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'A Transatlantic Love Affair: Letters To Nelson Algren' by Simone de Beauvoir

Beauvoir’s Love Letters Revealing If Not Always Interesting

Sunday, November 29, 1998

By Eileen Weiner

 
 

A Transatlantic Love Affair: Letters To Nelson Algren

By Simone de Beauvoir

The New Press
$27.50

   
 

Simone de Beauvoir belongs to that select sorority of women in whom there is, apparently, inexhaustible public interest. The U.S. publication of the more than 300 love letters de Beauvoir wrote, in English, to the American novelist Nelson Algren between 1947 and 1964 is the latest addition to the already voluminous body of literature about the existentialist writer and feminist icon.

While readers' interest in this subject may be unending, their patience may not be. The letters, running nearly 600 pages, are unedited, and include de Beauvoir's grammatical and spelling errors, as she wrote in a language in which she was fluent, but not fully at ease.

Some of the results are charming, some puzzling, and others, which seem to be the printed equivalents of poor penmanship, are simply distracting.

Students of de Beauvoir and her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre will find that the intimate, chatty voice in the letters provides fascinating insights into aspects of that relationship. (De Beauvoir is never once critical of Sartre.)

There is also wonderful, gossipy commentary on the characters populating the Left Bank in the post-war years, including Gide, Cocteau, Camus, Giacometti and the American writers Richard Wright and Truman Capote. As might be expected in letters between writers, there is much discussion of books, theater and current films.

But these are, after all, love letters, and they are filled with sappy endearments, coy teasing and sad longing for an absent love. Perhaps because she was writing two and three long letters each week in the early, “good” days of the affair with Algren, de Beauvoir recounted the minutiae of her daily life. This might have been of interest to a beloved, but it makes for tough going for other readers. Nevertheless, in light of her reputation for being stern and humorless, the letters, even when tedious, demonstrate an appealing other side of the woman.

And yet it is on the issue of her love for Algren that the letters are most unsatisfying for anyone who reads them without significant biographical context. Because we do not have the counterpoint of Algren's responses (the editor was unable to obtain permission to publish them), de Beauvoir's side of the correspondence becomes tiresome, and more than occasionally opaque.

The editor, de Beauvoir's longtime companion and adopted daughter, has provided the most minimal of guideposts for the reader.

Biographers of de Beauvoir and Algren have detailed and analyzed the unlikely relationship between the disciplined French intellectual and the tough guy chronicler of the underside of Chicago, author of “The Man with the Golden Arm.”

Certainly a big part of the attraction for de Beauvoir can be attributed to Algren's being the ultimate anti-Sartre.

De Beauvoir delighted in her “Division Street Dostoievski.” She readily admitted that, at age 39, she had entered into the first sexually fulfilling relationship of her life. (She describes Sartre as “a warm, lively man everywhere, but not in bed.”)

For his part, Algren was enchanted by “his little frog” and wanted to marry her and live together in Chicago. De Beauvoir quickly made it clear that she could never leave Sartre, Paris or the work that gave her life meaning. She proposed an unconventional relationship, in which they would spend several months together but would each maintain their separate lives.

And so the long-distance relationship and correspondence continued, punctuated by lengthy visits by one or the other.

It seems likely that if these ill-matched lovers had lived in the same city, their affair would have quickly burned itself out. Algren was moody, undisciplined and insecure, and his literary star blazed briefly and then fizzled, while de Beauvoir moved on to enormous success.

She worked like a demon, and with the publication of “The Second Sex” and the novel “The Mandarins” (in which she fictionalized her affair with Algren), she had become a major figure in European culture.

Perhaps De Beauvoir's letters are most remarkable for what they lack; there is hardly any discussion of the substance of her work or the intellectual issues that were consuming her. She barely mentions the themes of “The Second Sex” and downplays her other successes.

As the affair dragged on, fitfully, through most of the 1950s, de Beauvoir's letters became desperate and pleading. It finally sputtered to an end, with only occasional brief notes exchanged, the last in 1964.

In a bitter coda, Algren took to denouncing de Beauvoir and her work, which he felt misrepresented and betrayed their private relationship. He was still doing so when he died in 1981, one year after Sartre, and five years before de Beauvoir herself.

Eileen Weiner is a free-lance writer who lives in Pittsburgh.

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