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'The Only Story': An Old Man Recalls His Young Love For An Older Woman


Julian Barnes' new novel "The Only Story" opens with a question. Would you rather love the more and suffer the more or love the less and suffer the less? Keep that question in your mind as you read through the story of Susan and Paul - Susan, mother of two in her late 40s and Paul, a 19-year-old student, younger than her children, who is just home from university. One summer in the 1960s, they're paired as mixed doubles at a tennis club in the suburb south of London. They fall into an affair, but it outlasts the summer. The older woman and younger man run away together and stay together - but not forever. Yet as Paul becomes an old man himself, he calls his young love for an older woman the one story of his life. Julian Barnes, the Man Booker Prize-winning author of more than 20 books, including "The Sense of Ending" and "England, England," joins us from London. Thanks so much for being with us.

JULIAN BARNES: Good to be here.

SIMON: What draws Susan and Paul together?

BARNES: Usual mixture of positives and negatives, I guess, in love - a searing attraction on both sides and an emptiness within, which they seek to fill.

SIMON: She is unhappy in her marriage to a man she calls Mr. Elephant Pants. Sorry, I have to laugh (laughter) as I say - as I utter the moniker you've given him. And this is a man who eats onions before he eats dinner - belch, drinks, breaks wind. As an artist, was he fun to write?

BARNES: Yes, he was. Often the people who you're most repelled by are more fun to write partly because you write them to understand them as well. The danger is that they run away with you sometimes, and you give them too much freedom. The more flamboyant - or in this case, the more difficult, angry, aggressive they are, you get more impact by scaling them back.

SIMON: Without giving too much of the story away, Susan develops a drinking problem. And Paul wonders, as the reader may wonder, why didn't she have a drinking problem when she was with this reprehensible man Mr. Elephant Pants but does when she's with Paul who loves her and is so kind?

BARNES: Yes. Well, it's complicated, and I think alcoholism is complicated. And the person who is looking after the alcoholic goes through possibly as much mental torment as the alcoholic him or herself does. And so Paul finds himself both depressing and yet potentially heroic. You know, he's the only one who can help. And he does. Yes, he does. Maybe she tippled a bit before, but somehow he thought that he was freeing her from her previous life. But as often occurs, you know, previous lives come back to haunt you. And there are demons there which she can't face without drink and guilt, of course. Every failed relationship induces guilt in any moral person.

SIMON: I am touched by the fact that though their relationship has a time limit, their kindness never quits.

BARNES: That's right, except in the last stages of her disease as we would call it. No, he genuinely loves her. And by the end of it, he is heartbroken. And it's - with the heartbroken, it's always a question of can that heart ever be mended. Is there a second go-around for him? And in his case, there isn't. All there is left is a series of pragmatic short-term relationships, which is what he wants because it's all he's capable of.

SIMON: Mr. Barnes, how do you think the story of Susan and Paul might be different as you've written it as a man in your 70s than if you'd written it when you were a young novelist in your 20s or 30s?

BARNES: I think it's better the way I've written it now.


SIMON: Of course.

BARNES: I would have to say that. I think when I was in my 20s or 30s, I'm not sure I'd be able to see the full span of a life. As you get more seasoned, shall we say, as a novelist, there are various things that you get better at. You get better at moving characters through time. Some writers can do it from the beginning. I mean, a great writer like Alice Munro, for example, in her stories, she has the ability to show you a full life - a whole life in 15, 20 pages. And you almost don't notice the jumps. I think that may be a short-story writer skill. But novelists also learn to attain it.

I mean, Updike, whom I revere, in his later books, he was also much more adept at moving through time and leaving great chunks out and having the confidence to do that - because when you start as a novelist, you tend to tell things in a sort of version of linear time. You know, things happen in the novel as they would happen in life, and you feel that you have to fill in any gaps. In some ways, you become a bit bolder.

SIMON: I think anybody interviewing you has to ask you the question with which you begin this novel. Would you rather love the more and suffer the more or love the less and suffer the less?

BARNES: Oh, I'd definitely go for loving the more and suffering the more. But the thing is, as I point out in the second paragraph, it isn't a real question because we don't have the choice. You know, if we had the choice, there wouldn't be a question because you can't control how much you love. If you can control it, then it isn't love. I don't know what you'd call it instead, but it isn't love.

SIMON: Julian Barnes - his novel, "The Only Story." Thanks so much for being with us.

BARNES: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID CHARRIER'S "KRIKRINETTE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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