Over the next couple of weeks NYRB Classics will be publishing four books I’m really excited about: two nonfiction titles, Frederick the Great and The Hall of Uselessness, and two novels, In Love and My Face for the World to See.
The two novels, which could be novellas at 130 pages apiece, are each by Alfred Hayes, an author I’d never heard of before but who, I was surprised to learn, already had an impact on me. Hayes wrote seven novels, but I know better his work on film. Along with Federico Fellini and Roberto Rossellini, he was nominated for an Academy Award (his first of two nominations) for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay for his work on Roberto Rossellini’s Italian neo-realist classic, Paisan (1946). Keeping up his work in this area, he was also an uncredited writer on Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948). These are two highly influential and important movies in the history of cinema. In the 1950s, when he returned to the United States and went to Hollywood, he worked with Fritz Lang, John Huston, Fred Zinnemann, and Nicholas Ray. Then, to top it off, besides many other writing credits, in the 1960s he did the teleplays for a handful of episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (including, incidentally, episodes that starred Peter Falk, Robert Redford, Joan Fontaine, Ann Southern, and John Cassavetes). Hayes may not be the central player in these productions, but he had a hand in the work of some exceptional, and exceptionally influential, artists.
Before I knew any of that, though, NYRB Classics drew me to their editions of his books with striking covers, using 1950s photographs by Saul Leiter, and, after reading the blurbs, I was very anxious to read these particular works for themselves and not as part of a larger career. Let’s start with In Love (1953).
The salacious premise of In Love is relatively basic and easy to understand. A man is sitting at a bar across from a beautiful woman, who is getting more and more beautiful as the night drags on. What’s the topic of conversation? The man’s dead relationship with a young woman who, one innocent night, met a rich man who offered her $1,000 to go to bed with him. She does not accept, but it still spells doom for the couple. They spend most of the book unsuccessfully broken up.
Possibly drunk when he tells this story, it’s obvious the relationship — or the absence of the relationship — is still affecting him deeply. It may be a strange topic of conversation when one is sitting across from another woman, but the man is, quite frankly, sick of it all. After all, when you strip it away, when you stop imitating someone you’re apparently supposed to be, what on earth are you? He tells the girl she can look at him closely, “all of me real enough if one doesn’t look too closely.”
I was completely engaged as this story took off. It’s remarkably astute, Hayes’s portrait of a man’s existential dread when he’s witnessed the dissolution of a relationship he felt was solid — well, at least a relationship he couldn’t imagine ending. If that relationship wasn’t real, if it’s just a prop on a stage, then what is real? What is the purpose? What is our destination?
But there is one. There must be one. We must behave, mustn’t we, as though there is one, cultivating that air of moving purposefully somewhere, carrying with us that faint preoccupation of some appointment to be kept, that appearance of having a terminal, of a place where, even while we are sitting here drinking these daiquiris and the footsteps are all quieted by the thick pleasant rugs and the afternoon dies, you and I are expected, and that there’s somebody there, quite important, waiting impatiently for us?
Though it now seems obvious, I’m not sure if I’ve ever considered the termination of a relationship as an existential crisis. Oh, sure, when it happens we all question the direction of life, perhaps even whether it’s worth living, but to really dig deeply and see the relationship itself as something unreal, of being incapable of being real, to feel that one is suddenly stripped of the external forces and now sits alone with one’s true self, and why is that self so sad to have lost something that perhaps wasn’t even deeply enjoyed, or is it even sadness it’s feeling? — that’s an interesting avenue.
In Love does not completely dwell here — after all, the man and woman do go on living in this world, despite their suspicions that none of it adds up — but there are tremendous moments when the slow plot slows down even more and we get the woman looking out the window at the black ocean, questioning her own reality, or of the man, after the sorrow of the breakup, taking a walk: “So, with the only face I had, I continued to walk uptown, imitating a man who is out for some air or a little exercise.” Love is deeply affecting, and deeply affected we continue to dwell in a world that sees us only on the surface.
Before he gets too far into the ins and outs of their relationship, the man tells the woman at the bar (us) about his ex-girlfriend, who is around twenty-two years old. She first married at seventeen, certain she’d entered into the dream life she was supposed to have. But now, with a five-year-old child, she’s divorced and living in New York City. The dream — I’ll hit it again — is just that, some figment of her imagination.
She soon finds the man (I’m sorry, but these two individuals have no names), and they strike up an amicable affair that each thinks is stable. They’re in love. Sometimes either may wonder what they’re doing together, but for now they simply cannot remove themselves from the relationship:
Sometimes, hating the violent dispossession of myself which love brought on, I would wish to be elsewhere; and feeling me withdrawn from her, she would ask (as I would ask when I felt her withdrawn) what I was thinking of, and I would reply that I was not thinking of anything; but those fleeting resolutions I would make, as I lay in the darkness, to live differently, or those desires I’d experience for another sort of life, were absurd and untrue, for no sooner would I leave her and find myself ideally alone that I would begin longing for her.
It’s no accident, and probably no real lie, when he answers that he’s not thinking of anything. It comes up later on when he, in turn, asks her what’s wrong:
Nothing. That endless nothing; that persistent nothing; that nothing that always turned out to be the cause of everything.
For me, though the book slows down toward the end and doesn’t feel as tightly controlled as it had at the beginning, this was a fascinating book about the death of a relationship — and it works on that level perfectly — but an even more fascinating look at an individual who allows himself to glimpse at the “nothing.” He refuses to let up as he digs, and this digging is mimic in the book’s interminable, layered sentences that reminded me of Steven Millhauser, always digging deeper, even if one never gets to the bottom of it.