Category Archives: Hayes Alfred

The Girl on the Via Flaminia by Alfred Hayes

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.

In Love by Alfred Hayes

A couple of years ago I read My Face for the World to See by Alfred Hayes, a story of an affair between a married man and a wounded aspiring actress (Max and Guy have reviewed it). Had I been blogging at the time, it would have made my end-of-year highlights, so I was looking forward to reading another Hayes novel: In Love, first published in 1953.

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As In Love opens, an unnamed man in his late thirties is telling his story to the pretty young girl he has just met in a hotel bar. It’s a tale that charts the various stages of his relationship with another young woman, a love affair that now appears to be over. As the narrator begins to relate his story, we get the sense that he is trying to understand what happened and why. He appears lost and adrift in a world that no longer holds any purpose or meaning for him.

At the time of their meeting, the object of the narrator’s affection, a nameless woman in her early twenties, is living on her own in a studio apartment in New York. By way of the narrator, Hayes does a fine job of conveying this woman’s sense of vulnerability. She is recently divorced and still a little bruised following her failure to connect with her former husband, and despite being young, beautiful and relatively hopeful, she exudes a sense of melancholy. What she wants more than anything is some comfort that the future will hold something better for her: a permanent relationship, a comfortable home, and another child. (There is a young girl from her first marriage, a daughter named Barbara who resides with the woman’s mother.) In short, she is hoping for the American Dream.

…but it seems to me now that this disorder, so much in evidence, and so little cared about, came from the fact that she considered the life that she was leading then as only temporary. This house, the way she lived, was only a hasty arrangement, thrown together to cover a time in her life which she did not consider too important, and in which she did not feel any necessity for putting things into any sort of final order. The final order had not yet arrived; she was waiting for it to arrive. (pg. 13)

But as the narrator looks back to early stages of the affair, it’s as if he is entering his own separate dream. We see a time when everything is free-spirited and idyllic, a period he expects to continue for as long as it suits him.

She would exist among these love letters and these portraits for as long as I loved her. I did not, of course, think of myself as loving her forever, but neither did I think of the time when I would stop loving her. No, what I thought, I suppose, really, was that this scene would remain forever unchanged: […] It was a very convenient and fixed and unvarying idyll I had in mind, a simple sequence of pleasures that would not seriously change my life or interfere with my work, that would fill the emptiness of my long evenings and ease the pressures of my loneliness, and give me what I suppose I really thought of as the nicest amusement in all the amusement park: the pleasure of love. (pgs. 18-19)

One evening while the woman is out with friends, she meets a wealthy businessman by the name of Howard, who offers her $1,000 to spend the night with him. The woman is tempted; she is flattered and curious. Howard appears sincere and lonely. $1,000 is a lot of money, a potential nest egg for her daughter, Barbara. And besides, the narrator has always maintained that they should have an open relationship leaving them free to see other people every now and again.

I don’t want to say too much about what happens next, but Howard’s proposition sparks the decline in the narrator’s relationship with his lover. As the woman becomes increasingly involved with Howard, the narrator begins to experience a kind of paralysis. At first he is only too ready to believe that this woman still loves him; her relationship with Howard is purely one of convenience, something she can step away from at any moment. Little by little though, the woman becomes absorbed into another life, a process that throws into sharp relief the emptiness of the narrator’s own existence.

All I knew, really, was that she had taken away with her when she had gone something which in the past had held me together, some necessary sense of myself, something without which I seemed in danger of collapsing; and whatever it was, an indispensable vanity, an irreplaceable idea of my own invulnerability, it was gone and only she could restore it to me, or so I thought. For without whatever it was, I seemed poor, depleted, injured in some mysterious way; without it, there was nothing to interpose between the world and me. (pg. 78)  

I read In Love during the hot, heady days of early July, and despite turning the story over in my mind for several weeks I’m still not quite sure how I feel about it. As a reader, I found the two central characters, the nameless narrator and the equally anonymous woman, rather difficult to engage with. At times, the narrator appears self-centred, bitter and eaten up by jealousy. But there were moments when I felt something approaching sympathy for him, especially as he doesn’t quite realise how much he is in love with this woman until she has virtually slipped away from him. And when I think of the young woman, she isn’t quite as fragile as she appears at first sight; as the story moves forward, a somewhat more unpredictable side to her character emerges.

If the ‘proposition’ element of the set-up sounds familiar, the introduction to this NYRB edition draws the comparison with the 1993 film Indecent Proposal in which Robert Redford makes a similar proposal to Demi Moore. Hayes’ novel is very different though; it is much darker and more penetrating than Adrian Lyne’s film. In Love reminded me very much of another novel I read earlier this year, Simenon’s Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, also set in New York and published in the period immediately following WWII. The sense of loneliness and desolation evoked by Edward Hopper’s paintings of the 1940s is another touchstone for Hayes’ story.

Hayes’ prose is very evocative, and the early chapters of the novel are full of long, meandering, meditative sentences. At times In Love reminded me of certain aspects of James Salter’s work, something along the lines of Light Years, although there is much more bitterness in the Hayes, especially in the closing stages.

Ultimately, In Love is an examination of the breakdown of a relationship, the transition from hope to disillusionment, from desire to jealousy, from expectation to loss. I’ll finish with a quote that seems to capture it as well as any other:

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 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… (pgs. 22-23)

Guy has also reviewed this novel, and his excellent post contains some notes on the author’s background and career as a screenwriter.

In Love is published by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 4/20, #TBR20 round 2.