Literature, poetry, lots of books and just some stuff I write
Love is never easy, even if your name is Simone de Beauvoir, your partner is the French philosopher Sartre and you’re a well-known, talented writer hell-bent on conquering the States with readings and lectures.
Things never easy, when one trusts the luminous destiny of love at first sight – the same that Wislava Szymborska described beautifully as a beginning, not an ending, in a book of events never more than half open.
Simone meets in Chicago Nelson Algren, lit bad-boy made in Illinois, prophet of brothels and slums. They meet very briefly, and fall for each other. Simone, reluctantly carried away by the French consul for a dinner, once in her train writes him the first of hundreds of letters.
Trying to understand why two writers so different from one another – Simone, the intellectual, detached “Castor”; Nelson, the rebel who despised everything Simone represented and got to know Sartre’s existentialism thanks to a bleached blonde working in a greasy joint featuring drunkards and dealers – fell in love is almost impossible.
Simone, portrait of the French bourgeois intellectual, is Sartre’s right hand, helping him in the hat of editor, co-writer and pimp, providing the philosopher with young, fresh lovers. Their relationship is not physical anymore; Simone, barely thirty-nine, wants to live a last, all-consuming passion.
For Nelson, son of a Swedish Jew, sex is pivotal (he gives Simone her first orgasm). He boxes, plays poker, wanders overnight looking for easy, nameless one-night stands. Like Chekov, Algren is the poet of losers. Their differences stay very visible over their relationship: she claims she can fill the void of distance with letters and words, as writing is like kissing him; he complains that his arms are cold and empty on the other side of the ocean.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. In 1947, Simone has dinner with the New York socialite Mary Guggenheim, who is secretly involved with Algren. Mary takes an immediate dislike of Simone, and to shut up her blabbering – she’s so distracted she burns the zabaglione she’s preparing for dessert – she makes the mistake to give the Frenchie Nelson’s name and number. Once in Chicago, Simone immediately looks him up. She tries to call him, but he hangs up on her three times as he can’t be bothered to try to understand her (her English is still very poor).
In the end, Simone manages to utter the names of Mary Guggenheim and Richard Wright (an Afro-American writer loving in Paris with whom Algren was acquainted) and the two of them meet at Le Petit Cafè in the Palmer Hotel, where Simone is staying.
Algren half expects to despise the Frenchie: the place is way too posh, she’s holding a copy of the Partisan Review, a magazine that Nelson dismisses as snobbish and pseudo-literary. Nevertheless, he’s intrigued by her deep blue eyes and agrees to show her Chicago’s slums.
Nelson wants to shock her, to teach her a lesson: the States are not just about Ivy League and country clubs; the other half of American can barely scratch a living and make their ends meet. Algren himself had spent a couple of weeks in prison, having stolen a typewriter.
Nevertheless, Simone is hungry for new experiences outside her safe, comfortable environment: she is not shocked by the strippers, the homeless, the petty criminals, the flop-houses (very cheap hotels with minimum services) Nelson shows her. And, frankly, she’s intrigued by him, intoxicated by all the vodka the two of them drank. To her, Chicago will always taste like vodka, smell like the Polish quarter, sound like Nelson’s voice describing her the South and New Orleans.
Nelson and Simone plan to spend the following day together exploring Chicago and getting to know each other, but the French consul spoils their sport, having organised a packed and tight schedule for Simone. Nevertheless, she hits Wabansia Street 1523 (Nelson’s address) to bid him farewell; he kisses her, and makes her promise to come back, because not seeing her anymore is simply not an option, and would hurt too much.
Nelson and Simone will write letters to each other for almost twenty years, till 1964. She comes back to the States more than once, he goes to see her in Paris. The two of them manage a sort of honeymoon in 1948 – brusquely interrupted by Sartre, who claims his muse back. They meet up after more than eight months and travel to Mexico, obsessed by the desire to light once again the Wabansia fire. To do so, they play a sort of literary game: each evening, they write in a diary their version of the day – almost a “truth or dare” game.
Simone call Nelson “her beloved husband” and claims he has helped her to grow up and become a woman by discovering her body and needs. He gives her the biggest gift: the truth, always, and a silver ring, with which she will be buried. However, love is to Simone an abstract ideal, a literary game, feeding absences with words and letters. For Nelson, love is an easy game to play: man meets woman, man sleeps with woman, man marries woman, children are born. As simple as that.
The two of them are crazy about each other. It is very likely that they loved each other all their lives.
However, they loved writing more: Simone needed Paris to be a writer, Nelson wrote for Chicago, about Chicago, in Chicago. Timing, geography, the fact that Algren appeared in Beauvoir’s The Mandarins as the withdrawn, gloomy Lewis Brogan, broke them up
In 1950, when Algren remarried his ex-wife Amanda, Simone, travelling back to France, wrote him this heartbreaking letter, included by Anna Holmes in her Hell Hath No Fury: Women’s Letters from the End of the Affair. Simone’s words are full of bittersweet aching for her lost love, once so close, now impossibly detached, when all’s left is the scent of bitter almonds.
I am better at dry sadness than at cold anger, for I remained dry eyed until now, as dry as smoked fish, but my heart is a kind of dirty soft custard inside.
I am not sad. Rather stunned, very far away fro myself, not really believing you are now so far, so far, you so near. I want to tell you only two things before leaving, and then I’ll not speak about it any more, I promise. First, I hope so much, I want and need so much to see you again, some day. But, remember, please, I shall never more ask to see you — not from any pride since I have none with you, as you know, but our meeting will mean something only when you wish it. So, I’ll wait. When you’ll wish it, just tell. I shall not assume that you love me anew, not even that you have to sleep with me, and we have not to stay together such a long time — just as you feel, and when you feel. But know that i’ll always long for your asking me. No, I cannot think that I shall not see you again. I have lost your love and it was (it is) painful, but shall not lose you. Anyhow, you gave me so much, Nelson, what you gave me meant so much, that you could never take it back. And then your tenderness and friendship were so precious to me that I can still feel warm and happy and harshly grateful when I look at you inside me. I do hope this tenderness and friendship will never, never desert me. As for me, it is baffling to say so and I feel ashamed, but it is the only true truth: I just love as much as I did when I landed into your disappointed arms, that means with my whole self and all my dirty heart; I cannot do less. But that will not bother you, honey, and don’t make writing letters of any kind a duty, just write when you feel like it, knowing every time it will make me very happy.
Well, all words seem silly. You seem so near, so near, let me come near to you, too. And let me, as in the past times, let me be in my own heart forever.
Your own Simone