Home’s for suicides

Lucie Elven

  • The Girl on the Via Flaminia by Alfred Hayes
    Penguin, 151 pp, £7.99, August 2018, ISBN 978 0 241 34232 9
  • My Face for the World to See by Alfred Hayes
    Penguin, 119 pp, £7.99, May 2018, ISBN 978 0 241 34230 5
  • In Love by Alfred Hayes
    Penguin, 120 pp, £7.99, January 2018, ISBN 978 0 241 30713 7

‘Dark, Dantean, witty’, Alfred Hayes saw himself as personifying ‘a new sort of “young generation”, the lyric poet of the New York working class, of the strike front, the writer of sketches that bite into the memory’. Born in London in 1911 to a Jewish family that emigrated to the US when he was three, Hayes left school in 1929, the year of the Crash. His father, a barber and a bookmaker, wanted his son to become an accountant, but he dropped out of City College and took a series of jobs, as a copy boy, a waiter, a delivery boy etc. He wrote a radio play for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union in Pennsylvania and washed dishes at the communist-run Camp Unity, billed as ‘the first proletarian summer colony’, as well as stealing – and selling – hundreds of books from local libraries. He was eventually taken on as a reporter for the Daily News and then the New York American, but he was more interested in poetry than in journalism, and just as interested in gambling and pool halls as in poetry.

Hayes’s literary convictions seem quickly to have taken precedence over his political beliefs: he championed avant-garde writing even when it came from conservatives, arguing in the Daily Worker that the poetry of the left was ‘pictureless, unhuman, [un]dramatic’ by comparison with T.S. Eliot. An early poem, ‘In a Coffee Pot’, published in the first issue of Partisan Review – he was on the editorial board – describes the struggle of his generation, ‘the bright boys’, who had done everything they were told to do and yet had no jobs, no future:

The afternoon will see us in the park
With pigeons and our feet in peanut shells.
We pick a bench apart. We brood
And count the twelve and thirteen tower bells.
What shall we do? Turn on the gas?
Jump a bridge? Boxcar west?
It’s all the same there’s nothing anywhere
A million guys are sitting on their ass

Hayes wanted ‘to create a realistic, representative experience of my generation, a generation which is a decisive factor in the growth of revolutionary consciousness’. A chance encounter with the composer Earl Robinson at Camp Unity in the summer of 1936 led to his poem about the execution of the activist Joe Hill becoming an anthem of the labour movement (‘I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night/Alive as you or me/Says I, But Joe, you’re ten years dead/I never died, says he’). After the Moscow Trials began, Hayes felt that the American left should be more critical of Stalin, urging his Partisan Review colleague Kenneth Fearing to visit the Soviet Union and give him a report he could trust: ‘I made a political blind date and maybe the dame ain’t nothing like she sounded over the phone.’

In 1943, aged 32, he was drafted to Rome on what he called ‘a military scholarship’ extended to him by the War Department and joined the Special Services – which provided entertainment to the troops. Italy, despite the deprivations of war, was exhilarating. He learned Italian and made friends with a group of screenwriters that included Klaus Mann, Fellini and Roberto Rossellini. Between shifts showing soldiers round the museums, they would work on movie scripts at black-market trattorias. By some accounts, Hayes collaborated on the screenplay of Bicycle Thieves and he certainly wrote one section of the screenplay for Rossellini’s Paisá (1946), a neorealist film about the Italian campaign told in six vignettes, which earned him an Oscar nomination. ‘Its basic theme,’ Hayes wrote in the New York Times, ‘is the relationship between a native population and a foreign soldiery.’

His first novel, All Thy Conquests (1946), was on the same theme. He developed his episode in Paisá, about the unhappy arrangement between a GI and an Italian woman, into another book, The Girl on the Via Flaminia (1949). Told in the third person, and favouring direct speech over the free indirect discourse that would characterise his later prose, it deals with Rome after its liberation, when British, American, Canadian, French, Polish and Palestinian soldiers continued to occupy the city, and Italians starved and went without work. He adapted it for the stage and then worked on the screenplay (the film starred Kirk Douglas and Dany Robin).

When Hayes returned to the US, he began a new life as a member of the American middle class. A hatchet job on Eugene Lyons, whose book The Red Decade criticised the infatuation of American intellectuals with Stalin in the 1930s, was the final sign of any political engagement. In 1947, his novel Shadow of Heaven was published, telling the story of a burned-out labour organiser called Harry Oberon in a Pennsylvanian mining town. (There is only one publicly available copy in the UK, in Sussex University Library.) Oberon says his generation has

not been a lucky one. It had pitied itself … It had been a generation that had somehow never had the opportunity to become men. It had remained a generation of violent boys. The boys had made terrible efforts to become men and they had died in Spain trying to become men and had violently attacked their own society in their effort to become men … They did not know whether the war which they had expected had fulfilled the meaning of their lives or had contracted every meaning their lives had ever had.

The plot hinges on the attempt of a wealthy industrialist to ruin Oberon by bribing his ex-girlfriend to say he raped her. In a strange way Oberon accepts this – ‘I used you and I insulted you and I made you wait on me and finally I walked out on you’ – and when she says she won’t betray him if he comes back to her, he refuses. Before she can act, however, they go for a drive that results in her death (it’s presented as an accident, but he’s driving). Unconscious, he dreams of walking down Market Street, looking through the shop windows. ‘That refrigerator was a dream of a refrigerator,’ he thinks, ‘and those shoes, with the incredible heels … Now the commodity he had thought he had come to sell on Market Street was truth. But truth, to be sold, had to compete with the other things … with the convenience, the gadget, the decoration, the bauble, the necessity.’ Oberon is out of sync in the society he lives in. Still in a coma, he has an epiphany: ‘I have never believed in anybody’s reality but my own and what I thought was the truth was perhaps only the reality of my own feelings.’

In Love (1953) and My Face for the World to See (1958) take this revelation as their theme: both are long novellas about doomed romances, told in the first person and written when Hayes was shuttling between New York, where his wife lived and where he wrote his fiction, and California, where he wrote screenplays for the Hollywood studios. The narrator of In Love describes the way in which

hating the violent dispossession of myself which love brought on, I would wish to be elsewhere; and feeling me withdraw from her, she would ask (as I would ask when I felt her withdraw) what I was thinking of, and I would reply that I was not thinking of anything; but those fleeting resolutions I would make, as I lay in the darkness, to live differently, or those desires I’d experience for another sort of life, were absurd and untrue, for no sooner would I leave her and find myself ideally alone than I would begin longing for her again.

Such ambivalence had vanished by 1968, when The End of Me (another novella) and Just before the Divorce (a collection of poems) were published: both are woman-hating and self-parodying. In the title poem of Just before the Divorce, a man fantasises about raping and killing his wife, who has ‘middle-class desires’. He ‘hangs her perfect breasts from the attic rafter./A final shot –/dead, he grins at a twitching twat’. In his useful study of the US literary left, Exiles from a Future Time (2002), Alan Wald argues that Hayes’s ‘bitter meditations on class privilege’ had been transmuted into ‘untrammelled and misogynous violence’.

This may have played a part in Hayes’s disappearance from public view; certainly his dislike of self-promotion didn’t help. But in the 1950s his unsentimental prose was widely admired – especially in Britain. Angus Wilson, Julian Maclaren-Ross and Francis Wyndham all praised him, as did Elizabeth Bowen, who described In Love as a ‘little masterpiece’. One by one his books fell out of print, until the reissue last year of In Love, My Face for the World to See and The Girl on the Via Flaminia (and in the US a few years earlier by New York Review Books). The authors of the introductions to these American editions acknowledge his taut and sometimes very beautiful sentences, the noirish atmosphere of his Hollywood, but they tend not to examine what animated his work: the false accusers; the double-dealing lovers; the disturbed, out-of-work actresses; the girlfriend who lies about rapes and abortions; the woman who drives a man into the priesthood. ‘I thought, suddenly,’ the narrator of In Love tells us, as he walks through New York City after learning his ex-lover has returned to the man she left him for,

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 … and that for each of these women there was an absolute conviction that the universe was arranged for only one end: her in bed.

‘A woman like that,’ the narrator of Shadow of Heaven thinks, ‘could make him real to himself.’ For Hayes’s cynical narrators, desperate women provide a thrill, introduce an element of chaos. For Hayes himself, they serve as a foil for his protagonists’ hidden pain. My Face for the World to See was published in 1958 when Hayes was 47. The unnamed narrator is a Hollywood screenwriter recounting the events of a short, traumatic affair. One night, avoiding the noise at a beach party by watching ‘the lights of some delayed ship moving slowly south’, he witnesses a young woman, an unsuccessful actress – also unnamed – walking into the ocean in an apparent suicide attempt. After some amusement at her struggle with the undertow, he realises she’s gone under and runs into the water to save her life.

The screenwriter and the actress fall into an affair. He’s unhappily married, with a wife in New York; she’s pretty and 12 years younger than him. A misanthrope who doesn’t want to be eaten up by LA society – ‘my head, on a platter at La Rue’s; my kidneys, in a pie, at Chasen’s’ – the screenwriter spends his nights unwillingly listening to the noises made by the people in his building, their ‘ice cubes clinking, the exhausts of their cars, or, late at night, a more or less casual goddamn as somebody broke something’. Like a number of Hayes’s narrators, he is obsessed with rugs (they absorb the noise made by upstairs neighbours). The actress talks to him about her analyst, her lack of prospects, his wife, while he supplies dry, deflating quips. In Hollywood everyone wears a ‘face for all the world to see’ and the narrator is disenchanted with it:

At this moment, the town was full of people lying in bed thinking with an intense, an inexhaustible, an almost raging passion of becoming famous if they weren’t already famous, and even more famous if they were; or of becoming wealthy if they weren’t already wealthy, or wealthier if they were; or powerful if they weren’t powerful now, and more powerful if they already were. There were times when the intensity with which they wanted these things impressed me. There was even, at times, a certain legitimacy to these desires. But it seemed to me, or at least it had seemed to me in the few years I had been coming and going from this town, that there was something finally ludicrous, finally unimpressive about even the people who had all the things so coveted by all the people who did not have them.

He is also disenchanted with the young actress: her aspirations and delusions are no more convincing to him because they are hers. He wonders continually if her suffering is real or a collection of mannerisms, yet he’s fascinated by the fact that she really was prepared to drown herself. Hayes enumerates her trials at the hands of ‘professional men’, the producers and directors who want ‘girls of good character and … also girls for whom all the men wanted to buy drinks. She understood that this was in a way a complex test.’ But the narrator is unsympathetic: ‘Why is it that even now I don’t quite believe her?’ His own success – he earns ‘a salary somewhat in excess of what they paid an aged vice-president of a respectable bank’ – has led him to lose interest in ‘futile rebellions … now I fought, or it seemed to me I was fighting, a much sounder although more limited and circumspect war: it consisted mostly of careful withdrawals, of very conscious retreats.’

*

Soon his wife writes from New York to say her father has died and she is coming to visit. On their last night together, the actress, vengeful, calls out the screenwriter’s cynicism, complaining that he sees only ‘the big sameness’. Trying to impress on him the depth and authenticity of her abjection, she confesses to having molested a child, accuses him of having spied on her and locks herself in the bathroom, where she slashes her wrists. The narrator and his friend Charlie, a fixer, take her body to her own apartment (‘Home’s for suicides,’ Charlie says) and call her analyst. As soon as they see him arrive, they head off to show their faces at Romanoff’s, the famous Beverly Hills restaurant.

Where My Face for the World to See documents an absence of feeling, In Love gives us feelings in excess. Power, the abuse of it, and the emotions it creates masquerade as ‘love’. Rachel Cusk claimed that the book gives ‘an amazingly precise representation of what the world looks like if there’s no love in it’. The story is recounted to a woman at a bar: the narrator, again unnamed, describes another woman, with whom he had a half-hearted liaison only to realise how much he loved her, or perhaps just depended on her, after she begins an affair with a rich businessman. Even retrospectively his true feelings elude him:

We were apparently in love. We looked as much like lovers as lovers can look; and if I insist now that somehow, somewhere, a lie of a kind existed, a pretence of a kind, that somewhere within us our most violent protestations echoed a bit ironically, and that, full fathom five, another motive lay for all we did and all we said, it may be only that like a woman after childbirth we can never restore for ourselves the reality of pain, it is impossible to believe that it was we who screamed so in the ward or clawed so at the bedsheets or such sweats were ever on our foreheads, and that too much feeling, finally, makes us experience a sensation of unreality as acute as never having felt at all.

At its best, Hayes’s writing has magnificent rhythms, modulations, qualifications. He is careful to position his characters, like a film director – ‘we were sitting on the terrace of the cafeteria in the zoo in Central Park, and a lion was roaring’; ‘we were eating in a small Italian restaurant off Sixth Avenue and I had spilled some red wine’ – though these simple descriptions of place can become a way of manipulating the reader. We think we are on firm ground but the distinction between author and narrator, between neutral fact and paranoid imagination, is often elided: ‘Tiny and high up, her windows faced towards a large office building, and there were always eyes, distantly lascivious, which lifted hopefully from desks or machines or shipping-room tables whenever her curtains stirred.’ His narrators are not above exaggeration. Bathroom cabinets contain an ‘infinite number’ of bottles; oceans are ‘demonstrably bottomless’.

After he wrote My Face for the World to See Hayes decided, counterintuitively, to move permanently to Los Angeles, the city he had described as looking ‘as hell might with a good electrician’. In 1960 a book of three short stories, The Temptation of Don Volpi, appeared, dedicated to his new wife. Wald thinks they met on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, for which Hayes wrote teleplays and doctored scripts after his film work dried up. (According to Mel Brooks, who worked with Hayes at Columbia, one day they returned from lunch to find that Hayes’s name had been removed from the wall outside his office.) In a novel published in 1968, The End of Me, Hayes’s disillusionment is projected onto the main character, Asher, a failing screenwriter. Asher tells a joke about a man who goes into a butcher’s shop and sees two signs. One reads ‘writers’ brains: 19 cents a pound’; the other: ‘producers’ brains: 79 cents a pound’:

‘Now you are supposed to ask me,’ I said patiently, ‘why producers’ brains cost 79 cents a pound and writers’ brains cost 19 cents a pound?’ … “Well,” the butcher said, “do you know how many producers you have to kill to get a pound of brains?”’

Hayes’s more light-hearted final novel, The Stockbroker, the Bitter Young Man and the Beautiful Girl, came out in 1973. As Wald notes, he ‘passed through the tumultuous 1960s rebellion of youth against the Vietnam War and racial oppression without registering the slightest empathy or re-radicalisation … [he] never seems to be able to go beyond the vivid dramatisation of his own narcissism.’ A year before his death in 1985, the folklorist Archie Green asked him for a comment on ‘I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night’. Hayes hung up the phone.