Review: My Face for the World to See by Alfred Hayes

Book cover of the NYRB edition of My Face for the World to See

Cover for the NYRB edition of My Face for the World to See

The narrator of Alfred Hayes’ novel works in Hollywood. That is all we know. He is semi-separated from his wife; he lives alone for months at a time in L.A. and for months in New York with his wife, though his marriage, from his perspective,  is a failed and sad relationship.

In fact, the narrator finds his life and work as a failure. He sees no value in the work he does, although, as he says, the studio pays him handsomely. (He states that he is a “writher” rather than a “writer.”) He condescendingly (and somewhat snobbishly) observes the people around him, their vanities and egos, their manipulating and positioning, their theatrics and ambitions.

At a party one night, the narrator–bored with this gathering at an expensive beach house–steps outside for a smoke and sees a young woman walk into the sea. When she goes under, he rescues her and resuscitates her. And thus begins a relationship that he did not want to happen. That the woman is disturbed is revealed gradually, and she is much more than simply a young girl with unrealized Hollywood dreams.

Initially, it is her cynicism towards the business, towards love and towards life that draws him to her, that allows himself to give in to what he is also trying to hold back from. And as the two become more closely entwined–and as more of her anxieties are displayed–it becomes apparent that the two of them are very similar, a realization that is devastating to the narrator. In truth, it may be that it is the narrator whose face is now “for the world to see.”

The narrator’s deliberate and reflective thinking, his cool, detached observations, his knowing emotional cover-up, all work to create a modern anti-hero, an existentialist who is “forced” to live and work in a world that celebrates the superficial and is built basically on the dissemination of lies. It is a taut and harrowing read, a tale of self-discovery, acceptance, and angst.

My Face for the World to See was originally published in 1958. At the time, Hayes was more known as a scriptwriter. He had twice been nominated for an Oscar, had written successful screenplays for films directed by Fritz Lang, John Huston, and Fred Zinnemann, and also wrote many pieces for television including Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone.  As a novelist, he was most celebrated for The Girl on the Via Flaminia,  and as a poet, for “Joe Hill” which was later put to music and became an anthem for workers’ rights. (Joan Baez famously sang it at Woodstock. See below.)

The New York Review of Books re-issued My Face for the World to See in 2013, with an introduction by the film critic, David Thomson.  But this novel is by no means a Hollywood novel. Apart from the brief description of the initial party where the narrator rescues the suicidal young woman, there is no glamor, no behind the scenes peeks, no tabloid scandals. There is simply a couple of apartments and the narrator’s self-examination and his lover’s revealed past.  It is discrete yet raw, fast-paced yet thoughtful.  It is memorable novel that deserves this re-issue.

And here’s a treat. A sweetly innocent Joan Baez singing Alfred Hayes’ “Joe Hill” at Woodstock. Enjoy:

 

Beware of Maya: Illusion, Cary Grant, Wes Anderson and Owen in Paris

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Towards the end of Wes Anderson’s latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, the elderly Moustafa (played by F. Murray Abrahams) says this about his mentor, the concierge M. Gustav H.:

“His world had vanished long before he entered it. But he sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.”

And this reminded me of Cary Grant.

I saw three movies this week. And oddly–and not purposefully– they dovetailed into a similar theme.  I was sick as a dog in the beginning of the week and so, lazing around, I  watched two films on television.

The first was To Catch a Thief.  How gloriously campy it now seems.  Cary Grant’s ascots alone are only outdone by the sweet innuendos that he and Grace Kelly ad-libbed with Hitchcock’s permission.

Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief

Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief

It is all pure fantasy. Pure illusion.

One time, when Cary Grant was told by an interviewer that countless men would love to be “like Cary Grant,” he replied that so would he.  For he knew it was all illusion: the sophisticated banter, the artless seductions, the calm equanimity.  It was his job, being Cary Grant.  In the end, Grant ultimately left the movie business when the illusion gave way to reality. His type of character–as unreal as it was–was no longer in fashion in the gritty, realism of modern cinema.

A few days later I watched Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. The entire movie is built on illusion, one that we all suffer from. The plot deals with the idea that we all believe that an earlier time was more exciting, more inspiring, more fulfilling.  The fallacy of the belief is wonderfully depicted, as Owen Wilson’s character–Gil Pender–returns to the 1920s and falls in love with a beautiful woman whose dream is to live in the 1890s. Even in the presence of his literary and artistic idols, Wilson’s character comes to realize that the past is painted with gold dust and that our image of that past is greatly unreal.

penderhemingwaystein

Owen Wilson with Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway and Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein.

And in the end, it is all illusion. Many of us believe that another time was better than the one we live in. And some believe that, if only, they had been born at a different time their lives would be so much different–and better. (At this point read, E. A. Robinson’s poem “Miniver Cheevy” which is referenced in the film as well.)

And so, I finally go out and go to the movies and I see Wes Anderson’s The Budapest Grand Hotel.  It is a beautiful movie to look at and the performances of Ralph Fiennes and his young protege, Tony Revolori, are extraordinary.  But it too is all illusion. The world it describes is long gone, if it ever existed at all. And the heroism of the film–if it can be called such–is that Fiennes’ character maintains the illusion that that world still exists, still matters. And we are even more removed from it than he.

And after all that is what movie making is about.  Sixty years ago, Cary Grant left movie making because he believed the magic had left, that hard-nosed grittiness had blown the magic away.

But that is not the case.  Most of the time, we still go to the movies for the magic. Whether it is the unreal pleasures of the moneyed classes in Monte Carlo or the time-tripping adventures of a sincere romantic in Paris, the movies still provide a good dollop of magic. And in The Grand Budapest Hotel all that magic comes full circle. For not only is the set and the landscape and the costumes and the cartoonish villainy not part of our real world, but even the characters themselves are clinging to an illusion, to a world that has longed passed, but which in our “Golden Age” memories is a thing of refinement, class and excitement…more civilized world than the one we know.