After serving in the US army in the Second World War, the British-born writer Alfred Hayes stayed on in Rome at the end of the conflict where he worked with some of the leading lights in the Italian neo-realist film movement, Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini. This talent for scriptwriting shows in Hayes’ 1949 novel, The Girl on the Via Flaminia, a slim work which zooms in on a microcosm of a society irreparably damaged by the ravages of war. It’s a brilliant, bleak yet beautifully written book, shot through with an aching sense of pain and sadness. Here’s how it opens:
The wind blew through Europe. It was a cold wind, and there were no lights in the city. (p.3)
Set in Rome in 1944, the novel focuses on Robert, a desperately lonely American soldier who finds himself stationed in the capital following the liberation of Italy from the Germans.
Having grown tired of boarding at the barracks with the rest of his unit, Robert longs for the company of a woman on a regular basis – not one of the prostitutes who ply their trade by the River Tiber, but someone more modest and above board. So, he makes an arrangement to share a private room with Lisa, a local Italian girl, at a house in the city. The lodgings are owned by Adele, a middle-aged Italian woman who has converted her dining room into a simple bar and eating place for the soldiers stationed in the vicinity. Also living in the house are Ugo, Adele’s mournful husband, and Antonio, their grown-up son, a bitter ex-soldier who resents the presence of the Allied forces in his country.
As far as Robert sees things, this is to be a simple arrangement, one that benefits both parties. Robert will have a little warmth and female company at night, while in return Lisa will receive some much sought-after supplies: coffee, sugar, chocolate, maybe even a little fruitcake on the side. It isn’t a question of just sex; Robert knows he could avail himself of one of the local prostitutes for that (not that he wants to – the prospect really doesn’t appeal). Rather, it’s more a case of desiring something decent and comfortable, albeit with no long-term strings attached.
On their first evening together in the room, Lisa is pretty antagonist towards Robert, whom she views as symbolic of American soldiers in general, a group characterised by their loudness, arrogance and stupidity. Robert, in his naivety, struggles to truly understand the anger and hostility being directed towards him, particularly from Lisa whom he believes he is helping through the provision of goods. Gradually, however, and with the help of a well-timed power cut, Lisa’s mood begins to soften, thereby enabling Robert to get a little closer to her – an experience exquisitely conveyed through Hayes’ beautiful prose.
Touching her, then, that first time, there had been no words at all to express the overwhelming sense of a woman being with him, in a clean place, in a clean bed, just being there, in a room, alone feeling the warmth even though it was not a given and voluntary and loving warmth, only the inevitable warmth of someone’s body. There were no words at all for the enormous charity that having a woman, in a room with a closed door, in a bed that was one’s own, meant. (p. 46)
Sadly, even the simplest of arrangements can run into complications, especially in a time of unrest and uncertainty. In order to rent the room from Adele, Robert has created the impression that he and Lisa are married. So, when their status is called into question, Lisa and Robert find themselves caught in a perilous situation, one that has long-term consequences for those involved.
I absolutely loved this slim yet stunning novel, my third by Hayes. (You can read my thoughts on In Love here, a book I probably need to read again as I couldn’t make up my mind about it at the time.)
Hayes is particularly good at conveying the nuances of human emotion in a nuanced and non-judgemental way, allowing us to see the situation from two very different perspectives: Robert’s and Lisa’s. The portrayal of complex and conflicting feelings – often in a state of fluidity – is beautifully done. Desire, longing, resentment and anger all come together to illustrate the difficulty of these characters’ situations. The haunting ending, with its air of uncertainty, feels very fitting, highlighting as it does the tragedy of the protagonists’ plight.
The novel also highlights the terrible effects of war, the damage and trauma inflicted not only on the soldiers and forces but also on the ordinary people left behind – women like Lisa who have few options open to them other than compromising their dignity to survive. By focusing on this relatively small group of individuals, Hayes paints a portrait of a country torn apart by the fallout from conflict, where victory and freedom are not what they were promised to be. Instead, the mood is characterised by feelings of frustration, anguish and suffocation.
On the walls of the small villages in the south, they had painted slogans during the other regime: to obey, to fight, to win. Obedience was done, fighting was over, there had been no victory. Agony was left, and a sense of suffocation. (p.74)
Bitterness and resentment are widespread, emotions typified by Antonio’s reactions to Robert and his compatriots as tensions escalate.
‘When we go into the street,’ he said, leaning forward, accusing them, because of the uniform, ‘what do we see? Your colonels, in their big cars, driving with women whose reputations were made in the bedrooms of fascist bureaucrats! With my country’s enemies! Or your soldiers, drunk in our gutters. Or your officers, pushing us off our own sidewalks! Oh, the magnificent promises the radio made us! Oh, the paradise we’d have! Wait, wait – there will be bread, peace, freedom when the allies come! But where is this paradise? Where is it, signori –?’ (pp. 76-77)
We also gain an insight into Antonio’s experiences of the war, the physical and emotional wounds he must deal with as a consequence of the bloodshed.
Finally, a few words about the writing: Hayes’ prose is spare, precise and evocative, qualities that help to convey the deep-rooted mood and atmosphere that underpin the story. As the cold wind sweeps through Rome, there is a sense of darkness and desolation in the city, feelings that mirror the mood of the country as a whole, trapped as it is in a seemingly never-ending war.
The city had no beauty now. The river had no history. When you stood on one of the bridges and looked at the city, you thought of home, and were depressed, and it seemed, because if the grayness over everything, that this war had been going on forever, and it would never end. (p.112)
The Girl on the Via Flaminia is published by Penguin; personal copy.
Excellent review, as always, Jacqui. There’s an aching loneliness in that first quote you’ve pulled out. Beautifully expressed.
Thanks, Susan. I genuinely think you’d like this one. It really is beautifully captured in spite of the sadness of the story.
I must read more Alfred Hayes. The first quote that you have highlighted is wonderful. I have only read one, My Face for the World to See, a couple of years ago I think, and was quite blown away by it. It definitely was one of the highlights of my reading that year.
I have both his other books, In Love and The Girl on Via Flaminia, and was wondering which one to try next. Based on your excellent review, The Girl on Via Flaminia it will be :)
From your piece on In Love, I gathered you didn’t rate it as highly as his others, and I was quite on the fence, having picked up the book only to put it back on the shelves again. I do think I will eventually read it though, if only because you mentioned that it reminded you at times of James Salter’s Light Years. I am a James Salter fan, and Light Years remains my favourite of his!
I think he’s brilliant! Like you, I was blown away by My Face for the World to See, which I read on the strength of Max Cairnduff’s review over at Pechorin’s Journal. It was a pre-blog read for me, so no review, but I may well go back to it one day to see if it’s still as good as I remember it being.
In Love is definitely worth reading, for sure. I just think my expectations were too high at the time as I’d already read My Face and was kind of hoping for more of the same. There are similarities between the two – the prose is beautiful without feeling slushy or sentimental in any way – but I didn’t particularly take to the characters from In Love. I don’t know….my memorioes of it have faded somewhat now, but there was something about it that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, something that stopped me for loving it is the same way as My Face.
That said, I definitely think you should read both to see what you make of them. I’d be fascinated to see your reviews!
Yet again you introduce me to book I now want to read. Spare a thought for my tbr. But Thankyou it sounds so very interesting. Caroline
Ha! Sorry to be adding another book to your TBR, but it is a good one. I think it shows a different facet of how emotionally challenging life must have been for people during the war, not only the residents of occupied countries but those associated with the liberation too.
The book sounds fantastic. It was a very different book, but the arrogance of American soldiers as you describe in this book reminds me a little bit of the way it was portrayed in parts of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.
I’ve never been brave enough to attempt Gravity’s Rainbow, so bravo for tackling it!
It’s interesting how the American soldiers acquired that reputation during their time in Europe as part of WW2. It reminds me of that phrase ‘oversexed, overpaid and over here’ which I recall some of my family mentioning when they talked about that time in history. We actually see quite a different side of the soldiers through Robert’s character as he comes across as sensitive and lonely if a little naive. Quite different to the arrogant, swaggering soldiers Antonio has in mind.
I’ve never read any Alfred Hayes at all, but your review has me tempted to give him a try. As does that Penguin cover: it’s lovely.
Gorgeous, isn’t it! An illustration by Rene Gruau. I was so taken with the cover that I tried to find a print of it online but without much success. Ah, well – perhaps a more detailed search might help. Anyway. it’s very appealing as is the book. Re: Hayes, he actually contributed to the screenplay for De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, but I don’t think his role was credited at the time. If you’re considering trying him (which I think you should) then I would suggest either this or My Face for the World to See. Both are excellent and well worth the time.
Like others who’ve commented above, I’ve read My Face (didn’t post on it, cos I lent it to someone and didn’t get it back, so couldn’t quote from it): I too found it tautly done and rather harsh, but good. Yes, this is a great cover and handsome edition. I’ll hope to read this and others by him some time…
Ah, interesting. There is something rather cruel and devastating about My Face, certainly in relation to the girl’s situation – I remember that much. Girl on the Via Flaminia is somewhat less brittle – still bleak, but less cruel if that makes sense? I’d be interested to hear how you get on with it if you do decide to go for it.
Wonderful review, I hadn’t heard of this book at all. That first quote is beautiful, obviously a gifted writer.
Isn’t it just? In a book full of quotable passages, that really stands out. I think you’d like this one as the wartime setting is nicely evoked.
What a lovely review, Jacqui, and the book sounds excellent. I did like the quotes you pulled out, and the story itself sounds very nuanced. I’ve not read Hayes, but I will keep an eye out… ;)
Thanks, Karen. He’s definitely worth considering. Maybe not your usual fare, but a change of scene can be interesting every now and again. :)
I hadn’t heard of thus book before either. It sounds marvelous. You’re bad! Just when I really want to stick to my piles. I think I would love this. The mood, the tone, the setting.
I know. I’m terrible! That said, I genuinely think you would love it too, for all the reasons you suggest. He really was a very fine writer, Hayes. When Max reviewed another of his novels, My Face for the World to See, he described the book as having a noir sensibility. Not because the story featured any great crime, but rather on account of the atmosphere and mood it evoked – a sort of all-consuming desire in the absence of hope. While Via Flaminia doesn’t have quite the same elements as My Face (it’s a different story after all), there is something doomed about it, particularly in terms of Robert’s relationship with the girl. A wonderful novel, beautifully expressed.
I have My Face For the World to See, which is good and bad for me because I really shouldn’t buy books by authors I have unread novels of. She said and . . . It’s too tempting. It made me think of Hemingway, btw. Especially that first quote and the mood.
My Face for the World to See is absolutely brilliant. It’s probably my favourite of the three, so you’ve definitely got something to look forward to there. Interesting to hear how that quote reminded you of Hemingway. I really haven’t read enough of him to tell!
Lovely review Jacqui. That opening sentence is sparse but weighted with heavy emotions, and so evocative. If the rest of the book is so sparingily beautiful I can see why it affected you so. I love how those sometimes deceptively lightweight novellas can turn into something with such depth and poignancy.
Thanks, Belinda. Yes, spare is a great word. It’s a lean novel, but beautifully expressed. One of those books where not a word is wasted. There’s very little down time here, something that makes the emotions feels more concentrated and intense without ever being melodramatic.
I do like the sound of this, presumably partly based on his own experiences. Penguin Classics have published the three books mentioned above but his other novels seem long out of print – I wonder if they have plans to publish any more?
Yes, that’s right. I think Hayes drew on his own experiences of the war as inspiration for the book. It’s actually a very affecting story, so I guess that’s partly a function of its grounding and sense of authenticity. I would love to see more Hayes from Penguin, especially if they’re anything like this!
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I love the sound of this: the spare style, the short length, the evocative writing. The quotes are stunning. Thanks for putting this on my radar Jacqui!
You’re very welcome! He’s been quite the discovery for me over the past few years. I’m pretty sure you will enjoy him too.
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