by Frederic Raphael
first published 1953, then re-issued by Peter Owen
with a foreword by Frederic Raphael, in 2007)
Although the author of a small masterpiece, Alfred Hayes figures neither in the textbooks of post-war literature nor even in the indices of modern biographies. He wrote no curricular books and he failed, or did not care, to hang out with those whose company makes people famous by association; he slept with no notorious women (or none who said he did) and he did not win prizes or accrue honours. Born in England, in 1911, he was taken, at the age of three, to America, where he attended City College in New York. As a young man, he became a reporter with The Daily News and on the now defunct New York American. He seems to have remained in the U.S. until he died, in 1985, except for a period during the mid- and late 1940s, when he was in the U.S. Army Special Services in Europe.
His early fictions, The Girl on the Via Flaminia (later filmed, lamely, as Act of Love, with Kirk Douglas in the lead) and All Thy Conquests, derived from experiences during the liberation of Italy. Training as a reporter made Hayes quick to encapsulate the essence of a story. All Thy Conquests delivers a variety of characters and events in a sequence of terse sketches. Its newsreel style owes something to Hemingway’s In Our Time and to John Dos Passos’s multi-faceted, cinematic fictions such as Manhattan Transfer (to which parts of Sartre’s truncated post-war tetralogy, Les Chemins de la Liberté, are something of a hommage). The Girl on the Via Flaminia introduces the recurrent figure of the vulnerable female, perishable beauty her only fragile asset, who becomes Hayes’s emblematic character both in In Love and in its quasi-sequel, My Face for the World to See (set in the studio-dominated Hollywood which television was about to subvert).
Hayes must have had a quick ear for Italian. Soon after the eviction of the Germans from Rome he became involved with the neo-realist school of filmmakers, of whom Roberto Rossellini was the dominant figure. Rossellini’s Roma – Citta Aperta, with Anna Magnani, was shot on location, with film stock liberated from who knew where, and caught the last days of the Nazi occupation with grainy, unblinking vividness. Hayes worked with Rossellini subsequently, during the making of Paisa, a patchy 1946 film of six episodes, on which Federico Fellini was also another of the writers. Although he was nominated for an Oscar as a writer on Paisa, it is typical of his literary fortunes that Hayes should not even be mentioned in connection with the film in Halliwell’s allegedly authoritative Film Guide. He worked, again anonymously, with Vittorio de Sica on Bicycle Thieves, the 1948 neo-realist masterpiece, but seems then to have quit Italy and returned to the U.S.
His cinematic abilities had come to the attention of Fred Zinneman, for whom he wrote the original (Oscar-nominated) story of Teresa, a film about a G.I. who brings home an Italian bride. Halliwell’s Guide deigns to cite him as “Arthur Hayes” in this connection. The misprint might be taken to symbolise Hayes’s want of general renown: perhaps his indifference to it. Had apprenticeship as a newspaperman reconciled him with never quite getting the billing he deserved? The old-style reporter was required to make inventories of pain and mortality without queasiness and without intruding his own emotions in what he described. This unobtrusiveness is the workaday cousin of the Flaubertian novelist, whose personal opinions remain covert and whose signature is the work itself. In Love is a work of art by a man who struck no attitudes as an artist and, it seems, had no political or personal kites to fly. If it has literary precedents (and they are not obvious), they are in the terse, distanced style of Italian fiction of which Cesare Pavese and Alberto Moravia were already established exponents during Hayes’s European years.
Hayes remains biographically eponymous: a hazy figure whose obscurity was due perhaps to lack of thrusting ambition. More probably, he was in the American tradition of the working stiff: the hard-bitten newspaperman, with a hat and a cigarette and matches (not a lighter), who knows the score but doesn’t expect to score himself. Another transplanted Englishman, Raymond Chandler, took up something of the same pose, but with more self-consciously wisecracking panache. By the 1950s, Hayes (like Chandler) had been taken up by Hollywood, where screenwriting was well-paid drudgery without the trudgery of journalism. He had a quick slew of credits, of which the most interesting was Fred Zinneman’s 1957 A Hatful of Rain (about a war-veteran who becomes a drug addict) and the most memorable, alas, Robert Rossen’s Island in the Sun, with Harry Belafonte.
By the 1960s, Hayes had fallen off the A-list of screenwriters (he writes sourly, in My Face for the World to See, of belonging to the Screen-writhers Guild). Although he did script George Cukor’s 1976 lame re-make of Maeterlinck’s The Blue Bird, most of his many credits after the 1950s were for series such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Mannix. If he published no more fiction, he continued to be a prolific, if unrenowned, poet: his lyric for the ballad “Joe Hill” (about a Union organiser executed in Utah in 1915) was a hit for Joan Baez in the 1960s.
In Love is Hayes’s slim claim to lasting fame. First published in 1953, it came out in (though it does not at all exemplify) a period of well-turned fiction which was already becoming dated. In New York, Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead introduced a new, swaggering style. Not only was Mailer’s vocabulary raunchy (although not yet quite four-lettered) but the voice of the author was unsubtly loud and wilfully egocentric. In the same spirit, at much the same time, Jackson Pollock’s action-painting was making the artist’s own energy an ingredient of his picture. Pollock was putting an end to the centrality of the American urban pastoralism to be seen in Edward Hopper, whose solitary drinkers in midnight bars are cousins to the characters whom Alfred Hayes depicts, with similarly distanced sympathy, in In Love.
The action takes place, we can assume, in post-war New York, but its locations have the 1930s décor in which Hopper framed his elegies of anonymous despair and loneliness. The girl in Hayes’s story listens to the radio, but she doesn’t watch TV. She belongs to the lonely bed-sitting sisterhood that feminism (and its magazines and their empowered editors such as Cosmopolitan’s Helen Gurley-Brown) would, supposedly, come to liberate and whom Sex in the City would show to be hardly less, if more luridly, desperate. Hayes’s nameless anti-heroine’s best hope is still the happy-ever-after marriage that the Puritan tradition, and its dream-factory mutations, had wished on middle America. In her early twenties, she is already the divorced victim of one such ruptured romance, and has the (off-stage) baby daughter, Barbara, to prove it.
The love story recounted by the almost forty-year old man in the bar, to an adjacent girl who is another candidate for disillusionment, is soiled by his failure, or inability, to commit; he may have been in love, but he lacked the will, or the innocence, to make loving into something positive. The story is no more obsolete than a Hopper painting; art – as Ezra Pound said – is “news that stays news”, the working stiff’s ideal story. Yet In Love is undoubtedly a period piece: it belongs to a time when your fortieth was a birthday to dread (in My Face for the World to See, someone is described as “an old man in his late sixties”) and when a thousand dollars could be a fortune to a working girl with a baby daughter and no husband. After the rich man called Howard (drawn with pitiless sympathy) offers the pretty girl that much, to spend one night with him, we know that sooner or later she will make the call she tells her lover she will never make.
Do I spoil the story by revealing what happens? Art doesn’t require surprise; the beauty of Hayes’s novella is in an inevitability, which is neither artificially contrived nor tearfully salted. To measure the difference between a work of art and its degradation, compare In Love with Adrian Lyne’s 1993 film, Indecent Proposal, in which Robert Redford offers Demi Moore a million dollars to sleep with him and you don’t believe a word of it, or give a damn whether she does or not, because the whole thing is famous-people confectionery and a million dollars is only a fraction of what Demi and her kind get for flashing their charms and not even having to give a decent performance when they do it. Howard’s proposal is made almost diffidently and conveys the honeyed menace of wealth without Redford’s glinting conceit. Howard’s author may despise him, but the accuracy of Hayes’s contempt leads him to understand and almost to pity him. Mary McCarthy’s The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt has something of the same character in Mr Breen, but her sprawling, clumsily phrased story lacks the trimness which makes Hayes a master. McCarthy is too manifestly promising you what a babe she can be in the sack; Hayes makes all sexuality a kind of frustration; his lovers are shadows clutching shadows.
When In Love was published in England, people such as Antonia White, Elizabeth Bowen, John Lehmann and Stevie Smith, all influential literary figures, immediately saluted its qualities. They were, however, representative of an ancien régime which the Angry Young Men would soon load into their tumbrils. The maverick short-story writer Julian Maclaren-Ross reviewed In Love at the top of a column which finished with a dismissive few lines about a novel entitled Lucky Jim, which he denounced as cheap and ephemeral. It may be that, like Sainte-Beuve, Maclaren-Ross recognised all literary merits save genius; or it may be that Kingsley Amis and his contemporaries were about to make anti-art into the going form of fiction and authorial self-advertisement into the best means to achieve primacy.
It is unlikely that the advent of either Amis or even of Mailer, Roth and Updike, was responsible for Hayes ceasing to publish fiction before the Sixties had begun, but the pointilliste refinement of his prose and the perspicuity of his self-effacement were abruptly out of fashion. In Love can be dated by the economy of its eroticism (that singular curl of black hair in the rumpled bed) and by the austerity of its despair. The malaise of Hayes’s characters will never be cured by political activism or feminist rebellion or blokeish booziness. Though never “hip” in the terms laid down in Norman Mailer’s famous article in Dissent, Hayes’s masterpiece reads like a white writer’s tribute to the Blues; its tersely syncopated lament calls for a sound track improvised by Thelonius Monk.
It is always dangerous to return, after half a century, to a book one has greatly admired. Once, when Vladimir Nabokov was maintaining that H.G. Wells was a better novelist than Joseph Conrad, an outraged Leavisite asked when Nabokov had last read Kipps. “When I was fifteen,” he replied, “and I have never made the mistake of looking at it again.” I have just re-read In Love and found it just as compelling and as flawless as I thought it when I was in my twenties. Hayes may have been forgotten (if he was ever remembered), but he belongs to a serene company of petits maîtres whose exquisite work, however sparse, need not await the endorsement of critics or the retrieval of anthologists. A gem is a gem is a gem.