“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)

But in my fancy, the owner [of the cafe]… must surely be a man, perhaps the woman’s husband or someone she lived with. Perhaps consumed with jealousy he had shut himself off behind the wall. Imagining the eyes of the customers creeping over his wife’s body, he was surely agonizing behind the wall. Perhaps there was a peephole somewhere in the wall through which he secretly observed the customers. Otherwise, there was no need for her to be perched like a bed, her legs exaggeratedly crossed, on the high, round stool which had been installed in front of the counter… She was worth being jealous of. Even I, who had no relationship with her at all, could only be jealous – in spite of myself.

Of course, if I could remove the wall, things would be resolved at once. … Without the wall the girl’s performance would at once appear rather artificial, and depending on the man’s attitude, quite comical. Of course, the price would be high.  Her worth would be reduced by half at least. On consideration, her being worth jealousy was a part of her value, and it would be a severe loss. Regardless of who was responsible for the performance on the stool the man would never give up his own place. He is compensated in his own way by locking jealousy behind the wall with its agonizing thoughts.

– p. 281-282, The Ruined Map, Kobo Abe

“I shall not begin at the beginning since there is no beginning, only a middle into which you, fortunate reader, have just strayed…”

I’ve always loved satire, and I’d like to think that I’m far more subversive than conservative, but my self-image as a camp, tongue-in-cheek, irreverent has been somewhat shaken by Gore Vidal’s 1968 novel Myra Breckinridge.

Set in the 1960s, Myra makes her way to Hollywood to seek the inheritance she’s owed by her dead husband’s Uncle Buck. Attractive, intellectual, and sexually complex, Myra is convinced that the golden days of the US came and went with the Golden Age of Hollywood.

I am seated in front of a French cafe in a Montmartre street on the back lot at Metro. … Over a metal framework, cheap wood has been arranged and painted as to suggest with astonishing accuracy a Paris bistro. … From the angle where I sit I can see part of the street in Carvel where Andy Hardy lived. The street is beautifully kept up as the shrine it is, a last memorial to all that was touching and – yes – good in the American past, an era whose end was marked by two mushroom shapes set like terminal punctuation marks against the Asian sky. (p. 30-31)

The book is written largely as a memoir – Myra’s confessional with a preening eye always to her audience; with snippets of Uncle Buck’s suspicion-filled memos. In his 1995 autobiography Palimpsest, Vidal said that he found inspiration for Myra’s lofty tone in the “megalomania” of Anaïs Nin’s diaries – which I’m not sure is quite fair, but certainly did give me a giggle to discover. I can’t say I found Anaïs Nin’s short stories or diaries particularly enjoyable to read, but that opinion doesn’t seem to be particularly popular.

Is it possible to describe anything accurately? That is the problem set to us by the French New Novelists. The answer is, like so many answers to important questions, neither yet nor no. The treachery of words is notorious. I write that I ‘care for’ Mary-Ann. But what does that mean? Nothing at all because I do not care for her at all times or at any time in all ways. To be precise (the task set us in the age of science), as I sit here…I can say that I like her eyes and voice but not her mouth (too small) or hands (too blunt). I could fill many pages of yes-no and still not bring the reader to any deep knowledge of what it is I feel at 7.10pm, March 12. It is impossible to sort out all one’s feelings at any given moment on any given subject, and so perhaps it is wise never to take on any subject other than one’s own protean but still manageable self. (p. 116)

I appreciate the topics that Vidal broaches in Myra Breckinridge, and the panache with which Vidal broaches them – generational attitude changes in America, masculinity, feminism, transsexuality, homosexuality, heterosexuality, pornography, intellectualism, hypocrisy. There’s still truth to be found in plenty of Vidal’s barbs, but the language used is certainly (and thankfully!) far outdated.

Most human beings, however, prefer the short duet, lasting anywhere from five minutes with a stranger to five months with a lover. Certainly the supreme moments occur only in those brief exchanges when each party, absorbed by private fantasy, believes he is achieving mastery over the other. The sailor who stands against the wall, looking down at the bobbing head of the gobbling queen, regards himself as master of the situation; yet it is the queen (does not that derisive epithet suggest primacy and dominion?) who has won the day, extracting from the flesh of the sailor his posterity, the one element in every man which is eternal and (a scientific fact) cellularly resembles not at all the elixir of victory, that which was not meant for him but for the sailor’s wife or girl or simply Woman. (p. 80)

Even though my love for Gore Vidal knows no bounds, and there was plenty I enjoyed about Myra Breckinridge, I can’t fully enjoy (or really recommend) any book that uses rape as a key plot point. That’s not to say Vidal didn’t write it well – it’s deeply disturbing, a severe counterpoint to the frippery of much of the book – but I still feel like rape is rarely more than a cheap narrative device.

Myra Breckinridge is dated, nearly entirely silly, and certainly has issues. It may not be quite what it was 40 years ago but it’s certainly a good snapshot of a particular American era, with a few eternal truths thrown in for good measure.

But then it is out peculiar fate to destroy or change all things we touch since (and let us never forget it) we are the constant and compulsive killers of life, the mad dogs of creation… Death and destruction, hate and rage, these are the most characteristic of human attributes… (p. 122)