Saturday, February 10, 2018

All Thy Conquests by Alfred Hayes

Alfred Hayes is perhaps best known as the author of The Girl on the Via Flaminia which I previously discussed. For related comments about post-WWII literature, also see my blog entries about The Glory Jumpers by Delano Stagg and The Cannibal by John Hawkes. All Thy Conquests was published in 1946, and shown here is the 1958 Pyramid paperback. All Thy Conquests is a real gem, forgotten in the wake of Hemingway and Steinbeck, but a novel that resonates with a power equal to that of any other World War II novel. Interestingly enough, Hemingway never wrote a great novel about WWII. A Farewell to Arms is a First World War novel, and For Whom the Bell Tolls takes place during the Spanish Civil War. His lone WWII novel, Across the River and Into the Trees, is widely dismissed as a weak effort. Steinbeck’s major contribution was his great novel, The Moon is Down. It’s the influence that Hemingway and Steinbeck had on a generation of writers who survived the war that’s important to remember. I would argue that All Thy Conquests by Alfred Hayes belongs alongside The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer, The Young Lions by Irwin Shaw, and From Here to Eternity by James Jones as one of the great novels of World War II. All Thy Conquests is structured with chapters alternating between locations and different characters’ point of view, and I suspect that Hayes was playing with the idea of absurdity wherein the literature proposes that the human condition is essentially absurd. Similar to Franz Kafka’s The Trial, the violent anti-Fascist movement that swept Italy after the fall of Mussolini is detailed with the ongoing trial of a pro-Fascist. On page 45 Hayes encapsulates the Italian dilemma; “We are no longer religious; we are only political.” Fascism, it appears, was acceptable until the Allied liberation of Rome rendered it archaic. Those that had publicly embraced Mussolini’s policies are subject to interrogation and possibly execution. Alfred Hayes doesn’t shy away from slapping the reader in the face with his themes up font. The opposition isn’t limited to dismissing fascism. His prose is bright but the words are carefully chosen. Hayes, who lived and worked in Italy as a screenwriter after the war, understood the effects of a corrupt political machine on the Italian people: “…the disenchantment with the experience of anti-fascism, has made the people suspicious of all parties, all organizations. We are tired of them…tired of the professionals who run them for their own profit, tired of tragedies of power and the comedies of factionalism. The Italian soul is an exhausted soul; a soul which has been seduced, betrayed, and kicked out into the streets to whore.” (P.48) This “Literature of the Absurd” as it is known by the literati, makes sense when you consider that Hayes worked on several notable Italian cinema masterpieces, including Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief. His American television work included Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone and Mannix, among others. Alfred Hayes is a force to be reckoned with, albeit a relatively unknown one. All Thy Conquests is a fine novel, but thick with ideas, almost overflowing with images and motifs. The lurid paperback cover hints at a simpler approach, perhaps focusing on the sex act, which is a blunt moment of pressing a woman against a wall, lifting her skirt, and pleasuring one’s self. Hardly romantic. Characters parade in and out of the various scenes, like a series of unrelated triptych’s that once viewed, are connected by common images and scenes, hence transforming into a mosaic. Thought provoking; unrelenting in its brutal reality, passionately written, All Thy Conquests is a compelling forgotten book.

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