Noncombatants

By CHARLES TAYLOR  |  April 10, 2007

In The Slaves of Solitude Hamilton abjures despair in favor of sharpness. The duels between Miss Roach and Mr. Thwaites, the old duffer who holds forth at each meal and makes Miss Roach the special object of his wheedling ridicule, are written with the verbal precision you might find in a comedy of manners, and with the heightened psychological and physical apprehension you might find in the beginning stages of a migraine. Thwaites — Hamilton’s exemplar of middle-class Britons who suspect fascism might not be such a bad thing, but are forced to become grudging patriots when England goes to war against Germany — is a brilliant creation, the type of needling blowhard who exists in every era, masking his unbearableness with an air of offended respectability.

The Slaves of Solitude follows Miss Roach as her friendship with a young German woman who comes to reside in her boarding house turns into a silent and hostile estrangement, and as her almost-romance with a callow, clumsy American lieutenant comes to represent how little she’s settled for. Written at a time when society (though not Hamilton) would consider a single woman of 39 an old maid, The Slaves of Solitude brings her to a moment of temporary peace, where the horrors of the end of war still lie ahead but her own solitude seems less a curse than a respite. When a writer as capable of saddened misanthropy and as unafraid of moral darkness as Hamilton pulls off a lull in the battle as convincing as this one, you can only feel gratitude.

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SPOILS OF WAR: Hayes charts an incipient love story in which every flare of passion is doused by something even more passionate.
In The Girl in the Via Flaminia, Alfred Hayes transfers all the conflicts to the most intimate of battlegrounds. Robert, the American GI at the center of the novel who finds himself in Rome toward the end of the war, is both liberator and conqueror. Were he only the latter, he’d still be subject to the embarrassed resentment people feel toward the forces that save their countries when they can’t themselves. Tired of the whores available to him on the Via Veneto, he arranges to enter a pretend “marriage” with Lisa, a beautiful young woman who has never sold herself before.

There would be nothing unusual about the novel if Hayes (a novelist and screenwriter who did uncredited work on De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and Rossellini’s Paisan) were merely noting the tenderness possible between prostitutes and their customers. What he’s done here is chart an incipient love story in which every flare of passion is doused by something even more passionate — Lisa’s shame, which she turns outward, expressing contempt instead of the gratitude she believes the Allies expect. She cannot extricate her country’s weakness from her own, even though there’s no swagger in Robert, no inclination to treat Lisa as one of the spoils of war. This passage details Lisa’s waking in the room she has spent the night with Robert:

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