In Love by Alfred Hayes was first published in 1953. Set in post-war New York it isn’t really about being in love at all. Rather, it is about how we go about convincing ourselves we are in love and then using that so-called love as a weapon. That makes the book sound dangerous, doesn’t it?
The story begins with our main character, approaching forty, sitting in a bar and having a drink with a young, pretty girl. It’s a bit confusing at first because the man is narrating and slips between talking to the pretty girl, addressing her as “you,” and being in his head which amounts to talking to the reader though we are never addressed directly. Along with this we slip between present and past as he begins to recall another pretty girl he used to know and thinking that he made a big mistake that he will always regret. Then he tells the story of that other pretty girl. This is the bulk of the book and it is told from our man’s perspective in a straightforward narrative style.
He and the girl, I don’t ever recall that they either of them get named, were seeing each other for sometime. The girl, not a girl really but a young woman in her early twenties, has a daughter who is being raised by her grandparents after the woman and her husband divorced. She is trying to work in the city and earn money but it is a grim sort of life. Our narrator is a nice enough fellow and the pair convince themselves that they are in love. But they aren’t, not really. They use each other to make their lives less miserable, to fill the void of loneliness.
And then one evening, out with some friends, the woman meets Howard, a wealthy businessman who asks her to dance. Howard takes a shine to her and as they dance he offers her $1,000 to spend the night with him. That is a lot of money to her and even though she is tempted she refused. Still, Howard gives her his number in case she changes her mind. From here the relationship between our narrator and the woman enter into a death spiral that neither of them wishes to acknowledge until both of them are so messed up that there is no chance to set things right again.
If you are thinking, wow this sounds like that movie with Robert Redford and Demi Moore, Indecent Proposal, you are kind of right. Except the movie was based on Jack Engelhard’s 1994 novel by the same name and besides the offer of money the two books are completely different.
Our woman of course, calls Howard. They go out but nothing happens immediately. Howard actually likes her and instead of just going to bed with her, he treats her like a lady, wining and dining, buying her presents, making her feel loved. And our narrator, all along he knows that if he’d only say something to her, say he loved her, she would stop seeing Howard, wouldn’t have called him to begin with. As she slips farther and farther away from him he gets bitter and angry and places all the blame on her. And when she tells him she won’t be seeing him anymore, it pushes our narrator over the edge:
I began, too, to experience the conceit of suffering. it conferred upon me a significance my emotions had previously lacked. It seemed a special destiny. Because I suffered I thought I loved, for the suffering was the proof, the testimony of a heart I had suspected was dry. Since happiness had failed me, it was unhappiness that provided me with the belief that I was, or had been, in love, for it was easier to believe in the reality of unhappiness when I had before me the evidence of sleepless nights and the bitterness of reaching in the dark for what was no longer there. The strict constriction of the heart was undeniable; there was a melancholy truth in the fact that it was suffering which made me, I thought, at last real to myself.
Since the story is told in hindsight, our narrator makes it clear throughout that he has thought long and hard about what happened and why and how it is that he finally ends up hurting her with his desire to destroy any hope for happiness she might have. It doesn’t make the story any less emotionally brutal, nor did I end up having much sympathy for the narrator. I understood him and his motives but understanding did not melt into sympathy.
In Love is a slim book, more novella than novel and it is astonishing just how much is packed into it. I feel like I read a much longer book. Kudos once again the the NYRBs Classics folks for another good subscription selection.