More than ever, and for ever
- Beloved Chicago Man: Letters to Nelson Algren 1947-64 by Simone de Beauvoir, edited by Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir
Gollancz, 624 pp, £25.00, August 1998, ISBN 0 575 06590 7
- America Day by Day by Simone de Beauvoir, translated by Carol Cosman
California, 355 pp, US $27.50, January 1999, ISBN 0 520 20979 6
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.’
Why the abyss between letters and novel? Early in the correspondence Beauvoir credited her English. ‘In a way, it is very good for me to write in English, I cannot do any bad literature, I cannot do any kind of literature. Just say what I have to say in the most direct and simple way.’ When Algren remarked on the difference between her letters and her published prose, she insisted the difference was only one of language. Yet the vividness and directness of her writing often come across in her memoir of the years covered by these letters, Force of Circumstance (as translated by Richard Howard), and in Carol Cosman’s version of America Day by Day. The difference between Beloved Chicago Man and The Mandarins is that Beauvoir could speak to Algren as she could to no one else.
Anyone reading these extraordinary communications will urgently want the answers to two questions: who was Nelson Algren, now virtually invisible in American letters except through the Beauvoir connection, and what went wrong between them? When Beauvoir met Algren, he had just published The Neon Wilderness, a book of short stories about outcasts, poor people and petty criminals from Texas to Chicago to Marseille that would make his literary reputation. The descendant of non-practising German Jews and of a Swedish self-converted Jewish grandfather, Nelson Algren Abraham grew up among the Chicago Catholic working class and not in an immigrant Jewish community. Although he dropped the name Abraham in the Forties, inside his tough guy persona was a Jewish boy – like the one murdered by fellow drifters in his first published story, ‘So Help Me’ – struggling not to come out.
Like his 1935 proletarian novel, Somebody in Boots, ‘So Help Me’ drew on Algren’s travels through the American heartland – riding the rails, looking for work, spending time in jail – during the Great Depression. Epigraphs from The Communist Manifesto introduce two of the four sections of Somebody in Boots, but the book stood out among proletarian literature in its exclusive focus on the lower depths – the homeless, tramps, prisoners, failed confidence men – identified in one of the Marx epigraphs as ‘social scum (lumpenproletariat)’. Unlike Marx, however, Algren was the lumpen’s champion. He saw himself as ‘a voice for those who are counted out’, not the industrial proletariat. No one works in an Algren fiction except as pimp, whore, dealer (of drugs or cards), steerer (to illegal gambling), petty thief, barkeeper, boxer, cop or prison guard. The protagonist of every Algren novel will find himself in jail.
A Communist friend of Richard Wright in Depression Chicago, Algren turned over to Wright his original title, Native Son, for Somebody in Boots. (To ‘My old friend, Nelson’, Wright inscribed Algren’s copy of Native Son, ‘the best writer of good prose in the USA’; later, in Parisian exile, Wright would become friends with Beauvoir and Sartre.) Unlike Wright, Algren never broke dramatically with the Communist Party, supporting the Moscow trials before World War Two and Henry Wallace for President in 1948. But it was Walt Whitman and not Marx who supplied the epigraph for his next novel, Never Come Morning (1942): ‘I feel I am one of them – I belong to those convicts and prostitutes myself – And henceforth I will not deny them – For how can I deny myself?’ The Chicago Polish slums are also the setting for The Man with the Golden Arm (1949), whose leitmotif is Christ’s teaching, ‘we are all members of one another.’
‘Sandburg’s Chicago, Dreiser’s Chicago, Farrell’s and Wright’s and my own Chicago’ – that was Algren’s self-identified lineage. Although often assigned on grounds of his subject-matter to the naturalist tradition of Dreiser, Frank Norris, Jack London, James T. Farrell and Wright, Algren departs from these writers in his prose; Malcolm Cowley called him a ‘poet of the Chicago slums’. All Algren’s losers have tales to tell, flights of fancy that fail to get them out of trouble. At the archetypal locale for these stories, the police line-up, Beauvoir saw only pathetic mumbling characters, ‘either afraid or ashamed’: ‘Out of forty or so, there are scarcely three or four who answer articulately,’ she reported. At an Algren lineup every character has something funny, hopeless and entirely improbable to say. An Algren genealogy actually begins with the ‘grotesques’ of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, runs through Carl Sandburg, Damon Runyon, Ring Lardner and Clifford Odets, and looks forward to Catch-22 and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Algren found in Polish Chicago ‘the Petersburg of Dostoevsky – a place of extremes of heat, a sort of sprawling chaos of men and women, taverns, els, trolleys, markets, brothels, poolrooms’. Respectable America might find the scene repulsive, but Algren refused to sit in judgment on the violent, degraded lives of his characters and their weak, lost efforts to escape. They were trapped in a system of propertied, large-scale corruption and ‘third-person’ indifference, as Algren saw it, that was not in any way morally superior to the lives it destroyed. Reviewers who called Algren ‘the poor man’s Dostoevsky’ had in mind not simply Chicago’s poor folk, however, but crime and punishment as well. For beneath Algren’s social identification with the insulted and injured lay a deeper psychological bond. In every one of the novels published in his lifetime except the first (every one after his marriage to and divorce from Amanda Kontowicz), aggression against a woman is the originary crime which guiltily entraps the hero and from which he fails to find redemption.
Beauvoir told Algren that a reviewer of the French translation of Never Come Morning took its gang rape as ‘a savage illustration of The Second Sex. I was amazed at it, as you should be.’ The reviewer had spotted the perspective shared by the two books, but Algren’s deepest attachment was to his defeated male combatant. Never Come Morning’s boxer, Bruno Bicek, who passively allows his gang to rape his girlfriend, is the type for all Algren’s wounded male narcissists. He was about to become one himself.
Although Somebody in Boots was mostly ignored, Never Come Morning received high praise. In 1949 The Man with the Golden Arm, Algren’s masterpiece, won the first National Book Award. This novel’s awful, unforgettable tangle, flecked with despairing humour, ties the card dealer and dope addict Frankie Machine to Sophie, the wife he has crippled, the whore Molly-O who can’t save him, Sparrow the petty criminal sidekick who finally fingers him for murder, Record Head Bednarik the policeman who sits self-loathingly in judgment, and a host of petty exploiters. Although absent from Random House’s recent list of the top 100 English-language novels of the century, its badge of honour is to share the company of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and Toni Morrison’s Beloved.
Golden Arm made Algren among the most famous literary figures in the United States. Considering him ‘probably the best writer under 50’, Hemingway anointed the younger man his successor. ‘OK, kid, you beat Dostoevsky. I’ll never fight you in Chicago,’ he wrote in his copy of The Man with the Golden Arm. ‘You are going to be a champion.’ ‘Dear question-box,’ Simone wrote to Nelson,
I fell in love two years ago with a nice local youth, a poor boy, not very strong in the head. Suddenly he became an international success man, millionaire, and they compare him to Dostoevsky. What should I do to keep his love? Or must I just forget him?’ I am a little scared, you see ... it is not easy to be so far, loving you so much.
Beauvoir was scared for the wrong reason. Her ‘Division Street Dostoevsky’ was actually falling into a Tolstoy novel: when this Anna stayed committed to the sexually absent man with whom she shared her life, her male object of desire paid the price.
Algren and Beauvoir’s most important books, The Man with the Golden Arm and The Second Sex, both published in 1949, were written (like America Day by Day) out of their happiness in love. But whereas The Second Sex pointed Beauvoir forward to her years of greatest success, The Man with the Golden Arm initiated Algren’s Cold War downfall. John Garfield, fresh from his triumphs in the left-wing films noirs Body and Soul and Force of Evil, wanted to play Frankie Machine, but he was about to die from a heart attack, a victim of the Blacklist. When Otto Preminger acquired the film rights to the novel from Garfield’s former producer, he cast Frank Sinatra as Frankie Machine. The social-problem film that Preminger made broke the Hollywood taboo against drug movies only by violating Algren’s novel as well. Sinatra, like Algren and at considerable cost to his career, had been a visible participant in the post-World War Two popular front. Turning Frankie Machine’s wife into a villain faking her paralysis, and rescuing one Frankie from drugs, Preminger aided the other Frankie’s film comeback and Fifties ascendancy. Algren would introduce himself at parties as Sinatra’s biographer; when Frankie Machine is still remembered, it is as Frank Sinatra. Cheated out of the profits of Preminger’s immensely successful movie, Algren embarked on an expensive, self-destructive lawsuit. It failed. Then he allowed Hollywood to con him again, selling outright and for a pittance the film rights to his next novel, A Walk on the Wild Side. It would be directed in 1962 by the one renegade among the original Hollywood Ten, Edward Dmytryck. Algren refused to see it.
Algren later said that he wanted to make the voices from the bottom speak. The Hollywood blacklist and the fate of Golden Arm convinced him that no one in suburban Cold War America was listening. If comfortable Americans did not want to be reminded of the ‘people who have no alternative ... who live in horror’, then he had lost his audience. Although politically inactive, Algren had chaired the Chicago committee to save the Rosenbergs: when he applied for a passport to visit Beauvoir in 1953, it was denied him because of his Communist affiliations.
By then, however, Algren was already destroying his life. The trouble began when Beauvoir arrived in Chicago in 1948 for their planned three months together and did not tell him until they were on their ‘honeymoon trip’ in Mexico that Sartre wanted her to return to Paris a month early. Beauvoir had refused from the beginning to leave Paris and Sartre to live with Algren; now they both knew that her loyalty to Sartre took precedence over what time they had together. Devastated by the withdrawal on Algren’s part that she knew she fully deserved, Beauvoir continued to write passionate letters on her return to Paris. The breach seemed healed, though her happiness was shadowed by the worry that her ‘beloved husband’ would tire of this ‘faraway love which lets you so lonely’. ‘My true self, my true life have gone across the sea,’ she wrote to him the following year, after a glorious time together in Paris and North Africa: ‘I did not think to know again the sweet bitter wonder of love ... Nelson ... meeting you was one of the greatest lucks of my whole life.’ When Simone arrived the next summer, however – fitting her travel arrangements into Sartre’s plans again, and not to live with Nelson alone in her beloved ‘Wabansia nest’ but to join neighbours in a cottage on Lake Michigan – he told her he no longer loved her.
‘I just love you as much as I did when I landed into your disappointed arms,’ Simone wrote after that hard summer. She made a briefer visit the next year; after that it was over. ‘I always felt guilty toward you, from the very first day, because I could give you so little, loving you so much,’ she wrote when she returned to Paris. ‘Because I gave you so little, I found quite fair that you chose to evict me from your heart. But thinking it is fair did not prevent it to be hard.’ Hard for Beauvoir, worse for Algren. Although convinced she was too old for love and that her body was dead, within a year Beauvoir had begun a liaison with Claude Lanzmann. This ‘incestuous’ love for a man 17 years younger than she was could never replace him, she told Algren: his failure to replace her was far more devastating.
Algren already had evidence that the domesticity for which he longed was for him a personal and creative disaster. However much political persecution and the change in intellectual climate had harmed him, he was also done in from within by his own desire to have what in the Fifties he called a woman of his own. Wishing to get out before he was in and once again brutal to her, Algren remarried and divorced his ex-wife. Understanding his internal division but denying his own longing for female support, he wrote to the critic Maxwell Geismar: ‘All I had to do was keep my nose clean. I didn’t. My devotion was to the outcasts; that was the real thing. The girl was just a kind of obligation.’ Depressed, destitute, gambling compulsively, and unable to make progress on ‘Entrapment’, the serious novel that he was trying to write, Algren rewrote his Depression on-the-road novel for money. A Walk on the Wild Side, which sold well, has been praised for its ‘comic-strip vitality’. In fact, the sexual and violent exploits of Dove Link-horn, the novel’s larger-than-life, innocently amoral, riproaring Bunyanesque hero, reproduce the Algren mise-en-scène as farce. ‘I don’t think his book has anything real about it whatsoever,’ Alfred Kazin wrote in the New York Times, comparing Wild Side to the ‘harrowing and grimly honest’ Man with the Golden Arm, which ‘hurt like a blow’. The New York intellectuals now dismissed Algren as a Thirties leftover. Although he himself had denigrated A Walk on the Wild Side, he was brought near to suicide by the reviews.
Always drawn to white male redemption through black love, Algren had originally called Golden Arm by the title Beauvoir used in their correspondence, ‘The Dealer and the High Yellow’. He had succumbed to the publisher’s pressure and made the prostitute Molly-O a white woman (although in one place he failed to make the necessary revision). Now he made over the Communist black worker who almost saved Somebody in Boots’s Cass McKay into a ‘high yellow’ – mixed race – prostitute who almost saves Dove Linkhorn. Already in America Day by Day Beauvoir reported Richard Wright’s suspicion of those who ‘ “are drawn to” blacks because they have projected onto them what they would like to be but are not’. Algren was hardly alone; Norman Mailer’s ‘The White Negro’ would be published within a year of Wild Side. Still, the clichéd racial promise of salvation is shattered with horrible force. At the climax of the book the legless man on a roller-skate board – his rolling down the street to the theme music offers the film’s one unforgettable image – avenges himself on the male innocent who has taken from him the one woman he has allowed to touch him since a train cut off his legs. The prostitute Hallie and Legless Schmidt abandoned themselves to each other as neither had ever done to anyone else, and then she left him for Dove. Provoking an unreadably violent fight, the cripple leaves Dove’s mutilated face rubbed into the bar-room floor.
Aside from the sexual provocation and the sentimental final page (a blind Dove taps his way back home), the problem was that ‘The Face on the Bar-room Floor’ had already appeared in The Neon Wilderness a decade before. It was the story Beauvoir had translated on their ‘honeymoon trip’ down the Mississippi for publication in Les Temps modernes. ‘I like Dove who always hurts those who are dearest to him,’ Beauvoir wrote to Algren, but she found the second half of the novel ‘too much a remake’. Beauvoir had worried for years that there were two Nelson Algrens, the man she loved and a cold lookalike, ‘the man with the hard collar’ whom she had once mistaken for him at the airport in Chicago. Perhaps now she recognised in the aggrieved cripple the vengeance that had blinded her beloved Chicago man and done in their love.
Published in the US the same year as A Walk on the Wild Side, The Mandarins was also spoiled by false emotion. Beauvoir’s clinical sexual descriptions and cold self-analysis, like Algren’s false bravado, signalled the difficulty each of them had in calling the old feelings back. But whereas his novel met with critical hostility, hers had won the 1954 Prix Goncourt. ‘They all say the “American romance” is very moving – I wrote it with all my heart,’ Simone wrote to Nelson about what she was still calling ‘your book’, adding: ‘But I should like your feeling.’ She got it via Time magazine. Algren’s angry response didn’t mention the self-protective changes Beauvoir had made to their story – the ring appears briefly in the novel but not the ‘husband’ and ‘wife’, and Beauvoir shifts the primal change of plans in Mexico to his character. (Nor did Algren point out that a former lover accuses the Camus character in The Mandarins of violating her privacy with his roman à clé.) Beauvoir was ‘digging up her own private garden’, Algren told Time (‘I think Madame de Beauvoir has invaded her own privacy,’ he said to another reporter), claiming that she had taken their ‘routine relationship, and ... blown it up’. When in despair he tried to call Paris to apologise, Lanzmann picked up the phone.
‘Dearest Nelson of my own,’ Simone responded, insisting she had not taken offence, and Algren began imagining that if he had published A Walk on the Wild Side with World, the firm that had brought out The Mandarins in the United States, the conjunction would have given him better sales. By now he had reached the end of his tether, drifting, gambling, breaking down, and nearly killing himself in a fall through the Lake Michigan ice. He and Beauvoir rarely wrote. At the end of the decade he was finally given back his passport and excitedly planned a trip to Paris. Beauvoir responded that Lanzmann had moved out (‘I felt the need of living like a bachelor again’), and invited him to stay with her. Algren remained for months, travelling with Beauvoir as they had a decade earlier. ‘I remember a lot of new dreams which were true, magic dreams you made me dream, as good as the old ones,’ Simone wrote to her ‘magician’, who was staying in her Paris apartment while she went off with Sartre to Brazil. ‘I love you, more than ever and for ever.’ Algren dedicated his travel writing, Who Lost an American, to Beauvoir, and honoured her in the Paris and Chicago sections. The reciprocated dedication was double-edged, however, since the straining-for-humour, macho persona of this first-person collection makes for a very bad book.
In his author’s Preface to the 1962 reissue of Never Come Morning, Algren had credited Sartre alone with the French translation that was Beauvoir’s labour of love; ‘our child is quite born at last,’ was how she had announced its completion. The repressed Beauvoir immediately returned, however, since ‘crocodilism of minds’ – the term Algren used to describe the Chicago Polish establishment’s hostility to Never Come Morning – now assigned ‘crocodile’, Beauvoir’s pet name for him, to his enemies. (Once, dismissing her worry that she had ‘trapped’ him, she lightly interpreted a two-Nelsons nightmare as ‘the smart, daring, talented, conceited local youth come to kill the stupid, shy, off-balanced crocodile’.) In H.E.F. Donohue’s Conversations with Nelson Algren, published late in 1964, Algren not only returned to his grievance about The Mandarins: he also let stand a set of disgusting remarks on the contradiction between her philosophy in The Second Sex and the subordinate role she welcomed as a lover. Naming 1946-50 as the best years of his life, he did not mention they were the years with Beauvoir.
1949: The Second Sex and The Man with the Golden Arm; 1956: A Walk on the Wild Side and the American translation of The Mandarins; 1963: Who Lost an American and Force of Circumstance. Hoping that he would ‘not be unpleased with what I tell about you, because it was written with all my heart’, Beauvoir compared her 1963 memoir to the book Algren dedicated to her. Algren read no French, and it was only in the autumn of 1964, as Conversations with Sartre was also appearing, that he suffered the narcissistic wounds that turned his love to primitive rage. For when Algren read ‘A Question of Fidelity’ in the November Harper’s, he learned for the first time that the fidelity in question was in the first instance Sartre’s not Beauvoir’s, for her trip to the United States and passion for Algren were set in motion by Sartre’s falling in love with an American woman, Dolores Vanetti, on his own trip to America. It was Sartre who suggested that Beauvoir also go to the United States, and that she turn her first experience of jealousy into The Second Sex. Beauvoir had cut short her travels with Algren in the fateful summer of 1948 because Sartre’s new love, unable to tolerate his refusal to leave Beauvoir, had cancelled her vacation with him. The pretext of a philosophical question about ‘contingent love’, moreover, allowed Beauvoir again to do what she said she did not, and ‘gossip’ about their private love – though, worse still, Algren only made a belated appearance at the end of the first instalment and did not take centre-stage until the second. Algren’s indignation at ‘contingent love’ failed to grasp that Beauvoir was meaning to name not a casual affair but rather – along the lines of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness – the risk and excitement of contingency against the background of necessity. But necessity meant Sartre, and ‘contingent love’ justified existential risk only within fixed limits. The condition freeing Beauvoir for the passionate avowals in her letters, it was now clear, was that they did not lead to irreversible action. That ‘your Simone’ had been entirely right, and that the only chance for Algren in the Cold War Fifties lay in accepting her terms, only rubbed salt in the wound.
Beauvoir’s extraordinary expressions of love, Algren would learn when he read the entire memoir from which ‘A Question of Fidelity’ was taken, were the one thing she did not expose to others, for she quoted only from his letters and never from her own. He would learn as well that Lanzmann meant more to her than the ‘maternal tenderness’ her letters suggested, that they had lived and travelled together for seven years, that he moved out of her apartment before Algren arrived because it was he who had ended the affair, and that when Lanzmann educated her about Jews, he also lowered her opinion of Hemingway (the Algren-anointer – Algren was about to publish an account of his visit to Hemingway in Cuba) by pointing out the anti-semitism in The Sun Also Rises. (An activist against systematic French torture in Algeria, Lanzmann went on to make Shoah.) Simone had worried about two Nelsons: her ‘extraordinary adventure of becoming a different me’ in the United States had created two Simones.
‘There has been one undoubted success in my life: my relationship with Sartre,’ Beauvoir wrote in the Epilogue to Force of Circumstance. To be sure, the Interlude Beauvoir places between Parts I and II and for which she herself cannot account marks the importance of her other two connections, since it comes between the end of Algren and the beginning of Lanzmann. At the memoir’s conclusion, when this famous 55-year-old woman complains that she is old, that her life is over, and that she will never again have a man or ‘be a body any more’, she makes the last word of her memoir, ‘gypped’ (flouée in French, or ‘cheated’), the very term with which Algren had introduced Stubb McKay in the first paragraph of his first novel, Somebody in Boots, a lifetime earlier – Beauvoir read it after things had gone badly between them. The homage appropriated a condition which, Algren might feel, more legitimately belonged to his protagonists and to him.
Beauvoir quotes Algren in the Epilogue to Force of Circumstance as telling her: ‘You’ve won. You’ve made all the right enemies.’ Now he was one of them. ‘Do I deserve your love if I do not give you my life,’ Simone had worried when she first turned down Nelson’s invitation to live with him. ‘Will he never hate me?’ Beauvoir was looking forward to seeing Algren on her planned 1965 trip with Sartre to the United States. Instead he reviewed Force of Circumstance in Harper’s that spring with a stream of incoherent, misogynist rage. He couldn’t stop himself for years, trashing Beauvoir’s Coming of Age in the Los Angeles Times, making vicious fun of her behaviour on their 1949 North African trip in Playboy (the very magazine he had attacked, praising her, in the Chicago section of Who Lost An American). Like the protagonist of more than one Algren story, the more he tried to shift the blame, the more he made himself guilty. Transparently avenging himself against Beauvoir in the posthumously published The Devil’s Stocking, Algren descended to the sort of woman-hating which until then had been absent from his fiction. Fictionalising the frame-up of the middleweight boxer and black militant Hurricane Carter for killing a white cop, he invented a white liberal who betrays the hero after he gives her sexually what she’s never been willing to admit she wants and then ends the affair. ‘I’ve been in whorehouses all over the world, and the women there always close the door,’ Algren, already suffering from chest pains hours before the massive heart attack that killed him, raged to a young admirer. ‘But this woman flung the door open and called in the public and the press.’ He kept her letters in a tin box, he confided, and would retaliate by auctioning them off.
Enjoying something of a revival in the New Left Sixties and early Seventies and participating in the new journalism, Algren wrote affecting pieces on losers – Bonnie and Clyde, the Chicago Black Sox, Gregorio Cortez. Such writers as Terry Southern, Kurt Vonnegut, Studs Turkel and Russell Banks were his partisans (the last three introducing posthumous reissues of the fiction). But Nelson Algren speaks for the Forties: he did not write a major work after the Cold War defeat of the American Left and the 1950 crack-up with Beauvoir. A local notable on Sag Harbor, Long Island, he died in 1981 just after his election to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. ‘The lonely death at home of the reclusive writer whom no one could be bothered to bury’ described in the brief Introduction to Beloved Chicago Man is the wishful thinking of editor Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir (whose mostly helpful editorial apparatus contains too many minor mistakes about the American scene and this one large invention).
The most important of his three rules for getting through life, Algren had announced to H.E.F. Donohue, was ‘never, ever, no matter what else you do in your whole life, never sleep with anyone whose troubles are worse than your own.’ Lucky for Nelson, lucky for Simone, lucky now for the rest of us, that Simone de Beauvoir broke his rule. Memorable as is Algren’s Forties fiction, his certain claim to literary immortality – male self-pity from beyond the grave – lies in having served as her muse. Born a year before her ‘beloved crocodile’, Simone outlived him by five years. Sartre had died in 1980; his fall into senility and death, shattering Beauvoir, is movingly recounted in her last book, La Cérémonie des adieux. Beauvoir shares Sartre’s tomb.
‘I do not put the ring away for one minute. I like this secret sign of my belonging to you,’ Simone had written Nelson in 1947 before the cost of this secret possession had come home to them both. A long five years later, as Nelson was miserably preparing to remarry his wife, Simone reported a dream in which ‘I told you that I should be buried with your ring at my finger, which I intend to do. Your ring at my finger and your face in my heart as long as I live.’ She wears the ring in her grave.