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Love Hurts

The Torrid Affair Between Nelson Algren and Simone de Beauvoir

A TRANSATLANTIC LOVE AFFAIR: Letters to Nelson Algren.\o7 By Simone de Beauvoir (The New Press: 576 pp., $27.50)\f7

October 18, 1998|CLANCY SIGAL | Clancy Sigal, a screenwriter, is the author of four novels, including "Going Away" and "The Secret Defector."

" . . . a place of my own to live in, with a woman of my own and perhaps a child of my own. There's nothing extraordinary about wanting such things. . . ."

So wrote Nelson Algren to Simone de Beauvoir when he feared that their love affair was, in her words, "doomed to come to an end, and soon." Neither wanted it to die. Both had plunged madly and sexually in love on her first trip to America in 1947. Their tragedy was that they chose work, and their respective cities over love.

"I could not live just for happiness and love, I could not give up my writing . . . in the only place where my writing and work may have a meaning," de Beauvoir pleaded in defense of Paris. "My job," Algren shot back, "is to write about [Chicago] and I can only do it here."

De Beauvoir and Algren ached for each other. Their love was a spectacular affirmation--at first--of two great hearts and minds struggling past language, personal and cultural incongruities. The "failure" of their relationship was in many ways a function of the competing claims of Paris or Chicago. Today, bicoastal affairs are no big deal. But in 1949 transatlantic flights were difficult and expensive. De Beauvoir tried to fill the physical void with these enchanting, generous and passionately relaxed letters.

" . . . writing to you is like kissing you. It is something physical," de Beauvoir insisted. But Algren, with typical Chicago realism, knew "no arms are warm when they're on the other side of the ocean." Writers in love can be hell on each other.

Before meeting Algren, de Beauvoir was a fairly conventional cafe intellectual who slept around but was hooked on her teacher-companion-lover, Jean-Paul Sartre. Simone and Jean-Paul would rather talk than screw (as is often the custom in intellectual circles). They were fused at the hip by words, ideas and the shared misery of having survived, as sometime resistantes, in Nazi-occupied France. They freely practiced "ontological freedom." Translated: Sartre kept de Beauvoir on a tight emotional leash to guarantee to himself the constant availability of her intellect, on which he was increasingly dependent. ("A man's brain in a woman's body," Sartre liked to say about her--and the dolt thought it was praise.)

Over time, de Beauvoir became Sartre's editor, often-unacknowledged co-writer (he was going blind) and bouncer-pimp, helping him to screen and then ruthlessly dispose of his bimbos. In Paris cafe culture, few eyebrows were raised. But such "sophistication" struck Algren, a neighborhood guy with a wonderful ear for other people's bullshit, as pure malarkey if not downright weird. For him, love was not contingent or any other Sartrean evasion but rudely simple. You fell in love, made love, maybe married and had kids. Nuts to phenomenology.

Nelson Algren was a half-Swedish Jew who was extremely proud of his fists, his cock and his struggle against the odds at the poker table where, until the popular success of "The Man With the Golden Arm," he made a better living as a dealer than as a writer. De Beauvoir was a provincial middle-class girl who, also against the odds, had made it in the oppressively male-dominated Left Bank intellectual empire over which Sartre reigned after the liberation of Paris.

Creatively, Simone and Nelson owed each other a tremendous, untraceable debt. He opened her up to an emotional freedom she had never before experienced. His thumbprints are all over de Beauvoir's now-classic "The Second Sex," a densely argued theoretical analysis of victimhood, "the female wound," which became an international best-seller. On Algren's work, de Beauvoir's impact is less evident--until we recall that the main female character in "The Man With the Golden Arm" (which won a Pulitzer), might easily have jumped off the pages of "The Second Sex."

Until meeting Algren, de Beauvoir's experience was mainly secondhand, "egghead," bookish. By contrast, Algren was born with his face in the gutter. He lived with, and among, junkies, small-time whores, grifters and the walking dead of Division Street. He wrote from his tortured heart--and from direct observation of the garbage-strewn streets he lived on. He had served jail time. Like Chekhov, he was a poet of losers.

A prickly loner, Algren has been too easily slotted as "provincial," "regional" or merely dismissed as de Beauvoir's stud. "This boor, this alien being," Sylvie Le Bon, de Beauvoir's adopted daughter and editor of this volume, calls Algren in her introduction.

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