Review: The Only Story

Julian Barnes’ latest novel (2018) is every bit a love story, but in more ways than one, not. In this very long story that spans decades, there is love lost and love gained, love given and love taken. There is filial love, romantic love, unrequited love and pure lust. And our narrator, Paul, reflects on all these kinds of love; all the myriad kinds of love he has experienced in his lifetime.

But as we fail to recognise initially, The Only Story is also about anger and about trauma, about anger as a result of trauma and trauma as a result of anger. It is about the various pitfalls of adulthood and the naivete of adolescence, and it is about loss, tangible and intangible. All of it, borne and witnessed by someone madly, deeply and irrevocably in love.

The Only Story opens with university first year Paul (19), visiting his family in suburban London over summer. His mother has signed him up for the local tennis clubs, in the hopes that her son might meet some beautiful ladies. Paul heads there reluctantly, and meet some ladies he does. Only it’s a lady, Susan (48), who is married with two adult offspring. At this point, the novel is all too predictable: Susan’s marriage is in shambles; Mr. Elephant Pants — as her husband is lovingly called – is a morbidly obese alcoholic and a fantastic villain. Paul is young and rebellious, and he is reveling in masculinity. Paul believes that beautiful Susan (who is also wise and nothing like the rest of her ‘played out generation’) needs to be rescued.

And so follows a relationship that is for the tabloids and village gossip. While Susan is never too vocal about the relationship, Paul is far from ashamed. In fact, he wishes his relationship was even more scandalous. Little does Paul know that he would be in it for a lifetime, and that the consequences of his first and only love are beyond his comprehension.

The Only Story, Julian Barnes © 2020

It doesn’t take a lot of intellect to realise Paul and Susan’s relationship will go downhill and eventually end. The real mystery lies in the when and the why. Why did Paul believe Susan needed rescuing? What happened when they ran away to London? When did Susan first resort to the whiskey? The answers are hard to find: Paul is somewhat of an open book and Susan remains an enigma throughout their tale. No one, friend or for, ever knew Susan. Consequently, there are either vague answers given by a man in love, or no answers at all. Paul frantically searches for explanations and answers as well, but time is precious when you are watching a loved one succumb to alcoholism and you are helpless.

As put by The Globe and Mail, the characters in the book end up nowhere (unless they die). But Barnes’ writes exceptionally, knitting an elaborate tale out of a relationship that doesn’t have a lot of substance to it. Paul, now half a decade later, draws endless conclusions about love and its exploits, which when listed out, seem overly pretentious. More often than not, I found myself saying, “No one asked for your two cents.”

However, amidst pages of long due realisations, there are two worth thinking about: first, “most love, even the most ardent and the most sincere, can, given the correct assault, curdle into a mixture of pity and anger”, and second, the lifelong power of prehistory on our relationships.

In the end, Barnes’ magnificent narration is what keeps the novel engaging, in spite of the lack of a significant plot twist or a dramatic cliffhanger. Perhaps, the cleverest device he uses is the shift of pronouns: Paul goes from “I” to “you” to “he” the farther he drifts from his relationship and the more estranged he gets from Susan. The anachronistic structure of the book, without emphasis on any specific event, is also intelligent, as it focuses on painting a larger picture of society and its perceptions of love.

I’d ask prospective readers to choose this book at their own risk: read it only if you are interested in the musings of a fifty something man as he looks back on his love story, his only story.

The Creativity of Dreams and How to Manifest Them

The idea to write a piece on the interconnection between dreams and creativity came to me in a dream. I’ve dreamt entire plots of great thriller novels and even their sequels. But this is not just me, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Dreaming is a process that occurs voluntarily in the mind, mostly during specific times of sleep. It can be described as a collection of clips, images, feelings and memories – both good and bad. The intensity and the contents of dreams change throughout the sleep cycle, with the most significant of them occurring during REM – Rapid Eye Movement – phase of the sleep. Brain activity is highest during this phase (as measured by encephalograms), which could explain the vividness in dreaming. While dreaming, the brain connects events that have occurred throughout the day, thereby weaving narratives.

Creativity, on the other hand, is one of the human mind’s most inexplicable qualities. It has historically been extremely difficult to determine what creativity stems from. A friend, who studies psychology told me that creativity is a bit of a can of worms in psychology. Creativity is known to create new connections between different brain regions, but only recently have neuroscientists, through fMRI’s, PET Scans and other scanning technologies, been able to study creativity more closely.

Quite unsurprisingly, dreaming and creativity are closely intertwined with each other, so much so that it is almost impossible to study one without the other. Because the brain stitches stories about everything and everyone we encounter, it could lead to the birth of novel ideas, and developing on this idea could quite possibly help sharpen our creativity (even for those who are always whining about how they’re not creative…at all). Dreams have proven to be inspirational – affecting the whole world kind of inspirational – multiple times in the past; in 1818, Mary Shelley dreamt of a scientist who created life and went on to write Frankenstein, one of the most influential science-fiction works of all time. Italian composer and violinist Giuseppe Tartini composed his most famous work “Devil’s Trill Sonata” after the devil played the tune to him by his bedside in a dream. During dreaming and during creative processes, dopamine level increases in the “pleasure centres” of the brain, and this acts as a positive feedback loop to keep dreams and ideas constantly flowing.

“Creativity is a bit of a can of worms in psychology!”

Ignacio Muñoz, research assistant and undergraduate student of Psychology, Jacobs University Bremen.

It is not entirely difficult then, especially for those already creatively inclined, to manifest their creative dreams and project them into prose, poetry and other forms of art. The product can, quite easily be superior to those produced during wakefulness, simply because of the enhanced brain activity.

But is it possible to use this aspect of dreaming in fostering creativity without actually sleeping? Perhaps.

In his book “Writing: A Memoir of The Craft”, Stephen King writes that in both activities, “we learn to be physically still at the same time we are encouraging our minds to unlock from the humdrum of rational thinking.” It is absolutely feasible to train our brain and our mind to silence itself during any time of the day and push it into a where the brain activity does not manifest as physical activity. Daydreaming for example, is one situation where our mind wanders and gives rise to sudden bursts of creative ideas.

Another way to embody creative dreams is dream recall. As unbelievable as it might be (from experience), it is possible to completely recall all our dreams and then, note it down. A key factor that influences our ability to recall dreams is the speed at which we fall asleep and at which we wake up. The longer the state of our hypnagogia – a state of half wakefulness and half sleep – especially when we are waking up, the better our memory of the dream. And if the dream is ingrained in the brain as a memory, it could be used a ‘plot’ for another dream, and the cycle goes on. Relaxing into bed and gradually letting our body take control, hence, could have drastic effects on our creativity. The only people who have very minimal dream recall ability are usually clinically depressed, according to studies, but that is a different aspect of discussion altogether.

Either way, writing books or a plot for a movie based on a dream is not only achievable, but also encouraged. All of our crazy, erratic dreams could be our brain trying to tell us a story, a story that holds the potential to become a great work of art. At the least, it could push each and every one of us to create without any kind of inhibition. We need as much art as possible in the world – philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch believed that good art is a vehicle of truth – and so, maybe it would be wise to harvest anything that allows more art to be created.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll go and finish the three part dystopian tale I’ve been dreaming of for years.


Ushashi Basu


For more, visit:

https://time.com/4737596/sleep-brain-creativity/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dream

https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/10/14/stephen-king-on-writing-and-creative-sleep/