The collected love letters in Simone de Beauvoir's A Transatlantic Love Affair: Letters to Nelson Algren
chart not only the passionate, tumultuous affair between the two writers, but also the social, political, and cultural changes from 1947 to 1964. When I picked up this book in a used bookstore, I thought that it would make a great coffee table book--one that could start engaging conversations and be read from time to time by guests or myself. This, however, was not the case. Once I started reading, I found myself caught up in the developing love relationship between de Beauvoir and Algren and intrigued by the recollections of day-to-day activities among the intellectual sphere in France and also abroad. As an English major, I have read de Beauvoir's more "academic" texts, but my time spent with A Transatlantic Love Affair
provided me with an intimate portrait of a major literary figure that was refreshing. The nature of these letters, primarily love, provides a portrait of de Beauvoir that is not talked about in classrooms. The letters are prolific in their information, but much of what de Beauvoir writes can be categorized into three groups: her feelings for Algren; literature, theatre, and art; and the political, intellectual, and cultural atmosphere of France and abroad.
Any romantic relationship, especially a "transatlantic" one, evolves over time, and de Beauvoir's letters intimately capture all the little moments of her relationship with Algren. The love relationship between the two was almost immediate; after just two months de Beauvoir ended her letter writing, "I am your wife forever." Despite their initial infatuations with each other, de Beauvoir comments quite frequently in the first letters about not truly knowing Algren. This shifts a few months later, when de Beauvoir writes, "I feel now, instead we are getting nearer and nearer through these letters." The reason that this collection of letters is so difficult to put down is two-fold: first the letters transcend and act as a mirror to our own personal love stories or the ones we hope to have, and second the letters reveal a poignant narrative of a relationship between two artists.
Indeed, the intense desire to love and be loved that de Beauvoir relates in her letters to Algren makes the letters more of a love story than one would expect from reading only one partner's letters. Each letter contains quotable passages that would illustrate this, but the following highlights the intricate prose and also the crystallization of their bond: "Something happened when we said good bye in New York, and it was the beginning of love. But something happened too when I found you again in the Wabansia home and I stood quivering in your arms, and it was the fulfillment of love." The relationship between de Beauvoir and Algren shifted over time and eventually the letters she writes to him begin to change in subtle, but distinct ways. Because the letters of Algren are not included in this book, it is hard not to feel more sympathetically towards de Beauvoir, especially towards the end of the collection. Algren is definitively the one who ends their relationship in 1964, but their correspondence does not end bitterly. The last letter de Beauvoir writes to Algren is hopeful, she writes she is travelling to the States in 6 months and that she will "find" him. Despite the tinge of promise in the last letter, the ending of their relationship and subsequently the ending of their exchange of letters are heartbreaking. De Beauvoir never did "find" Algren, and the last letter in the collection is the end of their correspondence.
The title of the collection of letters speaks to the love that is found in each of the letters, but, in truth, there is a lot more than love embedded in de Beauvoir's writings to Algren. De Beauvoir writes about the present turmoil and also about the war years, women's issues, and the differences between American and French culture. Simone de Beauvoir was part of the "intellectuals" in France, and in her letters she meticulously records the political atmosphere and the cultural changes occurring in France and Europe. When de Beauvoir and Algren start their correspondence, the political situation in France is tumultuous. The letters provide a portrait of the struggles between the Communist Party and the Popular Republican Movement: "two blocks in France now, just as outside: USA or USSR, De Gaulle or Thorez, a kind of civil war." The letters span a period of twenty years, and the letters act as a memoir of sorts of the life of an activist. At one point she writes about a radio engagement where she and Jean Paul Sartre spoke against de Gaulle: "I don't think we'll go on a long time; they will fire us, but it was pleasant to be able to say in so loud a voice what we thought."
Perhaps the most rewarding part of reading de Beauvoir's letters is getting a behind the scenes view of the literati. De Beauvoir had an extremely close relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre, among other French authors, musicians, actresses and actors, and philosophers. De Beauvoir writes about Sartre's work and the reception of his plays by the public and by Sartre himself. Through the letters, we get an inside look at Sartre and his work and also de Beauvoir's. One of her projects during her relationship with Algren that she writes about is her famous work The Second Sex. I had read The Second Sex in a course, but reading about her process of writing it in the letters made that text even more intriguing. In the beginning of 1948, a year before it was published, she writes, "I came back to my essay about women. I told you, I have never felt bad for being a woman, and sometimes I even enjoy it, as you know. Yet when I see other women around me, I think they have very peculiar problems and it would be interesting to look at what is peculiar in them." In everything that de Beauvoir writes about in her letters about The Second Sex
, one gains a perspective that lends to a more thorough reading of that seminal text.
I could continue writing about all the topics that can be found in the many letters Simone de Beauvoir wrote to Nelson Algren, but part of the joy of reading the letters is discovering the little secrets about de Beauvoir and her life. These letters are a snapshot of a side of de Beauvoir that is not found in biographies or her academic writing. Her love letters to Algren are a captivating portrayal of a love story--the full spectrum, from a passionate, romantic love to a compassionate, platonic affection--and her activities and intellectual thoughts. While that information seems to be inconsequential, compared to her love for Algren, to de Beauvoir, every sentence in her letters is alluring and fascinating. Reading these letters, one truly does feel as if one is a confidante of de Beauvoir and privy to her dearest and most private thoughts.
Review by Sheri Gitelson