JUDY KRAVIS

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Sunday, 14 October 2018

Halfway through The Girl on the Via Flamina by Alfred Hayes, the eponymous girl reminds the narrator that she is just a girl, an Italian girl the narrator met in the war, an adventure, and one day she'll be a story he'll tell his fiancée.
The one you pretend not to have. It will amuse her when you are in bed together. Your story about the Lisa you met in Rome. ....  It will be very funny, she said. How once in Rome during the war you lived with an Italian girl because she was . . . unlucky.
At first I found the book dull and simple, with screenplay detail down to the tassels on shoes and the shine on puttees. Like the writing of Ernest Hemingway but stripped of swagger and then turned inside out. The back cover blurb uses words like spare and searing, as if it were a fifties film. You have to read it in black and white, except for the bedspread, which is red. Alfred Hayes did become a screenwriter, after the war, in Italy and then in America. His narrator is a man in a war, seven thousand miles from home. She was hungry, I was lonely, that's the story, he says, pitching it to himself. This is far from a romance, though on maybe three pages it almost becomes one; and the impossibility of it can be more poignant than the real thing. Winter in Rome in 1944 is far from almost everything, including the war. To live inside the war, with the war outside, in the hills, in the next country, and the one after that, is perhaps worse than fighting, there is time to know what you don't have.
One lived peculiarly, and only at odd moments did the actual peculiarity of one's own life become altogether clear.
The narrator's state of mind is there in the author photo on the back cover of the book, a weary vulnerability inside an American haircut, learned in Italy in World War Two, and in Whitechapel, where he lived until he was three, when his family, immigrants already, moved to America.

By the time I reached the end of the book I wanted to read it again, to sense how the writing renders that peculiar life in wartime Rome, with allies everywhere, bearing chocolate and condensed milk, and hunger everywhere else, partisans in the hills and home embedded in the fruitcake your mother sent, though you didn't like fruitcake. On the first read I wondered how he'd manage the ending, which was bound to leave everyone lonelier than before, and when it came, as a single page chapter with a three-word final paragraph, I was impressed, and started the book again to see how he'd got there.

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