More than ever, and for ever

Michael Rogin

Early in 1947 Simone de Beauvoir made her first trip to the United Sates. The Cold War was beginning and, like Sartre, Camus and the rest of their circle, she was searching for a third-camp alternative to Stalinism and American imperialism. Beauvoir was drawn to the United States for other reasons, anticipating, as she put it at the beginning of America Day by Day, the chronicle of the journey that she published the year after she returned to France, ‘a world so full, so rich, and so unexpected that I’ll have the extraordinary adventure of becoming a different me’.

Simone de Beauvoir on the road: wonderfully vivid passages report her travels by car, train, plane and Greyhound bus from New York west to Chicago and California, down through the South-West and the South, back to New York and New England. The Bowery dance hall, Niagara Falls and Grand Canyon as tourist attractions, the segregated South, the college campus – these are the springboards for her efforts to comprehend the deep structure of the American world. A left-wing Tocqueville, she is struck by the paradox of personal warmth and vitality, on the one hand, conformity and political withdrawal, on the other. Although her philosophical reflections sometimes hit the mark, often they have the effect that Charlie Chaplin’s ‘sweeping truisms’ had on her – they make the reader squirm. The pleasure comes when she throws herself into new experience, capturing the United States in all its variety at the moment of its political transformation from the Popular Front alliance of liberals and leftists to a Cold War culture.

Beauvoir felt at home in New York, but not with the New York intellectuals gathered around Partisan Review, who were the closest counterparts to her Paris circle. As she and Sartre were struggling to resist the choice they finally made, of the Soviet Union over the United States, the ex-radical New York intellectuals were choosing America. They were in sympathy with the first wave of Red Scare-mongering – the government loyalty programme, the denial of political rights to suspected Communists, the political passivity – and Beauvoir observed the signs of this scare as she travelled around the country. They were also repudiating ‘unaesthetic and superficial realism’ in American literature. It was French condescension that celebrated Hemingway, Steinbeck, Dos Passos, Richard Wright, Erskine Caldwell, Dashiel Hammett and James M. Cain, Beauvoir was told, when the United States had its own sophisticated tradition of internal, psychological exploration; she was witnessing the formation of the American Studies canon – Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, Henry James and Faulkner.

The New York intellectuals, they told Beauvoir, sought ‘a civilised literature that aims at both formal perfection and a deeper grasp of the world’. She was looking for something else, ‘the effort of writers to integrate life in its crudest form into literature’. Someone gave her the name of Nelson Algren and, as if taking revenge on Partisan Review she called him when she got to Chicago. Algren took her through the Polish neighbourhood, where he lived ‘alongside an alley full of steaming trash cans and flapping newspapers’, as she later wrote, in a two-room apartment without a bath. He introduced her to skid-row bars and the black ghetto. He brought her to a police line-up. He showed her the electric chair. ‘Because I deliberately chose one point of view, I had an intimacy with this city that I was unable to feel with New York,’ she reported on leaving Chicago. Intimacy indeed. What she did not say was that she had fallen desperately in love with the writer who gave her Chicago, that she had returned twice to see him, that he had come to New York to see her, that in identifying her Chicago guides she had divided Algren into ‘N.A.’ and ‘B.S.’ to disguise his singular role, that her Paris friends were ‘amazed’ that she wore the silver ring he had given her, that she was privately addressing him as her ‘husband’ and calling herself his ‘wife’.

‘My phantom slowly took on a bodily shape,’ Beauvoir said of the United States on the plane returning home. ‘I was happy when its heart was beating like a real human heart. Now, it’s becoming disembodied with dizzying speed.’ The American disembodiment was her own. Paris, she wrote to Algren in her first letter from that city,

seems dull, dark, and dead. Maybe it is my heart that is dead to Paris. My heart is yet in New York, at the corner of Broadway where we said good bye; it is in my Chicago home, in my own warm loving place against your loving heart ... With you pleasure was love, and now pain is love too. We must know every kind of love. We’ll know the joy of meeting again. I want it, I need it, and I’ll get it ... I am your wife for ever.

In America Day by Day she spoke of the ‘tragedy’ of the American ‘man or woman who can no longer live with a cold partner after discovering real passion in Europe’ as ‘a stereotypical story’ – as if she were not living it out in inverted form. Never Sartre’s wife and having ceased sleeping with him years before, Beauvoir (she wrote to Algren) now ended the comfortable longtime sexual liaison she had established with Sartre’s friend Jacques-Laurent Bost. She was ‘going to have to become reacquainted with France and climb back into my own skin’, the last words of America Day by Day, because she was now embarked on what she identified as the only passionate relationship of her life.

Since the publication of The Mandarins in 1954, no relationship has been less secret than this one. Dedicated ‘To Nelson Algren’ (‘To Nelson’ were the words, she told him, with which she started writing her roman à clé), the novel counterposes their Chicago love affair to the political tribulations of French Left intellectuals after the war, as Anne’s forced choice of DeBreuilh over Lewis Brogan parallels DeBreuilh’s forced break with Henri and choice of the Soviet Union over the United States. Although Beauvoir always denied (unconvincingly) that the three major French characters were stand-ins for Sartre, Camus and herself, she announced that the Chicago lover was Algren.

Even so, Beloved Chicago Man is a revelation. Simone de Beauvoir’s letters to Nelson Algren are, from beginning to end, among the most beautiful sustained pieces of writing that I have read. They begin with the long, frequent, ecstatic communications of 1947 to 1951, chronicle the terrible coming apart and then the lasting attachment of the Fifties, and wind down with the occasional warm messages of the early Sixties. The last letter, dated the same month that Harper’s published Part I of Beauvoir’s ‘A Question of Fidelity’ – excerpted from the memoir, Force of Circumstance – shows that Algren’s ‘wife for ever’ is entirely unaware of the final break-up which she had already set in motion. The love, humour and pain in these letters have an eloquence rarely found in the volumes Beauvoir wrote for publication. And certainly not in The Mandarins, which deals clumsily with the emotions so stunningly expressed in the letters. Beauvoir hides her feelings in the novel by seeming to expose them. ‘Do you feel lonely in your virgin bed, honey?’ Simone writes to Nelson. ‘Don’t forget to change the sheets when I come and sleep there. I’ll always remember you so puzzled with the sheets in your arms, when you saw me already lying in the bed, the first, first night. It seems to me I began to really love you this very minute, never to stop.’ In the novel that becomes:

‘Oh! You’re already in bed!’ Brogan said. His arms were laden with clean sheets and he looked at me questioningly. ‘I wanted to change the sheets.’ ‘It’s not necessary’ ... ‘Anne!’ The way he said it moved me deeply. He threw himself on me and for the first time I spoke his name. ‘Lewis!’

How difficult it is ‘to speak frankly, genuinely, about sex and sexual love ... in a convincing way’, Simone wrote to Nelson. ‘Maybe the best thing is to speak of it in an incidental way, as Faulkner in Wild Palms; there you feel physical love; it makes you gasp, yet very little is said.’ How right of Beauvoir to recognise The Wild Palms as a rare success; her letters to Algren are another. I forbear to quote the consummation of the sheet scene in The Mandarins. Read instead what she told Algren to say in defence of Existentialism in his debate with the writer Louis Bromfield: ‘ “I know Simone de Beauvoir and when she is in bed with me, she does not look hopeless or nihilist, but with you, I don’t know what would happen.” I am afraid I should look hopeless.’

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