Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Girl on the Via Flaminia by Alfred Hayes

Shown here is the 1950 Pocket Book paperback, listed as # 666 on the upper-right cover at the logo. It’s an actual pocket size and the cover painting is credited to John Northcross. On the first interior page an advertising blurb includes a quote by author Kenneth Fearing referring to The Girl on the Via Flaminia as “A timeless story, simple, vivid, dramatic.” Kenneth Fearing is forgotten now, too, although he lives forever on my bookcase in the poetry section. I’m confident that Alfred Hayes is unknown to most of you. In fact, I might never have encountered Alfred Hayes and this book if not for a film titled Act of Love and starring Kirk Douglas who turned 100 years old a few weeks ago. I’ve met Kirk Douglas twice and I am a fan. Act of Love, however, gets little attention. Released in 1953, Act of Love was based upon The Girl on the Via Flaminia. The are several other books bearing that title that are often confused with the Kirk Douglas film, especial An Act of Love by Ira Wolfert. To further confuse matters, Act of Love changes the location from Rome, Italy to Paris, France. Act of Love is an excellent film, one of Douglas’ best early films. The screenplay is credited to Joseph Kessel and Irwin Shaw, and Shaw himself was a powerhouse writer, and another of my favorites. The trivia keeps piling up here, but please be patient. In addition to the location, there are notable differences between the novel and the film. The film has perhaps one of the best surprise endings in a piece of dialogue spoken by Douglas, whereas the novel’s ending is ambiguous.  The Girl on the Via Flaminia is quite good. Hayes wrote in a clipped style that at times comes off as a Hemingway pastiche. Hemingway’s influence on post-war literature is something I’ve mentioned before. The market was glutted with novels about soldiers, and Alfred Hayes wrote another fine one titled All Thy Conquests which I’ll cover soon. The Girl on the Via Flaminia is about a soldier named Robert who meets and falls in love with Lisa in Rome during the occupation. Lisa was played by the lovely French actress Dany Robin in the film. The prose is never lush, and perhaps simplistic to the point of becoming mediocre. Hayes is redeemed by his intelligence. At the heart of the story lies this idea that Robert is a victim of circumstances that he can’t overcome, and so is Lisa. Robert and Lisa are involved, but in some way she is also distant from him. Robert is trying to understand Lisa and the world she lives in. When he looks at her mother, he thinks: “She stands there, Robert thought, like a collection of bad knowledge.” The mother tells Robert that he is a soldier and soldiers are always innocent, and implies the girls a soldier encounters are never innocent. Robert questions himself: “How do I know who these people are? How do I know what she is? How do I know I’m not being taken?” Alfred Hayes lived and wrote in New York and Italy, and his on-line bibliographies note his poem “I Dreamed I saw Joe Hill Last Night” later became a popular folk song by Earl Robinson. Joe Hill is the final bit of trivia linked to this disintegrating old paperback, and I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to follow the trail of American history before it’s all lost like Joe Hill's ashes on the wind.

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