“In love, everything is both true and false; it’s the one subject on which it’s impossible to say anything absurd.”
I consider Julian Barnes a good author. With the passing of time he will become a classic. I truly loved The Sense of an Ending. Therefore I was very exited to have the chance to read his new book: The Only Story. Sadly it wasn’t a “happy” experience. I’d say it’s that type of book one can enjoy tremendously at an intellectual level: quality writing, great insight into love, relationships etc but that you just cannot connect with at an emotional level. This is definitely a good book yet I just couldn’t care any less about the characters, about their relationship and tumults, pretty much about anything happening in it. Such a shame.
I must admit I don’t have anything to say about the plot: the story of a relationship between a 19 years old man and a 48 years old married woman in the 60s England no less. You can imagine the ramifications of that by yourself, I am sure. “If you don’t have to say anything about it, why write a blog post?” you’d ask yourself. Well I am not entirely sure. I guess I am actually gutted to have not enjoyed this, that I want to redeem myself by acknowledging it in a way or another. Maybe you will like it, who knows 🙂
So this is not a review. This is just a little chat on some things I’ve encountered in the book that made be think and I wanted to mention them here too. They come pretty much in the order I’ve encountered them in the book.
“[…]Those of the same age today will find it hard to imagine the laboriousness of communication back then. Most of my friends were farflung, and – by some unexpressed but clear parental mandate – use of the telephone was discouraged. A letter, and then a letter in reply. It was all slow-paced, and lonely.”
I’ve found this to be an important element and actually a bit contradictory considering what you hear nowadays. In the age of the internet and social media and the wide spread of the mobile phone and of people constantly complaining about a presumed non-communication it might be puzzling to read about people having a hard time communicating. In my view what this reflects is the lack of perspective and the constant fight humanity has with progress. We tend to concentrate on the negative sides of everything and fight and fight the progress with the same arguments: how much better it was back in the day. Well guess what: we are wrong! Can you imagine how horrendous it must have been to have to wait days if not weeks to find out if a loved one reached his/her destinations safely, for example? I am always so grateful for the invention of the mobile phone. I think I would be out of my mind with worry not to be able to learn as soon as possible about the safety of my loved ones. Not only that, but somehow social media helped me have a more significant communication with my family. Before that we would exchange a few pleasantries over the phone once a week or even less. Now we seem more able to talk about sensible subjects because it is way easier to write something instead of voicing it. Just like a letter, but with the bonus of it being in real time instead of waiting for days/weeks. And yes, there’s always a downside to everything but I don’t believe we should dismiss progress because of that. That remains me of a recent research I’ve read: how our presumed addiction with technology is nothing more that an addiction to socializing, which is hard wired in our biology. You can read some more about it here: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/02/we-re-addicted-to-socializing-not-our-smartphones
Pretty much in the same grand category even if a different register: “Before you first have sex, you’ve heard all sorts of things about it; nowadays far more, and far earlier, and far more graphically, than when I was young. But it all amounts to the same input: a mixture of sentimentality, pornography and misrepresentation. When I look back at my youth, I see it as a time of cock-vigour so insistent that it forbade examination of what such vigour was for.”
Yet again a discrepancy between perception and cause. How many time did you hear about the maleficent porn which is making our boys do this and that…well once again we are pretty much wrong. Yes, young people have access to pornography maybe earlier but it is not the cause of their behaviour …better to rethink everything …
Barnes has an amazing knowledge and understanding of the human nature. He is so honest and you know me, I love me an author who is not afraid to lay it on his readers as it is. An author who loves human nature and talks about it without the idealised vision that many authors promote or without the pessimistic perspective the other half of the authors promote. Just a few examples below:
“[…]at some point everyone wants to run away from their life. It’s about the only thing human beings have in common.”
“[…] It’s a condition of our mortality. We have codes of manners to allay and minimise it, jokes and routines, and so many forms of diversion and distraction. But there is panic and pandemonium waiting to break out inside all of us. I’ve seen it roar out among the dying, as a last protest against the human condition and its chronic sadness. But it is there in the most balanced and rational of us. You just need the right circumstances, and it will surely appear. And then you are at its mercy. The panic takes some to God, others to despair, some to charitable works, others to drink, some to emotional oblivion, others to a life where they hope that nothing serious will ever trouble them again. ”
“For instance, he had noticed during his life one difference between the sexes in the reporting of relationships. When a couple broke up, the woman was more likely to say, ‘It was all fine until x happened.’ […] Whereas the man was more likely to say, ‘I’m afraid it was all wrong from the start.’ […] And when he had first noticed this discrepancy, he had tried to work out which of them was more likely to be telling the truth; but now, at the other end of his life, he accepted that both were doing so. ‘In love, everything is both true and false; it’s the one subject on which it’s impossible to say anything absurd.’”
“What did I dislike and distrust about adulthood? Well, to put it briefly: the sense of entitlement, the sense of superiority, the assumption of knowing better if not best, the vast banality of adult opinions, […] their docile obedience to social norms, their snarky disapproval or anything satirical or questioning, their assumption that their children’s success would be measured by how well they imitated their parents,[…]
Oh, and another thing. The way, doubtless through some atavistic terror of admitting to real feelings, they ionised the emotional life, turning the relationship between the sexes into a silly running joke.” (lovely exposé of the tensions between young adults and adults, hinting at the fact that young adults should be give a chance and not dismissed so easily as it usually happens.)
“If the statistics of happiness depend on personal reporting, how can we be sure that anyone is as happy as they claim to be? What if they aren’t telling the truth? No, we have to assume that they are, or at least that the testing system allows for lying. So the real question lay beneath: assuming that those canvassed by anthropologists and sociologists are reliable witnesses, then surely ‘being happy’ is the same as ‘reporting yourself happy’? Whereupon any subsequent objective analysis – of brain activity, for instance – becomes irrelevant. To say sincerely that you are happy is to be happy. At which point, the question disappears.” – this right here is something I’ve been pondering on for a while. It started about 1 year ago with an article exposing the fact that teenagers in Britain feel unhappy. In the article there was a top of the European countries, and Romanian teens were faring quite well. And it did strike that Romanian teens have a relatively hard life, economically speaking yet they perceive themselves as happy. Why? I believe it all roots in purpose and the happiness we detract from working towards a goal and how hard it was to achieve it. Human being are coded to achieve and they need purposes to work towards. When it is easy to achieve things or you get a lot of external help, the amount of happiness obtain from finally arriving where you wanted to arrive decreases. In a country where help is readily available and where a social blanket is in place to sustain you indeterminately in case of a failure, having a purpose in life becomes secondary , you’ll be able to go through life anyway. Instead entitlement starts to grow and with it resentment at society, government who refuses to give more etc. Consequently happiness is hardly hit. And this is the downside of progress if you like.
Overall rating 2*. A book who’ll polarize readers because of its sensitive plot. Some will like it some will not, but it is definitely a good book, who will give you a few things to think about. Give it a try 😉