Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago, by Douglas Cowie, reimagines the love affair between Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren. Their relationship spanned two decades although their mutual passion burnt out much more quickly. Each was looking for something the other could not offer leaving both dissatisfied. It is an interesting exploration of why couples get together, and why they fall apart.
Simone de Beauvoir was a French writer and intellectual. She was the long term partner of Jean-Paul Sartre and made her name writing the feminist text, The Second Sex. She and Sartre had what has been described as an open relationship. Although only touched on briefly in this book, Simone scandalised society by taking lovers of both sexes, some of them underage.
Simone and Sartre were core members of an intimate circle of Parisian philosophers and friends who held a high opinion of themselves, regarding their work as of vital importance. They welcomed the diversions offered by others but retained the belief that they themselves were superior.
Nelson Algren was an American writer, considered ‘a bard of the down-and-outer’. He met Simone when she telephoned him to ask for a tour of the ‘real Chicago’ on the recommendation of a mutual acquaintance. Their affair started immediately and was characterised by short periods of passionate intensity followed by long months apart during which they both, although Simone more especially, poured out their desires in frequent and lengthy correspondence.
Nelson resented the continued presence of Sartre in Simone’s life. He wished her to move to America which she would not countenance, believing that Sartre needed her and that their work was too important to set aside. Simone believed that Nelson should appreciate this and make the most of the limited time she offered him. She became upset when he allowed her intransigence to colour his behaviour.
When Nelson realised that he could not get Simone to behave as he wanted he took other lovers before sinking into depression. He had always mixed with gamblers, drunks and drug addicts; now he became one of them with disasterous results. Simone wished to rekindle their romance but remained unwilling to either give up her life in Paris or to have him join her long term.
Early on it is clear that the lovers are not satisfied with even the little details of each other’s lives. For example, they criticise the other’s attire. Simone deals with this by buying clothes she approves of for Nelson and throwing away what he has chosen. She is unable to see that she would not accept such behaviour from him.
When they travel they take pride in not being tourists, never noticing that locals mock and take advantage of their obvious inclusion in this set. Simone and her friends sneer at the bourgeoise with all the pompous contempt of intellectuals convinced of their own superiority. They laugh at Nelson when he offers to punch a man who verbally assaults Simone. Although seemingly accepted he comes to realise how he is regarded:
“a silly American man bewildered at everything she showed him […] eager for her pats on the head, a pleasent enough sideshow, and useful proof of her shabby and shitty theory that she and Sartre were better than everybody else.”
The prose is taut, pacy and compelling. The tension between Nelson and Simone is presented in their actions, their conceits and pretensions showing how deluded they were. Their love was for an ideal that the other was unable or unwilling to fulfil.
I did not warm to the characters but this is a fascinating study of how people see themselves, how they believe they deserve to be treated by others, and how hard done by they can feel when this does not occur. The observations of the human psyche are sharp and concise.
Not always a comfortable read as it shines a light on conceits and delusions with which many live. A fascinating account of a group of writers whose work may be admired more than its creators.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Myriad.