I hadn’t heard of Alfred Hayes before I picked up his 1953 novella, In Love, in the library. I was drawn in by an Elizabeth Bowen quote, in which she calls the story ‘a little masterpiece’, and decided to borrow it. My interest was piqued further by the Sunday Times, which calls In Love a ‘tour de force’, and the Guardian, who term the book ‘a noirish masterpiece’.
In Love, which is seen as Hayes’ greatest work, takes place on ‘one lost afternoon’ in a bar in New York City. Here, a nameless middle-aged man tells a story involving his relationship with a lonely young woman, also nameless. Their relationship took quite a turn when a wealthy businessman ‘offered to pay to spend the night with her’, and he discusses how, ultimately, the love which they once had for one another ‘turned to hate’.
I was drawn in by the novella’s opening sentence, which reads as follows: ‘Here I am, the man in the hotel bar said to the pretty girl, almost forty, with a small reputation, some money in the bank, a convenient address, a telephone number easily available, this look on my face you think peculiar to me, my hand here on this table real enough, all of me real enough if one doesn’t look too closely.’ What follows is a monologue, in which this protagonist recounts the rest of his story.
I found Hayes’ use of vocabulary rather striking. He creates such vivid imagery in every scene, writing sentences like ‘… from the curtain rods, her stockings were suspended as limply as hanged men’. When he describes the woman whom he fell for, he says ‘… but when I think of her, she seems to exist for me in a debris of hats, jewelry, elaborate shoes, an inscribed book, telephone messages, fruit quietly rotting in a bowl, tasseled pillows, love letters tied with a ribbon and hidden away and taken out and read again and sometimes discarded, candy boxes, and of course portraits…’. Throughout, I really admired Hayes’ sentence structure; they are often long, and constructed with a great deal of complexity, but are still easy to read and interpret.
Hayes really examines the character of this woman. She is having a crisis of self at their first meeting. The protagonist voices: ‘Why, being young, and why, being reasonably faithful and reasonably food and reasonably passionate, was it so hard to gauge out of the reluctant mountain her own small private ingot of happiness?’ He is revealing of both this woman, and his protagonist; we learn about both characters through the lenses of one another. He captures the relationship between the two with honesty: ‘She, too, knew the words that came easily or fumblingly were never the true words; yet, but all the orthodoxy of kisses and desire, we were apparently in love; by all the signs, the jealousy, the possessiveness, the quick flush of passion, the need for each other, we were apparently in love.’
When the businessman’s quite bizarre offer is made, our protagonist is baffled. He recollects: ‘We both understood that the money, however tempting, was unthinkable, and that what she was being light and gay about, here, in the restaurant, was simply the fact that what had happened was an unusual experience, to be somewhat amazed at, obscurely flattered by, and a little amused with.’ The woman, however, takes a day or so to think about it, and does not feel as though she can refuse such a large sum of money. This is the point at which their relationship begins to disintegrate.
In In Love, Hayes presents a simple plot device which has been so well executed, and which sustained my interest throughout. The author has placed more focus, not upon their relationship, but upon its ending, and considers its effects. We learn about the characters together, but the retrospective positioning is flooded with lament. There is a bleak quality to Hayes’ prose, but it is so compelling. The dark humour which creeps in at points works well with both the tone of the prose, and the events of the plot. In Love is not the most cheerful book you could read this year, but I am still thinking about it weeks after reading it, and feel that this is a ringing endorsement of a successful story.