Thursday 9 June 2016

Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago - Douglas Cowie

Although we think of existentialism as a quintessentially French philosophy, defined by polo necks and Left Bank cafes, the movement was strongly influenced by American culture, particularly film and music. In her recent account of the movement, At The Existentialist Café, Sarah Bakewell observes that 'if your twenty-first-century time machine could take you back to a Parisian jazz club immediately after the war, you would not find yourself in a sea of existentialist black; you would be more likely to think you'd wandered into a lumberjack's hoedown'. American writers were translated by French publishers, and the likes of Camus were influenced by noir novels. Able to travel to Europe for the first time in years, Americans fell in love with Paris too, and spread the word about existentialism back home.
One consequence of this cultural exchange was the building of transatlantic relationships between American and European writers; in particular, the long-distance relationship between Nelson Algren, author of The Man With the Golden Arm, and Simone de Beauvoir, which is the subject of Douglas Cowie’s new novel Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago.

Cowie is keen to humanise his characters, stripping away their cultural significance in order to focus on the practicalities of their relationship. His narrative begins with de Beauvoir arriving in Chicago on her first American trip. She had been frustrated by her reception in New York, where she was treated as a literary celebrity, managing to break free on a couple of occasions, where she had 'walked the Manhattan grid alone and eaten in drugstores and drunk whisky in dark and filthy bars'. She has been told that Nelson Algren could give her a very different insight into American life. On their first night, after visiting a seedy bar, he takes her to watch the Line Up at the County Jail, where criminals are paraded before them: 'another armed robber, followed by a murderer, an arsonist, a petty thief, someone who'd been in a fight, another who'd stabbed his wife'. De Beauvoir is moved to tears by the intensity of the experience, while Algren 'sat erect like an eager schoolboy listening to a lesson'.

Their early exchanges are marked by a mutual incomprehension. Aside from the language barrier, Algren is baffled by his guest’s obsession with the ‘real’. Sitting in a hotel café, de Beauvoir expresses her desire to see the ‘real’ America; coming across as more of a phenomenologist than she is, Algren raps on the table and says ‘seems pretty real to me’. In true rom-com style though, these little misunderstandings soon blossom into affection between the ‘local youth’ and his ‘frog wife’. The course of true love never did run smooth, of course. If the ocean in between them was not enough of a hindrance to romance, there is also the complicating issue of Jean-Paul Sartre. Although de Beauvoir is free to pursue relationships as she wishes, her primary commitment is always to Sartre and their work together, which Algren struggles to accept. Cowie charts the vicissitudes of their relationship, and the complex issues of loyalty and desire which threaten to derail them.

Unfortunately, by focussing on his characters’ emotional, rather than intellectual, lives, Cowie seems to diminish them somewhat. This is particularly true in the case of de Beauvoir, who is made to seem naïve and inexperienced. Cowie appears to be something of a partisan for Algren, stressing his involvement in the writing of The Second Sex (lending her reading materials, and encouraging her to work her initial essay up into full-length book form), and his role as a protector for de Beauvoir, shielding her when she receives hostile reactions in the street and threatening to punch Arthur Koestler when he insults her. At times, we are in Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus territory, as Simone de Beauvoir ponders drawing hearts around Algren’s name on the dedication page of her new novel, while Algren muses, in the classic bewildered masculine style, about the 'energy or tears or anger or sadness or whatever it was that drove Simone de Beauvoir. Damned if he knew'.

While there is merit in demystifying the subjects of his book, Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago feels like a missed opportunity. Cowie writes well about the dynamics of the relationship between Algren, de Beauvoir, and the other lovers who orbit them, including Sartre, Algren’s ex-wife, and Margot, a heroin addict who he takes in to his home, but there is little about the specific cultural circumstances which shaped these people’s ideas, and drove their actions. As the narrative progresses, we become aware that de Beauvoir is a big deal, but the ideas which drive her writing are rarely articulated through her dialogue or behaviour here. Sartre is alternately ingratiating or clownish, and the rest of de Beauvoir’s circle make little impression.

Ultimately, I feel like the presence of Algren and de Beauvoir, and the weight of preconceptions that they bring, are damaging to the novel. The use of prominent historical figures places a barrier between the reader and the text and requiring the reader to ask not just ‘would the character behave like that?’ but ‘would Simone de Beauvoir have behaved like that?’ With that difficulty stripped away, Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago would be a perfectly serviceable exploration of long-distance and open relationships; as it is, the book struggles under the weight of expectations.

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