Thursday, 22 December 2011

Alfred Hayes

1911–85; born in London, worked in the US and Italy. He was in the US army in Italy in WW2, and stayed on as a screenwriter for Rossellini and Vittorio de Sica. Later, scriptwriting in Hollywood, and for TV. Not much seems to be known about him. Three books of poetry and half a dozen short novels. If he’d happened to be female some of those would have been reissued by Persephone Books by now, though their decorative endpapers wouldn’t have sat comfortably with the contents.

In The Girl on the Via Flaminia (1949; reissued a few years ago by Europa, a Brooklyn-based publisher) an American soldier in Rome near the end of the war takes a room with an Italian girl; the deal, he thinks, is straightforward – he gets sex, she gets chocolate and cigarettes and a roof over her head and sex too – but it isn’t, and when the woman running the house is denounced, the police issue the girl with an official prostitute’s license. It’s just possible, near the end, that the couple’s barely articulated feelings for each other will enable them to rise above this mess, but the book isn’t saying.

In Love (1954; in print with Peter Owen; my copy a 1961 Penguin, £1.99 from an Oxfam shop): a girl in a convenient (to them both) relationship with a man is offered a thousand dollars by a rich businessman for one night. (Familiar scenario? Frederic Raphael: ‘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.’) The story is recounted by the boyfriend to another girl in a bar, the story of an affair in which the needs and capacities for love of himself and the girlfriend intersect and then don’t and then maybe do again and then maybe don’t, and in which neither behaves in ways that would would win them a medal of honour.

My Face for the World to See (1958; my copy a 1960 Arrow Books paperback, also courtesy Oxfam): a jobbing Hollywood screenwriter pulls a drunk girl out of the sea at a party and starts a desultory affair that ends in melodrama (‘Had I thought once there were acts of which I was incapable?’).

Elizabeth Bowen called In Love a masterpiece; John Lehman and Antonia White reckoned pretty much the same. Echoed by The Times and the Independent on its reissue in 2007. Paul Bailey, who wrote an introduction for the reissue of of The Girl on the Via Flaminia: ‘Hayes has done for bruised men what Jean Rhys does for bruised women, and they both write heartbreakingly beautiful sentences.’

The sentences are what win me, of course. Plain but exact, one after another. Hayes has become one of the writers I’m liable to bore people about. The story-lines above are hardly original, and each time there’s something a little dated in their setting-up, as if you’re watching a black-and-white film, but once he gets the he and the she together he’s electric. The restaurant/nightclub scene in My Face for the World to See, after he’s told her he’ll be meeting his wife off a plane the following Monday, is not only lacerating, hilarious, drunken (‘She was very articulate when she was drunk; hadn’t I noticed? Martinis improved her vocabulary’), but done with a control – direct speech (you can see why he was a screenwriter), a kind of indirect reported speech I don’t know the technical term for, observation – that amounts to wizardry.

For Christmas, please can someone find me a cheap copy of Hayes’ The End of Me.


Anonymous said...

There's a copy of "The End of Me" for sale on-line, no picture, reading condition: "acceptable", £52.99 - a bit late for this Christmas, perhaps next year.

charles said...

Not that one. Far too pricey. I'd prefer to rely on the serendipity of Oxfam and 2nd-hand shops (which have provided me this year, among many other things, with a rare and lovely Rosemary Tonks novel). If it wants to come my way, it will. But thank you.