By M. J. Moore
Disillusion. Confusion. Inexplicable grief. All three leitmotifs dominate All Thy Conquests by London-born Alfred Hayes, who became a naturalized American and whose poems, novels, and screenplays retain their power. Although now out of print, it’s worth searching libraries or other resources for this remarkable novel.
Published in 1946, two years after Rome was the first Axis capital to fall, Hayes’s debut novel (yes, he was with the U.S. Army during the Italian Campaign) evokes the agonized disarray of Italian civilian life, the feckless omnipotence of the occupying Allies, and overlapping incidents of broken dreams amid much relentless yearning.
Instant acclaim from The New Yorker proclaimed in 1946: “The author, in a beautifully written, expertly constructed novel, illuminates . . . the dead fruit of victory . . . with cruel brilliance,” deeming All Thy Conquests to be “an admirably unpretentious first novel that shows a sharp talent.”
And John Hersey (Hiroshima, etc.) averred that “Mr. Hayes has written a kind of impression of failure—a many-toned failure: Failure to purge the Fascists or their ideas; failure to live up in personal terms to the demands of democracy.”
Even CBS radio chimed in: “It may shed a little light on why the peace hasn’t set in solid.”
That idea, voiced at the Cold War’s dawn, dovetails with the novel’s epigram, a line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar lending the novel its title: “Are all thy conquests, glories, triumphs, spoils / Shrunk to this small measure?”
Hardly the stuff of big parades, flag waving, swaggering G.I. Joes, and all the other Hollywood clichés that have helped Americans (and the world at large) cultivate a thoroughly skewed, idiotic, inaccurate picture of the way things were in 1944 and 1945.
Contrary to the Yanks as Saviors stereotype perfected on movie soundstages and equally contrary to the America the Disaster riffs patented by the Howard Zinn-Noam Chomsky-Gore Vidal school of thought, novelist Alfred Hayes offers in All Thy Conquests a panorama of exhausted, distressed personae (European and American alike), all of whom remain disoriented by their recent shared crucible.
Actually, they’re not just disoriented or even discombobulated.
As noted in The Saturday Review of Literature, the women and men in All Thy Conquests illustrate “the demoralization that beset conquered and conqueror alike.” One gleans this in the novel’s opening paragraph, which echoes “The Waste Land” of T.S. Eliot (“I had not thought that death had undone so many . . .”) with these words: So many people and the sun so bright. One would not have thought there would be so many people. So many of them, from all the quarters of the city, and the sun on the stone angels of the bridge, the sun on the avenging Michael above the Castel Sant’ Angelo . . .
When the novel first appeared and during its time of tremendous popularity in the late 1940s, debates intensified: Had the Allies created merely another phase in a wretched “conquered and conqueror” story? Or, were the Allies “liberators”?
The novelists who published soon after the war’s end and who set their narratives in the midst of the Italian Campaign concurred. The Allies were both liberators and conquerors. Anything was better than the German occupation, but in the wake of the 20-months-long Italian Campaign (which raged from Salerno in the south to the Po Valley up north, between September 1943 and May 1945), paradox abounded.
At that time (and for several years after the war), the centrality of the Italian Campaign to the war’s history was common knowledge. Newsreels, radio reports, magazine photo-essays, and dozens of columns filed by Ernie Pyle had made Salerno, Naples, San Pietro, Anzio, Monte Cassino and Rome familiar.
So familiar that after the war, readers were not befuddled by the slew of new writers who placed their war novels in Italian milieus.
But whereas John Hersey’s A Bell for Adano (set in Sicily and published before the war’s end) offered a hopeful, poignant sense of reconciliation and shared affections, there were reams of corruption, unethical bursts of bad behavior, and sheer misery informing The Gallery by John Horne Burns (in which Allied-occupied Naples is a grim vortex); and much the same can be found in Casualty and The Wolf That Fed Us by Robert Lowry.
And yet, even without a sturdy frame of reference for many aspects of the Italian Campaign, the narrative strength and the poetic flourishes of Alfred Hayes’s All Thy Conquests manage to prevail. The nine-month Nazi occupation casts a long shadow:
Nine months we lived under them.
Do you know what it was like the night of the liberation? I went out into the street, not daring to believe that our misery had come to an end, and there, in front of Rompoldi’s, I saw, sitting on a curb outside the café, two soldati Americani.
Two young ones, very tired, with guns.
I would have, if I were not so shy, kissed them. But I was polite and inquired if there was something I could do to help them.
Yes, said the older of the two: when does this joint open?
It was three o’clock in the morning.
At nine, I replied.
Okay, said the older of the two: we’ll wait.
That was four months ago.
Having begun his writing career as a poet (a first volume, The Big Time, was published in 1944), it remains apparent on each page of his first novel that Hayes transferred to fiction not just his love of language and powers of observation, but also astute insights about the inner lives of those for whom he bears witness.
The word “witness” is no misnomer. The centerpiece of All Thy Conquests is a trial that occurred in Rome; a trial that crystallized the local sense of shock and horror that unfolded in the aftermath of the infamous Nazi massacre of 335 Italian civilians in the Ardeatine Caves on March 24, 1944. It was a Hitler-ordered German reprisal in response to a Partisan attack one day earlier, and a special effort was made to include as many Italian Jews as possible in the round up.
It’s now yet another forgotten story from a part of the war that’s scarcely recalled (the Allied campaigns in North Africa and Italy were long ago consigned to oblivion, compared to the perennial media focus on Normandy anniversaries and Battle of the Bulge highlights).
But, in All Thy Conquests, that trial is intermittently fictionalized. The trial is part of a mosaic. That’s why All Thy Conquests remains mesmerizing. Our sense of history may be myopic, but Hayes’s novel is neither a traditional war novel nor a historical novel presuming any knowledge of details.
It is a poet’s work of prose and in its ever-shifting points of view in rotating chapters titled “Chorus,” “The Trial,” “Giorgio,” “Harry,” “The Marchese,” “Carla,” “Pollard,” “The Prosecution,” “The Liberated City [parts I, II and III],” “The Defense,” and “The Sentence” (with recurring chapters named after the person whose name indicates that chapter’s perspective), it emerges as a modern work of wartime mythology.
It was very late. On the streets there were only drunken soldiers, and the carabinieri, armed, and in patrols of three, guarded the darker alleys. The military vehicles swept the city abruptly with their headlights. The shops were all shuttered. Maddalena would again worry, Giorgio knew, and it was time that he went home, and yet he could not go home again. It was a day that would never end for him. He had gone to Mario La Pina and he had humiliated himself. He had begged for his old job. But they had thrown him out of the Tivoli . . . His old life had finished and there was no new one to take its place. Let Maddalena worry; at least, here, in the darkness, there were others like himself.
Recently, two other Alfred Hayes novels (In Love and My Face for the World to See) were reissued as NYRB Classics. Let’s hope the same fate awaits All Thy Conquests.