Douglas Cowie’s most recent book, Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago, is a fictionalised account of the near-two-decades-long relationship between Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren. As Cowie has pointed out, while many would automatically call what existed between Beauvoir and Algren an affair, that word’s suggestion of something secret, untoward, perhaps a little seedy makes it a poor fit to the writers’ pained but loving connection: eighteen years, the author has noted, is surely too long a commitment, and suggests too strong a bond, to be labelled, dismissively, an affair.
On a cold Chicago evening – February 1947 – Nelson Algren receives a phone call that he thinks must either have been misdirected or misdialled. The caller does not speak his language; he hangs up three times before the operator intercedes on Simone de Beauvoir’s behalf. The two writers speak, briefly. Beauvoir is visiting from France, has come to Chicago from New York, and a mutual friend has suggested that, should she wish to see the ‘real’ Chicago, Algren be her tour-guide. They meet amid the bright lights and grandeur of the Palmer House, one of Chicago’s finest hotels, where Beauvoir is staying. From here, Algren leads the way through a divine and dark comedy of shady streets and bars, prostitutes, a police-station line-up that cannot fail to make one think of the opening of The Man with the Golden Arm. Beauvoir is overwhelmed by the experience and feels faint. They return to Algren’s apartment. They have sex. Next morning, Algren makes breakfast. So begins the eighteen-year ‘marriage,’ as Algren and Beauvoir come to see it, between a ‘local Chicago youth’ and his ‘frog wife.’
Cowie’s will likely be a new name to many readers, though his first novel, Owen Noone and the Marauder (a remarkable debut about friendship, loneliness, and music) was published a little over a decade ago. He lectures in creative writing and American literature at Royal Holloway (University of London), where he has taught courses on, among others, Hemingway and the literature of Chicago (the reading list for the latter of which of course includes Algren). He considers the half-forgotten Algren – of whom many have heard but few have read; he is, for now, a little like those holiday destinations of which we finds ourselves forever saying we have always wanted to go but (still!) have never been – to be one of the great writers in English. Cowie writes with great economy and assurance, a commanding sense of purpose and narrative drive which in places remind one of the best moments in Anne Tyler. I am not sure whether Cowie would welcome this comparison, but it is meant as a compliment, for, like Tyler at her best, he avoids descending into sentimentalism’s familiar rhythms, resolutions, and clichés while being unafraid and unapologetic in his renderings – equally raw and incisive – of sentiment. (I read Owen Noone years before Tyler’s early novella A Slipping-Down Life, and my appreciation of the latter was shaped strongly by the memory of the former.) Human feeling is the basic – which is not to say easily captured – ingredient of this new novel, which works as a satisfying and coherent whole, in no small measure thanks to Cowie’s ability to balance narrative warmth with authorial cool. Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago is tender without ever being mawkish.
The quick birth and slow death of a relationship makes for a simple plot, and that the relationship will not last is not the revelation or dramatic climax of the book. Its breakdown is, in fact, signalled in the prologue – which rather beautifully answers to Algren’s closing thought of Simone – in which Beauvoir, in 1981, reads of Algren’s death, and finds that she is sad but not sorry:
He’d written so many terrible things about her after her memoir […]. No, she couldn’t feel sorry or apologise. […] There’s no use apologising or feeling sorry for the dead, anyway. She could feel sad, though, she admitted to herself.
The novel’s force lies in the carefully shaped sentences and beautiful because unadorned language, from the sensitivity with which Cowie, focalising his narrative in almost equal parts through his protagonists, renders the fine grain, snags, and splinters of love, its illimitable complexities, and its decline. Late in the novel, in one of only two such passages I can identify, an omniscient voice intervenes to comment on Algren’s failure of understanding of the dynamics of love: ‘Love can’t be built on conditions,’ Algren tells himself. ‘If it is, maybe it isn’t love, after all. Nelson didn’t recognise his own conditions as conditions. But conditions are always there, in love.’ Perhaps, though, it is fair to say that after nearly eighteen years Algren does come to realise that conditions are there, on both sides, and that they are ultimately impossible to satisfy. ‘Will it be a long time before we see one another again?’ Simone asks, in late summer of 1960. ‘It will,’ Nelson replies, ‘probably.’ The adverb cannot dampen the blunt finality of the preceding clause. Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren will not meet again. In 1964, following the publication of Beauvoir’s memoir, a silence begins which, Simone realises on hearing of Algren’s passing, will last nearly as long as the relationship itself. Or perhaps it is its long-resounding, final cadence.
By the time they come to say what will, in effect, be their final goodbye, both Nelson and Simone realise that while love lingers things are not and cannot be what they were. In part, this is because Algren has turned from an energetic man, cocksure and confident in his art, to one of questionable mental health and embittered by professional and connubial frustration. His decline from a figure of rather Emersonian machismo – the Algren we meet at novel’s opening is the very image of self-assurance and perfectly balanced action and intellect imagined in ‘The American Scholar’ and ‘Self-Reliance’ – is a condensed tragedy so well limned that, at times, the reading is painful. During his final visit to Beauvoir, which will be their last time together, we find Algren resentful of the time Simone spends apart from him, equally dissatisfied with their time together. For her part, Beauvoir – who at times seems very much the existential egoist, seeing her significant others as extensions of herself (as ‘traces’ and ‘fingerprints,’ as she puts it at one point) rather than as others to whom she is obligated and by whom shaped – realises by now that what she now feels for her ‘local Chicago youth,’ her ‘crocodile’ husband, is something devastating for them: pity.
She would listen to this sad man that her Chicago husband had become, and realised
that only love made his complaints tolerable. […] He thought so little of himself that
he couldn’t reach high enough to let others help him […].
Poor Nelson, poor Chicago husband, poor crocodile and local youth. Again her pity demeaned them both, demeaned their love.
With Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago, Cowie sounds a gentle yet precisely articulated tragedy – the inability of two keen interpreters of human experience to comprehend fully, until too late, the impossible demands each makes on the other. He sounds this tragedy as if it were notes played on Harmon-muted trumpet. Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago is – like all Cowie’s work, but especially Sing For life: Tin Pan Alley, the first of his paired novellas that continue the Owen Noone story – is a meticulously crafted and moving piece of work. A not-entirely-new new voice, Cowie’s has a song worth both the singing and the hearing.
By Oli Belas