflection on the story, the opening page is unwilling to let you go as it continues in the same spirit: “You may point out — correctly — that it isn’t a real question. Because we don’t have the choice. If we had a 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.”

As you ponder on the questions related to love and how much is enough, the next bit gives a turn of the screw: “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.”

By the time you have read this and have reached midway down the first page, you are compelled to read on. It is the reflective voice which opens the novel and other details come in later. Questioning whether time, the place and the social milieu are important in stories about love, the narrator goes on to describe his own context. A 19-year-old youth goes to play at a tennis club and is rather bored by the conservative and older company. A few days later, he is drawn into playing doubles with a woman “somewhere in her 40s.” Destiny is the name he gives to the lucky dip which determines the partners. Banter during the game leads to further exchanges and soon our young man, Paul Casey, is driving Mrs Susan McLeod home in his car. As this continues, “nothing happened,” he tells us. “Not a touch, not a kiss, not a word,” is how he defines “nothing” and all this is to follow later, but he goes on to evade his mother’s steady questions. Susan is married to “Mr Elephant-Pants” who prefers golf to tennis and seems to accept the young man as an almost constant presence in his household. Neither the husband nor the two daughters emerge as strongly drawn characters, perhaps intentionally so, as the focus of the story remains the strong relationship which begins to develop and soon engulfs Paul and Susan, cutting across the age gap. “I had no new definition of love,” says Paul and he settles down into the affair with remarkable ease, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

“Old enough to be [his] mother,” is how Paul’s mother reprimands him, but it is the mother who herself recedes into the background as Susan takes on the hues of the fatally attractive beloved. Tennis club scandals and family disapprovals do not mean much to any of them. With meticulous detail, the novelist orchestrates the account of their coming together while everything else in the world is pushed back. At first, it seems the only struggle is against memory or description. Paul remarks that the hardest part is not to remember, but to describe.

Divided into symphony-style movements, it is in the second part that the novel begins to show its true colours which had only been hinted at earlier. Slowly and painfully, Paul begins to discover bruises and marks on Susan’s body and her guilty secret of drinking on the sly. He also realises that beyond good or bad, there is another category of “sad sex” which feeds on despair. The narrative perspective shifts as Paul speaks in the first person and, later on in the novel, in the third person, as his relationship with his own story undergoes change. Is it the only story? And is it one single story?

Susan’s decline is portrayed vividly in the third part as she succumbs to alcoholism and mental disease. But could love itself register a corresponding decline? Paul has put together his professional life, but he cannot remain uninvolved even from a distance. Passion is soon enveloped in sorrow, but does love come to an end? Sadness reaches a high peak.

Barnes writes in a manner that pulls the reader deep into the text so that attention never flags. The manner of writing shifts and changes with the story. Remarkable again for its depth and psychological insight, The Only Story made me think of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier which opens by describing itself as “the saddest story I have ever heard.” More than any other, it is this book which I regard as the saddest novel I have read in a long time.

Who else but Barnes could have attempted such a book? While some common motifs run through all his work, his major novels are as different from each other as can be. The attention to detail in Flaubert’s Parrot and a great understanding of human psyche in troubled times that you see in The Porcupine are at work here to produce a completely different book. My favourite among Barnes’s books had been The Sense of an Ending, but I will make a place for this novel, The Only Story, on my shelf as one of its kind — sad and delicious at the same time –– as only a true book about love can be.

The reviewer teaches a course on reading the Partition in fiction and film at a university in Karachi

The Only Story
By Julian Barnes
Knopf, US
ISBN: 978-0525521211

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 10th, 2018