BEAUVOIR IN LOVE
by Irène FRAIN
translated from the French
by Marjolijn de Jager
“Something is happening to me – what’s happening to me?”
This sentence comes out of a dream. A dream Simone de Beauvoir had in her room at the Lincoln Hotel in the early morning hours of Sunday, 26 January 1947, a few hours after she arrived in the United States.
She never managed to remember what the dream was about. This one sentence was all that remained. And on that day at the Lincoln, despite all her efforts, she couldn’t figure out what it meant. However, the phrase made such an impression on her that she mentioned it almost immediately in one of those missives – half love-letter, half report – she used to send to Sartre during that period of their separation, when she’d set down every little fact, gesture, and thought she had.
The dream repeated itself each of the following nights until Thursday, and still she could never recall anything other than that startling question. Thus, growing increasingly anxious, Simone de Beauvoir talked about it in her letters to Sartre.
Better yet: eighteen months later she turned that barely modified sentence into the opening of the work she published on her trips to America.
Her trips, not her trip. In fact, she returned to the United States three times between the dream of 26 January 1947 and the publication of the book. And with good reason: exactly twenty-seven days after she had her dream, she met a man with whom she fellmadly in love. By her own admission, he was the only great passion of her life. He, too, was a writer. His name was Nelson Algren and he lived in Chicago. He, too, fell in love with her with equal passion.
Simone de Beauvoir’s insistence on remembering the dream, the strange “silent voice” that had spoken to her and the prediction – for she later referred to it expressly as voice and sign – convinced me that she had never thought of her relationship with Nelson Algren, the individual least destined to meet her, as a mere fling. Even if she didn’t shout it from the rooftops, she was perfectly aware of the fact that without him she never would have had the energy to tackle her major work, one of the most important books of the twentieth century since it revolutionized the life of women, and by that fact alone, that of men: The Second Sex.
As events progressed her letters to Sartre are packed with details of the circumstances around the affair – places and dates are frequently and faithfully mentioned, as is time, sometimes down to the exact minute. Matching them with her innumerable notes, always recorded on the spot, in the hundreds of letters she sent to Nelson Algren, we have an amazingly precise collection of informative puzzle pieces concerning their affair. Once these fragments are assembled, they can be compared to the accounts of those who witnessed the affair, and then to the confidences Simone de Beauvoir herself agreed to make at the end of her life. Finally, the Memoirs of Castor (the Beaver), as her friends used to call her, as well as her novelscontain sometimes very lavish reminiscences of those years of mad love.
Nelson Algren spoke of it as well. Novels, poems, short stories, and some of his other texts bear the often cryptic stamp of his relationship with Simone. To date, unfortunately, the many epistles he addressed to Simone remain inaccessible. But at times he would respond to journalists; and he carefully kept the photos taken during that period next to a strange private notebook he wrotetogether with Simone; if one compares it to other documents, it’s possible to decode the secret of their break-up.
Lastly, most of the settings of their love are still standing, beginning with the house on Lake Michigan where the two lovers tore at each other.
To find one’s way in the versions of either one of them, to share in the wanderings of memory, lies, silences, and of subsequent renewal, one can go to the site like a police detective and compare what the two protagonists wrote with the reality of the various places. Then the lovers’ journey, often funny, sometimes tragic, always adventurous, emerges from the haze. Sometimes it becomes so precise one almost expects a resurrection.
That was my challenge with this novel. Once all the disparate information in which the story had gone astray was gathered, I gave it my own version, as closely as human credibility allows.
For, in my opinion, Simone de Beauvoir’s greatness is not that of an icon. Even less is it the stern majesty of a forgotten goddess or of some holy martyr of feminism. Rather, it is that of a human being, like you and I.
And then there is Nelson Algren. He is not the bashful lover to which he has so often been reduced. He is an immeasurable writer, a human being of irresistible charm and destructive humor, firmly committed to the camp of the poor and the oppressed – some of his texts could have been written today by the protesters of the Occupy movement. And a true, magnificent lover. A man as well. Who had to measure up to no one less than Sartre.
She arrives in Chicago on time, two o’clock in the afternoon. The French consul is waiting for her and takes her to the Palmer House, her hotel. Once the formalities have been dealt with she goes back out. She wants to get her impression of Chicago on her own. She’ll wait with calling the unknown writer whose number Mary Guggenheim had given her until later; whenshe’s going to ask him to take her to the slums she refuses to look stupid.
So without wasting any time, she visits the Impressionist collection at the Modern Art Institute, an orgy ofManet, Monet, Renoir, Seurat. Then a fast-paced walk along the lake. The day is fading, the north wind picking up, and the sky is growing dense with snow. She grabs the first taxi she finds, goes along an avenue lined with greasy skyscrapers, and gets back to the hotel. When she’s in her room she takes out the piece of paper on which Mary Guggenheim scribbled her lover’s phone number and calls the switchboard.
Super-efficient, like all the Palmer’s employees, the operator makes the connection, then one, two, three rings. Someone picks up.
She takes the plunge: “Mr. Nelson Algren?”
She isn’t afraid. Castor is never afraid.
Neither is Simone, it seems.*
Nelson never had her unforgiving memory, the gift she’s always had for riveting every event’s tiniest detail in her mind. He was also averse to resuscitating them the way she did, with the precision of a tape recorder. He preferred abbreviated versions to dry details and, as soon as it had to do with love, he wanted the opacity of poetry. Yet, until the day he died he remembered this moment: “I was busy at my stove, I was trying to cook myself something, I don’t remember what exactly, when the phone rang. And often when the phone rang there was someone on the other end of the one line with a heavy, really heavyPolish accent. People who’d never used a phone before and would yell into the mouthpiece. So this time when it rang and someone shouted into the phone, screaming something in a strident voice. I said; ‘Wrong number’ and hung up. I had something on the stove…”*
As in a reverse movie shot, we know precisely what happened at the other end of theline, in the luxurious room on the sixth floor of the Palmer House where Castor put down her purse. She, too, recounted the episode: “A sullen voice answered: ‘You have the wrong number.’ I check the telephone book. What’s wrong is my pronunciation.”3
What apparently happened is that, like so many French people, she asked for Mr. Nelson Algrenne, stressing the second syllable. And in her rush to contact the man in Chicago, she raised her voice, that is to say she forcedsharp sounds, which is all she knew how to do when she wanted to be heard. Nelson didn’t understand a single word of what she said, not even her name. In any case, preoccupied with his novel and, at that particular moment, with his cooking he didn’t recollect Mary Guggenheim’s letter. Until the very end he swore: “I’d never heard her name before.”
But in her room at the Palmer, Castor was determined to see him. Still obsessed with the slums. So sheimmediately called the operator back and asked her to redial the number. The employee handled it with the same professionalism but, as soon as the connection was made again and Castor uttered two syllables, Nelson identified her voice and exploded.
Much later, he wanted to justify himself. Years afterwards he still had the unpleasant feeling he’d been rude and felt bad about that: “I’d barely made it back to my stove when the telephone rang. And there was that same hoarse, strident scream on the line…”
So again he barked: “Wrong number!” and hung up more abruptly than the first time.
In her hotel room Castor refuses to give up. She wants the slums and she’s going to get them. So she settles for the old lady whom Richard Wright had mentioned. Unfortunately, there’s no answer. She hangs up and collapses. Pulls herself together again, decides to write her article.
However, it’s six o’clock and she simply cannot concentrate; it’s the moment when every night her strength capsizes, the instant when solitude no longer has the taste of freedom but of anxiety – “nausea” Sartre would say. The same scenario every night: as soon as the light dwindles her throat tightens; and in those minutes at dusk, she can give it any name she chooses – Angst like Kierkegaard and Sartre, spleen like Baudelaire, depression like the doctors, or call it being down in the dumps like any other person, it changes nothing: she sees death coming. The only solution is to go out.
She goes down to the ground floor to devour sandwiches in the first cafeteria she finds in the hotel’s arcades. However, this fit of bulimia doesn’t manage to calm her down. She must get to the slums at any cost. And to the writer. So she decides to force fate, gathers her energies, goes back to the sixth floor and calls the operator again. And again the operator connects her and for the third time he hangs up on her. It still doesn’t discourage her. She persists but changes her strategy and asks the operator to be her messenger. The latter knows her job and manages to trap the cat-man. As soon as she has him on the line she won’t give him even a second to hang up but starts talking immediately.
Until the end Nelson also remembers this part of the conversation: “I picked up and hadn’t yet yelled ‘Wrong number!’ when a very bright voice said: ‘Would you please be so kind as to hold the line. Don’t hang up, just a minute. There is someone who would like to speak with you.’”
Then, without wasting any time, the operator gave him the woman with the very shrill voice. Evidently, Castor had learned her lesson and this time she introduces herself in a clear, very composed voice: “Simone de Beauvoir.” Then, with the same clarity, she utters the names of Richard Wright and Mary Guggenheim.
The person she is calling immediately exclaims warmly: “Oh yes, oh yes…”
She uses this moment to continue: “I am leaving again tomorrow. Could we see each other? Here, now?”
“But, of course, I’d be delighted! Where?”
The phone vibrates. It seems he’s already there.*
This time Nelson finally understood who the person phoning himwas. An amazing feat, he’d point out every time he remembered that call. The voice that had screeched through the phone wasn’t just piercing but had a very pronounced European accent. When she decided on their meeting place, for example: “Let’s meet at the Palmer in a bar called the Little Café she pronounced it liteul.
Any other day that would have exasperated him. He worshipped the music of words and, as a man who put poetry above everythingelse, he couldn’t bear a single syllable to be mispronounced. Yet, that night he let it slidesomehow.
He could also have objected to their meeting place. The Palmer was the last place in Chicago where he wanted to set foot: he was the son of a laborer, had been a communist, had been publishing long diatribes against the world of finance for years on end, and more often than not he was broke by the middle of the month. He’d never been inside this hotel and knew nothing about it. He’d never even heard of the “Liteul Café.”
After all, he lived at the other end of Chicago. But here again, when the voice squeaking on the line asked him to come to the hotel he had strung a series of “Yes, yes, yes. OK, OK,” together. And when the unknown woman specified: “You’ll recognize me easily, I’ll be holding a copy of the Partisan Review,” he had again answered “Yes, yes, Ok, OK.” Although he loathed the review. He hated everything about it: the articles, the journalists, William Phillips – the famous “most intelligent man of America.” And despised the people who read it even more. “Uncultivated snobs!” he’d shout as soon as anyone mentioned them. “Pseudo-intellectuals bloated with dollars who let themselves be conned by a self-proclaimed elite that knows exactly nothing about literature.”
And yet, again he heard himself, happy as a lark, answer the unfamiliar voice without any hesitation: “Yes, yes. OK, OK! I’m coming! I’ll be there in half an hour.”
As soon as he hung up he was annoyed with himself. He was overcome with suspicion. One of those fits of mistrust that grabbed hold of regularly since the three weeks he’d spent in prison in Texas for stealing the typewriter. While awaiting trial he had to share his cell with murderers. That’s where, to save his skin, he had learned never to trust anyone. So he began to stare at his telephone wondering: “Who is sending me this woman?”
For the two years he’d been living alone in his little dump, he was accustomed to ask questions and give answers. That’s when he remembered Mary Guggenheim’s letter. But confusedly – his novel still obsessed him. So instead of rereading the letter, which would have allowed him to see things more clearly, he let the flood of mistrust that poured over him swallow him up. And he imagined that the directors of the review had used Mary first and then the Frenchie who’d just called, to set up some gambit intended to retrieve him.
Even through an intermediary person, he had not the slightest desire to meet the journalists of the Partisan Review. He wanted to remain a radical writer, devoted body and soul to the damned of the earth. And never made a single compromise with the world of the wealthy, even if they had leftist ideas. Especially if they were New Yorkers. Life for him was Chicago and nothing else. He abhorred New York.
Finally, he recalled that the FBI was keeping a close eye on communists and all those who had been communists. For two months they had been saying that Stalin was going to unleash a third world war, and they shoutedthat the large American cities ought to be surrounded with nuclear missilespointing at Moscow,as quickly as possible. Hoover and the others in Washington were all on edge, ready to swoopdown on people like himself, writers, filmmakers, journalists, who’d briefly rubbed elbows with the communist party. Who actually was this Frenchie? And what if it was the FBI trying to trap him?
But it was too late, no way to pull out now, he had said “yes” to her. So he decided to handle it the way he used to when he was going back and forth between Louisiana and Texas: before anything else, he would first check out the terrain seriously. He’d go to the Palmer, but make himself invisible. From a distance he’d spy on the Frenchie, try to figure out what she was made of, what kind of ahuman being she was. If he didn’t like the looks of her, he’d just leave, and no one would be the wiser for it. Like the cat he’d always been.
There was no “Liteul Café” at the Palmer. The bar was called Le Petit Café, in French.
It’s a good fifteen minutes by the time it takes Nelson to make the rounds of the hotel, run into a Mexican orchestra, then gypsy violins, wander from restaurant to cafeteria, from cafeteria to the reception hall in search of the non-existing bar. Finally, as they expound to himwhy this is the most elegant bar to be found between Kansas, Ohio, and North Dakota, hegrasps – by asking – that the Frenchie’s “Liteul Café” is actually called Le Petit Café,. At last he arrives at the famous LePetit Café, immediately identifies the woman he’s spoken with who, as agreed, is holding the review: straight as a rod, clutching it against her heart.
If he weren’t so on his guardit would have made him laugh. Familiar with problematic situations he looks for a spot where he can see without being seen. It doesn’t take long: a dark corner, conveniently located across the door of Le Petit Café. And, another lucky thing, its double doors are wide open.
Then he spots a chair in a corner of the lobby. Looks rightand left,then grabs it, can’t hurt if no one knows, and settles down in the dark nook. Now he can observe the unknown womanvery comfortably. She goes and comes back, obviously very determined. And even when she sits down again, her shoulders stooped with concern, she holds the review close to her heart.
“At first sight, I found her attractive,” he confessed later. But eagerly specified that, even so, he hesitated a long time before approaching her: “As long as I didn’t move I was free to go home. She left the bar four times before I made up my mind to opt for meeting her.”
For that, too, is the cat-man: he could collect the Mary Guggenheims all he wanted and girls for one-night stands even more often, sleep with them in his little house on the other end of the city and never see them again, but he considered women equal to men. And thought that males too frequently make them suffer.
So at exactly nine o’clock he stood up. Came out of the shadows and went over to the unknown woman. And put an end to her ordeal.*
Twenty-eight inches of lacquered table separating them, two whiskies to bring them closer. The price of one glass is disastrous. It is 22 February, the end of the month, Nelson is flat broke but, never mind,he’s paying.
She lets him. Then stares at him. He does the same.
She speaks. She is really beautiful. Those blue eyes. Lake Michigan when the sun shines. And that dark chestnut-colored hair, so very French. That pure, pink complexion. She probably blushes easily.
But there’s no way to understand a single word of what she says or what her point is. Her accent is atrocious: she massacres every word. A real stuck-up Parisian. So arrogant, those Frenchies.
He speaks. How handsome he is. His blonde hair. His velvet hazel eyes. Never seen anything like it. It looks as if his skin is very smooth. He must have shaven before coming.
But what he’s saying is incomprehensible. Will he agree to guide her to the slums or not? No way of knowing. That Chicago accent ishorrible. He doesn’t talk, this guy, he chops his sentences with an axe, strikes, pounds, each word is like a wallop. You’d think he was a lumberjack. Or a boxer.
And not the slightest effort to make himself understood. So brash, these Americans.
From the chaos of syllables that the man utters one word finally surfaces: war.
Then a second one: Mâr-ssèye. “Ah, Marseille!” You know Mâr-ssèye? “Yes, I do!”
She strains her ears. And in the end catches a bit of conversation: he is telling her that he was in France during the war, that for him it ended in Marseille, where he had a damned good time, that there were lots of whores and he dealt in the black market.
She’s excited: “I was a teacher there before the war! For me too, one of the finest times of my life!”
And then there’s no stopping her. A waterfall of words, phrases. Niagara Falls, except that the water falling is replaced by a hail of sharp sounds. What a high-pitched voice she has! And still no way of understanding what she’s talking about.
In any case, she certainly believes in what she says: from time to time she makes grand gestures and at momentslike that her voice goes up another notch. She’s like a lawyer arguing: she is passionate, intense, and adamant.
And always with that French accent you could cut with a knife. Plus the refrain that recurs like a machine gun being fired: war-war-war-war-war. She must be telling him about her war experience.
No, it’s worse than that, war-war-war-war-war, the whole thing from beginning to end.
He manages to grasp a familiar word as it flies by: Paris. Then another one, and suddenly it all becomes clear: she was there in 1944 at the Liberation. He is tempted to tell her: “Me too!”
He hesitates. He didn’t spend more than five days there. And all he saw of Paris was Pigalle.
And then that single word and she’ll get right back to it, war-war-war-war-war, they’ll never get to the end of it. Better shut her up. And do what he did before: study her, spy on her. Plug up his ears.
Look, she has a broken tooth. Never mind, she’s so beautiful. Those Slavic cheekbones, that keen gaze. Cat’s eyes, marvelous!
And her posture. Never seen a woman who holds herself sostraight. War-war-war-war-war, it keeps on going. He no longer cares now, he’s somewhere else, daydreaming: “What the hell was she doing while I was over there in France, acting like a soldier?”
Then suddenly the cat-man resurfaces: “What exactly is she looking for? Very strange, that call of hers…”
He reactivates his listening skills. And then gets it! The Frenchie wants to get to know the hidden face of Chicago at all costs.
He hesitates again: “Who sent this woman my way?”*
That brief moment of wavering, just like her first phone call, haunted him until the end. He recounted that for a few seconds he almost turned on his heels. With his consummate intuition he must have perceived that she came from a world radically different from his, for he said: “I wasn’t getting a feel for the situation.” And his visitor no longer appealed to him at all: “I thought she looked like a teacher.”
Nevertheless, he gave in, it happened from one moment to the next, as the result of some uncontrollable drive. A rocking movement so obscure that, in the end, he hid behind everyday words to describe it: “And yet, I decided to show herthat famous other side of Chicago.”*
She was a sly customer and could sense he was thinking about it. But she was wrong about the nature of his indecisiveness. She thought he was hesitating about which places to show her.
She had just uttered the word “slums.” Then clarified: “Jazz, for instance, night clubs…” He immediately grunted: “Jazz in Chicago is no good. And the rest, the nightclubs are for the average American. No better than in New York. Of course, there are burlesque houses with their striptease dancers…
She cut him off curtly: “That doesn’t excite me.” He back-pedaled: “Fine, I’ll find something else.”
At least, that is Simone’s version. Nelson’s is different and undoubtedly closer to the truth. According to him, as soon as he saw her beginning to quibble his decision was made: he would be the one to decide on the evening’s program. And, to make sure she knew the risks she was taking – all the risks, physical and otherwise – he presented her as a prologue one of those political declarations he was fond of. She wanted slums, he was going to give her slums, real ones. But before leaving that luxurious hotel he was going to clear her head of all her illusions about America and about life in general.
This seemed so important to him that, years later, he was able to replicate his speechalmost verbatim: “I wanted to show her that the USA was not a nation of rich middle class people, all behind the wheel of a car taking them to a fancy suburban house they owned and in possession of theirmembership card to some country club. I wanted to show her the people who, as the result of the same ruthless force, were going straight to the penitentiary and to prison. […] They were going downwards, always farther down. I knew so many of these people that year.”
It was undoubtedly his elation that kept her quiet. As soon as he felt he’d said enough, he got up. She followed him obediently, they crossed the lobby without a glance at the décor, not even at the frescos, which might have gotten a laugh out of Nelson, as they represented a nymph who had just been abducted, the one thing she apparently had ever wanted. Then they went through the heavy door of the Palmer and found themselves outside. The huge old clock on the corner of Monroe and South State Streets showed it was almost ten. The sidewalks were starting to get slippery. It was snowing on Chicago.6
He led her beneath the steel arches of the elevated train. Because of the snow, the soot getting them soiled seemed blacker. He was walking fast, teeth clenched. The cold, or some other reason.
She, too, was walking fast. If he was surprised that she managed to keep up with him, he didn’t show it.
A train passed above them, ardently, enthusiasticallyhauling its metal carriage. You’d think it wouldn’t stop all night. Or ever.
He, the man from Chicago, was dragging carloads of ulterior motive behind him. That’s when she noticed his rather strong jaws, as many white Americans have. But he kept them tightly shut, as he dreaded speaking one word too much, one fateful word. His body didn’t express anything either, other than the strain of walking.
It didn’t scare her. She doggedly matched her step to his.
At times they brushed against each other. Her cheek touched his shoulder and she felt small next to him, very small. She liked that. Just as she liked having to raise her head to try to understand what sort of a man he was.
An arctic wind rushed through the rifts the skyscrapers formed and, every now and then, sent whirlwinds of snowflakes at them beneath their steel refuge. Each time, the blasts would lift up the long blonde lock that fell across his forehead. When they’d pass a streetlight – it was the year when neon began invading all of Chicago, but here and there the old-fashioned lights remained – the lock would shimmer. She liked that, too.
Next, the el, a taxi? What followed then so marked her that she had no memory at all of how they got to West Madison, where he thrust her into the gigantic ghetto that displayed its wretched blight and despair, just ten minutes away. For here they were, those slums she’d been looking for so desperately for the past six weeks. Right in the heart of the city, a few hundred meters from the buildings of Palmolive, Carbide & Carbon, and other temples of universal merchandise, which propel their cement right up into the sky where the snow was forming. From one minute to the next, in the middle of Chicago, she found herself trying to make her way through a sea of litter and fragments of broken glass that were gradually buried by the snowflakes. Every so often, at the end of a sidewalk, an outline of ghosts slipping on patches of ice, staggering, and then pushing open a door. Or others who were coming out, roaming briefly between the garbage cans and piles of trash, then vanished.
Blindly she stepped in her guide’s footsteps. From time to time he offered a short comment, explaining to her that this was a no man’s land where the police had stopped laying down the law years ago. But most of the time he remained locked inside his thoughts; and it was with a sullen look that he pointed out a line of hotels, one more sordid than the next: “Flophouses.”
She didn’t understand. He realized it , consented to unclench his teeth. Then, half exasperated, half smug, he explained that these were the nighttime shelters for migrants who came to try their luck in Chicago each year, in the spring, and almost just as quickly ended up by failing in its chasm. “Fifteen thousand men by themselves,” he explained. “The dregs of society, the mayor and the police say. In reality, masses and masses of vagrants, but sick people and drug addicts as well whom they leave to croak here, among dealers, pimps, pickpockets, clandestine gambling joint owners, tattoo artists who live from day to day, every possible variety of small and big swindlers. And, since the end of the war, GI’s who’ve gone mad from what they’ve seen…”
He moves on to their nightmares, all those visions of horror that seize them unexpectedly, the hell of the Pacific jungles, the carnage on the beaches of Normandy, the barbed wire of the concentration camps. It all depends. He must have listened to these wretches for hours on end: he could go on forever.
Because of the snow, the street is almost empty this evening. But the man from Chicago speaks so well that she sees them, the entire crowd of outcasts mercilessly discarded into this swamp of trash and broken bottles. For one crime only: not being able to stay in the race for the dollar.
Now it was Nelson’s turn to search her face. She won the bluff: she wasn’t afraid. And yet, nothing but males behind these walls, thousands of males. And she the only woman in their midst. Besides the strippers, of course, the madams and half-drugged whores who, in view of the cold, were hunkered down behind the black façades.
She sure had guts. Through the whirlwind of snowflakes she was staring at the row of flophouses as if it was the front wall of a museum.
After a few moments of scrutiny, however, he grasped what was hiding behind that strangely staring gaze: she had turned on the interior camera she carried around inside her head at all times. A writer, like he. So, not very difficult to guess that she was starting to capture bits of scenery that were simultaneously being transformed into words ready to be aligned on a sheet of paper.
Scattered here and there, a bar would break up the straight line of flophouses. He pointed one out, the sleaziest one he could find. He was already looking forward to it; it was the bar-drugstore where the bleach-blonde cashier reigned, the one who had taught him everything he knew about Existentialism. He took her arm and tore her away from her interior writing: “Come, you’ll see…”*
She fell in behind him determinedly. Once inside the bar-drugstore, however, she was stunned. A swaying ship, it looked like, no one was standing solidly on his legs. Clusters of wobbly vagrants everywhere, decrepit old whores who were embracing others even more of a wreck than they, and doing unsteady little dance steps – a small black band playing in a corner.
He gave her time to absorb the scene. Then, showing off, said: “I know themall” and took her to the back of the bar.
They were bumping into some of the dancers. A drunk, who was hugging a fat slut in rags in ecstasy over the trumpets in the band, an old woman fidgeting with her liter of beer, a cripple who stopped limping as soon as he was dancing.
Far from finding it disgusting, she thought it was beautiful. And told him so.
He exploded – it was her English, too, so educated, so stiff. He mimicked her: “It is beautiful…” Then grinding his teeth: “Very French, that reaction! But here we keep everything separate. Watertight compartments, you’d better get that into your head. Beauty on one side, ugliness on the other. Same for the comic and the tragic, Good and Evil. No middle ground, you understand that?”
Taken aback, she stared at him, proving he had hit bull’s eye. And that she was able to understand his English when he scolded her.
So he added another layer: “I’ll show you something better.” And without waiting he pushed her through new swarms of swaying bodies, bruised and broken all around. However, to shake her up this was not the spectacle he wanted her to see. He was counting on the smell. On the stench.
But instead of gagging, as he was hoping, the Frenchie continued to run her inner camera. And persist in writing deep inside her head. He can already see what that might become. Pretty much the same thing as what he is in the process of putting together himself in his novel. A woman who dares enter here, better yet, a woman who dreams of communicating this abyss of distress, it’s something he had never imagined.
Ah, there she is now, drifting. That’s it, she’s stalling.
He approaches her, puts his arm around her. “Come.”
He takes her back to the entrance of the bar-drugstore near the counter where the blonde cashier holds court. Above the band’s blare he shouts at her: “Come sit down with us for a minute, I’ll buy you a drink.” A few moments later, the three of them are together around a table, and just as straightforwardly he explains to the blonde who the visitor is; a Frenchwoman, a writer, who knows Jean-Paul Sartre. It works, the cashier is mesmerized: “Malraux, Sartre, well…, are their new books coming out soon?” Then, without waiting for the Frenchie’s answer, comes the coup de grâce: “And what about Existentialism? Are they still talking about that or has the style changed?”
Existentialism, a style? For once, the Frenchie has no come-back.
He tells himself he’s scored a point.
The blonde gets up, she’d needed at the register. He takes advantage of it to try to show off some more and goes into a description of his friend’s past: the drugs, her troubles with the law, her heartaches, her attempts at detoxification. Another surprise: the Frenchie is all ears.
Then the blonde comes back and sits down again. He interrupts himself and from the little motion of his chin she understands what he wants from her: take the foreigner upstairs and show her the dorm she improvises nightly for the homeless.
The Frenchie’s eye grows sharper. He guesses why and that amuses him: she’s wondering what there is between them, the blonde and he.
But the girl is already on the staircase and they follow her. Once upstairs they’re quiet: it is a dormitory. The Frenchie doesn’t move. Astonishment. And also the wish to get everything down in her invisible manuscript immediately: a disarray of frozen bodies, each in its own way, hit by sleep and suddenly oblivious to the hell where they’ve come to fail.
Then, abruptly, it’s too much, she turns on her heels, tears down the stairs, and hurries over to counter on the ground floor, leans on her elbows, short of breath. “Another whiskey,” she orders briskly. Horror has had the upper hand.
This time she is truly shaken. It exhilarates him to have succeeded in rattling such a tough woman. Almost as much as when he plays poker.
And as when he plays cards, he pushes up the bid. He sits down beside her at the counter and the moment he sees her gather herself together again, he points to the room behind them: “Did you see all these people around us… Absolutely sinister, these characters!”
If he said “characters” it’s because he plans to tell her about the novel he’s writing; after all, she needs to get it into her head that he, too, is a writer. But not a cerebral writer, a writer of what’s real. Nothing to do with the precious intellectuals she met in New York, those people of the Partisan Review who live nicely inside their bubble and discuss theories from morning to night without everhaving seen anything of life, of real life.
She puts her whiskey down, turns to the room and for a very long time watches the fauna that populates the place. Then her gaze comes back to him and she looks him straight in the eye: “The only thing sinister here is you.”
It has the effect on him of a right jab directly in the face – he’s a boxing fan, he trains twice a week, he knows what it is.
But he has also learned how to take a punch. He recovers from the initial shock right away, straightens up to his full six foot height and almost instantly counters. “I’ll take you to a striptease joint.” Without leaving her a second in which to squeal “That doesn’t interest me,” as she did at the Palmer, he takes her arm and pushes her out the door.*
When they reached the “French Casino” he couldn’t keep from showing off again. But suddenly it didn’t have much clout anymore, so he only said: “It’s called burlesque and you’ll only see that here.”
She didn’t answer. She went into the club with the same self-assurance she had when she told him he was a sinister type. A few moments later, with the same nerve, she sits down beside him in the red-lit room where local men come to ogle the girls when they have a few cents to spend.
Here, too, he felt she was taking everything down in her invisible manuscript. The purplish lighting of the “French Casino”, the girls strutting and writhing on the podium that stretches out between the tables where customers are sipping their scotch to lessen their troubles. Terse dominatrices who follow hysterics with their breasts falling out. Ethereal blondes with their falsely modest short skirts who follow phony Cleopatras,impetuous to the last lock of their raven black wigs. Bright red paint splashed over their nipples.
They were all well-equipped with zippered closures – no wonder the system had been invented in a Chicago factory. Finally, they were rigged out in layers of panties and bras that never seemed to end. But nothing could be seen. They seemed like silk onions who peeled themselves clean.
The Frenchie remained impassive. She wasn’t taken by surprise until the girls had nothing on but a minuscule triangle of fabric covering their pubis, tied in the back by a skinny string that ran between their buttocks. That impressed her. She leaned over to him and whispered: “That thing there, that sort of panty… what do they call it?”
He responded; “G-string.” She insisted, still in the same documentary tone: “String I understand. But why Gee?”
That’s when things began to take a strange turn. No way to tell her: “Gee is the abbreviation for genitalia.” Deaf as she was to the Chicago accent, she might well be likely to come back with: “Geni-what?” And there he would have to stall, impossible to continue: “Yes, genitalia, the sexual parts of the woman.” He simply couldn’t see going there. Even if he was an expert in genitalia. That was the problem: with this unknown woman he couldn’t possibly speak of it. With Mary Guggenheim, on the other hand, he would have been delighted to explain everything to her, lavish in detail that he would have invented on top of it all, just to see her face. But, unbelievable, with the Frenchie he remained concise.
The girls were now all in G-strings and making their breasts twirl as in every other burlesque: they looked like the small celluloid windmills you give to children at the fair. The Frenchie was staring at the G-string, wrinkling her nose and looking increasingly perplexed. He said to himself: “I absolutely must answer her or else I’ll never work my way out of this.”
He took a deep breath, then mumbled whatever crossed his mind: “Gee, the name of the fourth sting on the violin.”
She went “Ah?” and he saw that her brain was registering this bogus explanation – it was crazy how clearly he could suddenly see through her.
With any other woman it would have made him laugh. With her – what was her name again? Simone de Beauvoir – he felt very ill at ease.
Maybe it was the way she said “Ah?” and the look on her face at that moment, so earnest – a little girl. He no longer had the heart to provoke her. To the extent that, when one of the strippers came brushing up against them as she continued her obscene prancing – between her powdered thighs, under the G-string triangle, one could clearly distinguish the outline of the perfectly plucked genitalia –, he lowered his eyes and took refuge in a strictly reasonable comment: “Burlesque dancers have to do several sessions a day but it’s less tiring than other jobs and when all is said and done they earn a pretty good living.”
It comforted him: the Frenchienodded, serious as no other. Then she said: “Shall we go?” She, too, felt ill at ease.
They were outside five minutes later. It was still snowing and slippery. Now there was a before and after between them, as if they had just made love.
That’s when he wondered if his Frenchie has limited herself to playing the inner tape recorder in the strip joint.
The frozen light behind the window was fading. Everywhere on the avenue the signs were blinking “Schlitz” in red and it was painful. The thought that she would be elsewhere tomorrow and not see them again.
They ordered another vodka. Without checking their watch, they knew it would be the last one.
She discovered this glass had a new taste and told him so: “This is strong, it’s the taste of Chicago.” It made him smile.
At that moment there was such a tender expression on his face that it inspired her to take her time as she was drinking. But as much as she slowed it down, the glass was empty and she really had to go back out onto the cold avenue.
No taxi in sight. Nelson said: “Let’s leave the Polish quarter,” and took her to an avenue going south.
The buildings became higher and more massive but the sidewalks were still just as slippery as before. Like the previous evening, he wanted to walk beneath the arches of the el – it must be a habit of his when there was ice on the street.
Above them the steel road made a very long curve. She dreamed that it would never stop and neither would their walk.
Then a taxi passed by. She waved it down.
But at that moment he stopped her,too: “Simone… I don’t want to think I won’t see you again.”*
She related the rest in scattered order, in bits and pieces. A few scrambled words in her book on America, a short scene in a novel, a passage from her memoirs, a confidence here, another there. Plus the minute memory flashes that came back to her throughout the letters she sent to Nelson foryears. A puzzle of raw memories whose pieces, once collected, allow for a reconstruction of the scene and of the words they spoke to each other.
She was going to leap into the cab. He didn’t give her time. He came near her and held her close to him. In the space of a second she felt his breath looking for her mouth. She turned her head away: a real kiss, at the last moment like that, would really hurt too much.
But already he was whispering; “You’re going to come back.”
It was an affirmation, not a question. And she heard herself whisper: “Yes.”
He said it again: “You have to come back, it hurts too much.”
It seemed like a confession. She answered again: “Yes” – it, too, was a confession.
He immediately went on the attack again: “One day is too short. Come back.”
And then she came out with a date: “In April.” And corrected herself: “It might be feasible, I don’t know.”
In that instant he must have felt vaguely, without perceiving any details, the sinuous chain of calculations forming inside her head: “My lectures, my airplane ticket, return to Paris on 24 April, Dolores, who will have left, Sartre-Sartre-Sartre-Sartre.” When he spoke again it was in the tone of a man who demands an oath – that’s how she remembers it, anyway, similar to demanding a commitment – “Come back. I don’t want to think I won’t see you again.”
And he kissed her. On the cheek, like the night before. But much closer to her lips. And this time without being content to just brush up against her. There was violence in it, like passion, already.
She was shaken by it. And at the same time she thought: “He kisses me like a thirteen-year old boy. He can’t be very good in bed.’
That, at least, helped her get into the cab, leave for her hotel, finish her article, have her dinner with the consul, and catch her train for Los Angeles.*
Her departure was very hectic. She was late.
Her article was not the reason, she had it done in less than an hour, then dictated it the same way without losing a moment. But then suddenly felt empty and spent quite a while lying on her bed, thinking.
She thought again of Nelson’s kiss. And even more of his “Come back.” Come back, but how? And when? Under what pretext? To see the slums, for her book? Right now, she couldn’t care less about the other side of America.
She got up. Reasoned with herself, told herself she wasn’t going to waste any more time, that she was getting carried away. In short, she was doing her Castor.
But for once it was useless, it was now Simone who was running the show, Simone suddenly very astute, and instead of whining as before, Simone charming, Simone aggressive: “Be that as it may, I have to know with whom I’m dealing. And the best way is by reading his books.”
So she hurriedly buckled her purse, rushed to the reception desk to pick up the package he had promised her. Nobody had seen anything.
She insisted, raged, cursed, insisted some more, checking every counter in the hotel one by one. The consul arrived, jumping up and down, but nothing doing, she was coming and going from reception desk to the concierge’s office, once, twice, three times, then a fourth: no one had seen a thing.
Then she wanted to wait for the arrival of a possible messenger. The consul had to mobilize every diplomatic resource he had to convince her to drop it.
Suddenly the dinner was dreary, and all the more so because the consul had again invited the businessman with the limousine, who hadn’t stopped pining away all afternoon, so sad at the thought of seeing her leave, and staring at her with lovesickeyes.
Was he the one who had asked the consul to pull out all the stops? In any case, the diplomat skimped on nothing: Martinis galore, dinner at the top of a building that overlooked the lake and the line of skyscrapers, and then the grand prize, grilled lobster as much as she could eat. The two men took her to the station. They escorted her like chamberlains, endlessly considerate, one bowing and scraping even more than the other.
For two hours she’d been shelling her crustaceans, submitting to their insipid conversation, and she was steaming. Only one thought in her head: phoning Nelson. As soon as they entered the station, she dumped them to run for the first phone she saw. Then, as her two devoted admirers looked on in alarm – not hard to figure out what they were thinking, “Mademoiselle de Beauvoir, that’s absolutely certain, spent the afternoon getting laid by some Polish rabble on the north side” –, she dialed the number at 1523 Wabansia.
Constructed entirely of wood, the station was very old. It had to date to the early Chicago period, when there still were Indians in the area.
With every departing train the whole structure shook. She had to shout in the telephone to dictate her address in Los Angeles to Nelson. They were basking in pure fairy tale land: as if touched by a magic wand he understood every word she said. And she as well. What mattered above all else, just as at the taxi door, he repeated: “You have to come back, Simone, you absolutely must come back.”
She didn’t know what to answer; and just as she was about to mention the package of books that hadn’t arrived – her pretext for calling him – she heard a word on the other end of the line that upset her even more: “But perhaps, in the end,it is better this way. It makes the separation less difficult.”
She immediately shouted back: “Yes, it’s better this way!” and then continued: “I’m going to read your book, the one you gave me in the bar where they served us vodka. Right away, in the train.” He answered her, she continued as well. So, fatally, it went on. She had to add coins endlessly into the slot but, cling and clang, she kept on finding more of them.
Truly, a fairy tale. With every cling and every clang she was gaining additional love, additional life.
In the end the consul had to tap her on the shoulder: “Mademoiselle de Beauvoir…” She didn’t respond, she hadn’t even heard him, for Nelson had just said it again: “Simone, you absolutely have to come back…”
The loudspeakers at the end of the old wooden train station were making announcements now. She heard them no more than she’d heard the consul. She was deaf to everything except the cling and clang of the nickels she kept slipping into the slot and the voice on the other end that kept repeating: “You’re going to come back, Simone, you have to. There’s still so much I have to show you…”
A very strange darkness had just engulfed her eyes as well. Suddenly, she who usually saw everything, failed to notice that the consul and the businessman had been conferring with each other and she jumped when the consul wanted to lower his hand on the phone to cut the connection – it was the exact moment she was going to ask Nelson about the package of books that hadn’t been delivered to the Palmer, which she still hadn’t said a word about because of the declarations of love she was hearing.
But her reflexes were good and she managed to push the hand away. Back on the phone again. If the consul hadn’t ripped that phone from her hand she would never have taken the train.*
She found herself by the door of her train on time. Before getting on, her two companions made the kind of gestures one makes to a patient before surgery: the businessmangave her a stack of glossy magazines and the consul was a hair away from boarding with her to tuck her into her berth.
She shortened the farewells. She was no longer able to pull the wool over her eyes. Since they had ripped the phone from her hand, her neck and back had crumpled. She climbed up the steps of her car, head tucked between her shoulders.
Then the words and gestures came to Nelson, instinctively. Right after kissing her he whispered: “We have no time to waste.” All of a sudden he was in as much of a hurry as she.
She took the phrase literally. When they found themselves back in the two-room apartment she realized her suitcase was still at the airport, shook her head: “Don’t need it.” And a little later, when he was going through his closet to find clean sheets, she used the moment to get naked and slip into the bed, not giving him any time to change it.
From then on, they had time for nothing but what they anticipated from the night and from thisbed. That is undoubtedly why no one ever knew what happened to the steak.*
In the morning, Nelson gave her a ring. She placed it on the middle finger of her left hand and kept it there for the rest of her life. She even demanded to be buried with it.
It was an unusually large silver ring, at least a centimeter wide, engraved with Inca motifs – some said they were Mayan or, even more vaguely, Indian – but we have no indication of what they represented, and even less of what they symbolized.
While Simone was alive only those closest to her knew, or guessed at, what caused her to be so attached to this ring. Everyone else, starting with the journalists, saw it as just another eccentricity, a unique detail that perfectly matched her little peculiarities of dress, her Mexican blouses, the Calder brooch, or the turban that replaced her chignon in later years. So no photographer ever paid it any attention, nor did any cameraman when she allowed them to film her. No close-ups, that ring remained her secret. The only thing she confessed, suddenly agitated, to a biographer who’d noticed it: “It’s the ring Nelson gave me. In spite of everything I never took it off. And I never will.”
Nelson, too, mentioned the ring. But cryptically, in a novel he never managed to finish, slipped into a passing scene. Nevertheless, it abounds with such precise details that one is left to wonder whether it didn’t actually take place. It shows two lovers the morning after their first night together, who are entertaining themselves with a pretense wedding ceremony. The man laughingly slips a cheap ring onto her finger. The woman seems to be familiar with one-night stands, as is he. Yet, all of a sudden, things get out of control: she leans over to the ring and kisses it like a sacred object.
Her gesture impresses the man, and he is moved. Partly in celebration, no doubt, and partly to pick up the thread of the joyful offhand moments that came before, he opens a bottle of Chianti. The lovers begin drinking. And with every next glass keep the wedding parody going. Now they’re taking pleasure in exchanging vows, but an hour later they realize that they really mean everything they say. Once again, solemnity has caught up with them.
According to this text, the two lovers found a priest for the ceremony as well: the sky. It was clear and amazingly pure. In Nelson’s description, it was the beautiful weather that married them.
Final detail concerning the ring: Simone also wanted to take her watch to her grave. It was on the night of 10 May 1947 in Wabansia that a second miracle followed the first. After Nelson made her reconcile with her own body, they watchedTime stand still, an even greater miracle.13
That eternity lasted three days. The sun and the blue sky persisted, it became ever more beautiful, went up to twenty-eight degrees Celsius on the last afternoon. It made Nelson forget his place in the shadows and Simone the sadness of spirit in which she’d been living until then.
They were already writing books in their mind. From the first night, Nelson saw “Baby ” in Simone, the heroine who would emerge from his typewriter four years later. “Baby” because of her size, of course, her thirty centimeters less than he. But, more importantly, because he had found her to be so disarming, so much a child-woman in love while, the previous evening, there were times he thought he was facing a warrior.
At one point he spoke to her about it. What could she say to him? She had just been obliterated in his arms – she used the term herself. Who was she? She no longer knew. She was, that’s all, period. She became one with the present. She was alive.
And, another miracle: he, that skittish Nelson, too, forgot everything else. The humiliations on the road, his sentence for having stolen a typewriter, the characters of his novel, his losses at the poker table, the other women. A kind of annihilation inside an unfamiliar dimension. He lost complete sight of himself. To such an extent that, when he subsequently wanted to resuscitate this bountiful saturation in non-time in a novel, he did it in the third person and in evanescent sentences. All the same, just by the manner in which he wrote the word “now” with a capital letter, one can clearly see that the miracle happened to him, not his hero, when she told him breathlessly: “Now, with all your heart.” Thereafter it was always: “Now with all his heart. Now with all her heart, Now with all their heart.”