I spotted that Lizzy was hosting an NYRB fortnight rather late in the actual fortnight, but I started reading this slim volume on the last day, so it counts in my book!
My Face For the World to See by Alfred Hayes
Hayes, who was born in London but emigrated to the US as a child, first came to attention as a poet before WWII. He served in Italy and stayed on to contribute to scripts for some classic Italian movies such as The Bicycle Thief. From the late 1940s on, he worked in Hollywood as a scriptwriter, and produced a handful of novels of which this is one, published in 1958.
This novella begins at the end of a party at a beach-house; the nameless narrator is watching a girl walk in the sea:
The girl wavered a little now, with the cap gone and the cocktail glass at sea, and then she began to walk deeper into the ocean. She was pushing out into the water now, and she evidently wasn’t, as I had thought, wading. A big breaker came in and she went under. She really went under. I shouted something and jumped off the porch.
He rescues the young woman, whom he’d recognised from a group of young wannabe actresses at the party. Checks she’s okay and goes home to the apartment he rents when he’s working in Hollywood. He thinks of his wife, back in New York:
She was at a distance. The distance was in itself beneficial. I supposed I was being again uncharitable. She was what she was: I was what I was. That, when you came down to it, was the most intolerable thing of all. If only she weren’t, now and then, what she was, always. If she’d let up a little of knock it off a little or hang it out for a good airing once in a little while. God, marriage. No: it wasn’t marriage. There wasn’t, even on close examination, any other available institution you could substitute. There seemed to be nothing but marriage, when you thought of it, and when you thought of it, my God, was that all there was? That, and raising a family. That, and earning a living. That, and calling the undertaker.
So he’s unhappily married, and stays that way because they’ve a kid back in New York. We get the hint that when he’s in L.A. he often plays away, casually dating So when the girl calls to thank him, he agrees to take her out to dinner. He arrives at her bedsit to pick her up:
She hadn’t any money: that was fairly obvious. I’d wandered into an “unsuccessful” life again.
They fall into an uneasy relationship, despite his misgivings about the girl’s mental health – she is totally up front in that she’s seeing a shrink, Dr Ritter, whom she thinks highly of, but doesn’t want him to know about her recent suicide attempt. He worries about how she’ll be when he has to
dump her to go back to New York. Neither of them can help themselves. He is seeking refuge from a now loveless marriage, and although he is paid well, his work has become mundane too. She has to suffer constant rejection as she repeatedly fails to get her big break in the movies. Their losing themselves in each other is inevitable, even if they would like to be left alone.
Intriguingly, Hayes never gives names to either of them: are they not worth naming? Rather, naming would set their character for us, and they would then play a role for the reader. Remaining unnamed, the truth of this doomed romance is laid bare on the page. Hayes’s narrator is brutally honest with his thoughts, sometimes they tumble out of him in long paragraphs of internal dialogue with lots of colons. This novella certainly has the power to shock and at just over 130 pages, it can be read in one session, although you may need a breather from its intensity. It’s also claustrophobic, mostly taking part in the protagonist’s apartments with only short forays out elsewhere.
This is accomplished writing, or ‘writhing’ as David Thomson tells us Hayes called it. A starkly beautiful novella of the hard truth about relationships. (9/10)
Source: From the TBR
Alfred Hayes, My Face for the World to See (1958). NYRB Paperback, 152 pages.
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