“Tainted. It’s a funny word, isn’t it? Is it like fruit, rotten a bit? But not completely spoiled?”

I’m not much into romances (doomed or otherwise), and I have little time or sympathy for self-pitying men (fictional or otherwise), so Alfred Hayes’ 1953 novel In Love is not the kind of book I would usually be drawn to, much less enjoy. I’m glad I put those doubts aside and ordered a copy anyway  – it might only be the end of July, but I think In Love may be my favourite read of 2016.

In Love begins with a man of nearly 40, propping up a bar mid-afternoon in New York, telling a pretty young thing about the decline of his last affair. A fairly dreary setting, for a fairly dreary protagonist. Despite the man’s poetic reminiscences, it’s a largely unsatisfying relationship for both of them, once lust and convenience are both discounted – he is “often bored… with absolutely nothing to say to her” (p. 28), she is “frequently depressed” (p. 28), lonely and self-conscious. With no desire to commit to her in any kind of way, the protagonist’s interest is only really piqued once she leaves him, for a (somewhat) more reliable, and richer, man.

Men are never more interested in a toy than when someone else wants to play with it.

… the temporary possession of her had given me the illusion that it [my life] was not, while I had her, barren; now that she was gone, the barrenness that she had temporarily helped conceal lay exposed. It was because we thought so much that love could save us, that having nothing else but the dry labor of our work we looked so anxiously toward love. (p.60)

Had Hayes been a less skilled writer, In Love could have quickly descended into either sentimental dreck or tedious whining, but Hayes’ prose is simply glorious – it’s the reading equivalent of slipping into a warm bath.

She always insisted that she could remember every detail of the very first evening we were together; how, for example, there was snow falling, and how the taxi meter, a little yellow glow above it, ticked, and how she felt, excited, in the interior of the heated cab, touching hands, but sad too, sad inside, the way you feel when you like a man, and when you know that with him it will happen, and you’ve made up your mind even before it happens so that he doesn’t really have to ask you, it’s something… you feel and he feels, a pleasurable tension between you, a silken tightness, waiting to get to a place, his apartment or yours or a friend’s room or a hotel, or even a deserted country road, so that you sink into a trance of waiting, a deliciousness that’s somehow sad, too, and you feel, because of the sadness both there and not there, inside the cab and holding hands and not inside the cab at all and not holding hands at all. So that there must have been, for her, a momentary pang of something lovely, something that the hush of whiteness and the somnolent heat of the cab gave her. Perhaps it was the anticipation, that moment sustained by the drive home, when one is in a taxi with a stranger who is about to be transfigured into a lover, and there is an interval, as in music, when the chord of desire has been struck, and the chord of the fulfilment of desire hasn’t; when everything remains suspended and anticipatory, and the snow falls through the air of a city whose ugliness is temporarily obscured, and the cab itself seems to exist inside a magical circle of quiet heat and togetherness and motion; and, I suppose, for that moment, it is beautiful: the snow, and everything. (p.20-21)

I do so love a good unreliable narrator, and despite gestures towards self-awareness of his own faults, the narrator of In Love is neither reliable or particularly likeable. The unnamed female love interest is far more interesting, and far more sympathetic. That’s despite some of the more bitter commentary:

And I thought, suddenly, that all these women, accompanied or unaccompanied, alone or on the arms of men, going somewhere now on the street, must be enacting within themselves little dramas of copulation as equally calculated as hers. That, really, the city was nothing but a huge bedroom, with some office buildings attached, as they said in the army, for rations, and that for each of these women there was an absolute conviction that the universe was arranged for only one end: her in bed. (p. 111)

It’s a great pity that Hayes isn’t more well known, and In Love isn’t considered an American classic. I feel like the speed at which both cultural attitudes and literary trends changed in the 1950s meant In Love might have seemed unappealingly outdated soon after its publication, but good things never really go out of style.  I feel like I’ll be coming back to In Love time and time again.

I suppose no evening is ever again like the very first evening, the nakedness ever again quite the nakedness it is that first time, the initial gestures, hesitant and doubtful and overintense, ever again what they were, for nothing we ever 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… (p. 23)

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“Rare joy of truancy, of bold escape…”

With the news today of Alan Rickman’s sad passing, there’s been plenty of online reminiscence about his most memorable roles.

the song of lunch.jpg

One of Rickman’s performances that has stayed firmly with me is of the narrator in The Song of Lunch, a film adaptation of Christopher Reid’s nostalgic narrative poem of the same name. The poem tells the story of an unnamed publishing editor (and unsuccessful poet) meeting an old lover in a Soho restaurant, 15 years after their affair. It’s poignant and sad, but resists sinking into soggy sentimentality; touching, clever, and funny.

Sometimes, though, a man needs
to go out on the rampage,
throw conscientious time-keeping
to the winds,
help kill a few bottles –
and bugger the consequences.

In the film adaptation, Rickman plays the unnamed editor, Emma Thompson his former lover, and both put in typically fine performances. It’s a lovely film on its own, and a lovely, thoughtful interpretation of Reid’s poem. It’s well worth tracking down a copy of the film to watch, but for now we can be grateful to whichever cheeky soul has put the audio up in full on YouTube:

“And I talked in a jumbled way about how beauty had another side to it… all related to whether you could love even what was unpleasant and abandoned, whether you could love the landscape during all those hours and days and weeks when it rained, when it got dark early, when you sat by the stove and thought it was ten at night while it was really only half past six, when you started talking to yourself, speaking to the horse, the dog, the cat, and the goat, but best of all to yourself, silently at first – as though showing a movie, letting images from the past flicker through your memory – and then out loud, as I had done, asking yourself questions, inquiring of yourself, interrogating yourself, wanting to know the most secret things about yourself, accusing yourself as if you were a public prosecutor and then defending yourself, and so arriving, in this back-and-forth way, at the meaning of your life. Not the meaning of what used to be or what happened a long time ago, but discovering the kind of road you’d opened up and had yet to open up, and whether there was still time to attain the serenity that would secure you against the desire to escape from your own solitude, from the most important questions that you should ask yourself. And so I…sat in the pub every Saturday till evening, and the longer I sat there, the more I opened myself up to people… and I saw how the people here were eclipsing what I wanted to see and know, how they were all simply enjoying themselves they way I used to enjoy myself, putting off the questions they would have to ask themselves one day, if they were lucky enough to have the time to do that before they died. As a matter of fact whenever I was in the pub I realized that the basic thing in life is questioning death, wanting to know how we’ll act when our time comes, and that death, or rather this questioning of death, is a conversation that takes place between infinity and eternity, and how we deal with our own death is the beginning of what is beautiful, because the absurd things in our lives, which always end before we want them to anyway, fill us, when we contemplate death, with bitterness and therefore with beauty.”

p. 227-8, I Served the King of England, Bohumil Hrabal