Alfred Hayes is one of those great writers that everyone should know about, but somehow tends to fall by the wayside when compared to other British titans like George Orwell. In addition to being known for his screenwriting during the height of Italian neorealism, Hayes was also the author of seven novels, including the masterpiece, In Love, published in 1953. His acute understanding of love from both the female and male perspective shines through in every sentence of this taut novel, showcasing the archetypes of man and woman by not even bothering to name his main characters.
The story begins, like all great stories, at a bar, with our leading man talking to an attractive girl about his former relationship. Our narrator knows all too well the detriment of hope, the detriment of wanting more, based on his assessment:
Unlike most love stories being retold to strangers, our narrator never illustrates a time when he felt pure happiness with his beloved, stating, “But I’d been in love, too, or thought I had. And I’d spent, as most men had, that is men who cared about women, an unconscionable number of hours, out of the time I had available, loving them, indulging them, or persuading them to go to bed. And besides, love: there were so many other emotions which weren’t love at all, but which masqueraded as love, or assumed its name; didn’t she agree? And happiness: the suburban hideaway and the bedroom with the chintz curtains; wasn’t it possible to aspire to something else, wasn’t it conceivable that happiness might not be the single goal?” Indeed, the undertone of misogyny and disdain for everything most women (especially most women of the 50s) hold dear is increasingly overt as the narrative progresses, and yet, everything he’s saying seems so logical, so matter of fact–as though you can’t quite find fault with his reason.
…for nothing we want ever turns out quite the way we want it, love or ambition or children, and we go from disappointment to disappointment, from hope to denial, from expectation to surrender, as we grow older, thinking or coming to think that what was wrong was the wanting, so intense it hurt us, and believing or coming to believe that hope was our mistake and expectation our error, and that everything the more we want it the more difficult the having it seems to be…”
Addressing love, or rather, the illusion of love with a candor and honesty that few authors have ever been brave enough to do, Hayes uses his main character to elucidate that everything after the first night–maybe even the first moment–with the one you supposedly love is largely artifice, a means to conceal that you’ll never feel that same sort of “unreality” again:
…by all the orthodoxy of kisses and desire, we were apparently in love; by all the signs, by all the jealousy, the possessiveness, the quick flush of passion, the need for each other, we were apparently in love. We looked as much like lovers as lovers can look; and if I insist now that somehow, somewhere a lie of a kind existed, a pretense of a kind, that somewhere within us our most violent protestations echoed a bit ironically, and that, full fathoms five, another motive lay for all we did and all we said, it may be only that like a woman after childbirth we can never restore for ourselves the reality of pain, it is impossible for us to believe that it was we who screamed so in the ward or clawed so at the bedsheets or such sweats were ever on our foreheads, and that too much feeling, finally, makes us experience a sensation of unreality as acute as never having felt at all.”
Regardless of not having any genuine sort of feeling for her at his core, the narrator is still hurt by the tendency of women to be the ones to leave first–to preemptively defend themselves from the emotional fallout. Our narrator notes, “Of course a woman always seems to choose, with a dismaying instinct, the god-damnedest of moments to end a love affair. Her dismissals always seem to come the way assassinations do, from the least expected quarter. There will be a note on the kitchen table, propped up against the sugar bowl, on exactly the day when most in love with her you arrive carrying a cellophaned orchid; or walking along the avenue, one arm about her waist, talking with great enthusiasm about a small house you saw for sale cheap thirty minutes from New York.” Again highlighting the general coldness of women, the ones who come across as the most love-obsessed, and yet, are the ones to go about it in the most clinical of fashions (e.g. what’s in his bank account?), the main character gives us a unique insight into the unexpected heartbreak of men.
It is only after losing the woman in his life that our narrator begins to question if he should have let her go. Wondering, “Had I lost her because of cowardice? Because of too little desire? Was I unable to hold or possess anyone?” he is convinced that perhaps his life was at least somewhat less empty with the appearance of having love in it. And this, again, evidences that love is illusory, designed to make us feel in a way that we never actually do.
Even in the moments when Hayes is not describing the mirage-like nature of love, his prose is always meaningful, always telling us the realities of things we would otherwise not want to acknowledge. For instance:
Other ugly truths Hayes touches on via the narrator is the unequivocal notion that all men view women as a type of whore. The narrator admits, “I had always thought as all men did that the woman they loved was a whore. Behind all my protestations had been that thought always: that she would cheat, that she wasn’t to be trusted, that she was a whore.” It is this calm, collected stoicism that makes the main character all too aware that he is the one responsible for sending her into the arms of another. He is the one who could never give her what she wanted. He concedes,
I’ve always thought there’s nothing quite like the sight of a man at eight o’ clock in the morning, dressed in a business suit, and with his face shaved and his tie knotted and a brief case under his arm, having a quick coffee at an orange stand where already the frankfurters are glossily turning on a hot griddle. I’ve always thought there is no face quite like the face of a young girl, with her lipstick on and the exact pencilings of her eyebrows, coming up out of the subway and trying to make it to the office on time. I’ve always thought there is nothing sadder anyplace than seeing what people look like early in the morning as they go to work.”
Right until the very end, even when he’s trying, in his own sick way, to get her back, the narrator sustains his clarity, his seemingly infinite wisdom, with statements like, “She had caused me a great deal of suffering and she had loved me and she could not understand why when there was love there was always suffering,” and “It was so difficult for a woman to find everything she wanted neatly packaged into one man.” But it is ultimately his final assessment of love, those who play the game of love and humanity itself that will leave a chill down your spine:
I knew quite well why she was leaving me. I had always known. Nobody was necessary to me, she said. Not really necessary. I was fond enough of people and some I loved but none of them were necessary to me. She wanted to be somebody’s sun and moon and stars. She wanted them to die without her. She wanted them to need her always and forever… There was nothing she could ever really do for me but go to bed. It was the least of the things a woman wanted to do for a man. I would get tired of that and when I was tired there would be nothing else that she had to give me. I existed for myself. That was what frightened her. It was what always frightened a woman.”
…it’s the acrobat…with the dangerous, vanity-ridden, and meaningless life, who’s most like us. At least, so it seems to me: that paltry costume, that pride because the trick’s accomplished and once again he hasn’t fallen. The whole point is that nothing can save us but a good fall. It’s staying up there on the wire, balancing ourselves with that trivial parasol and being so pleased with terrifying an audience, that’s finishing us. Don’t you agree? A great fall, that’s what we need.”