Books: The little frog goes wooing

The godmother of feminism showed a hidden, softer face to her American lover. Beloved Chicago Man: Letters to Nelson Algren, 1947-1964 by Simone de Beauvoir Gollancz, pounds 25, 576pp
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Simone de Beauvoir as pioneer of the women's movement, as rigorous intellectual and champion of free and open relations between the sexes? Yes. De Beauvoir as novelist, as incisive chronicler of her times, as Notre-Dame-de-Sartre, one half of the mythical existentialist duo? Of course. But de Beauvoir as a "loving little frog"? Never!

Yet this is the de Beauvoir who writes to Nelson Algren over the five years of their transatlantic affair - years which make up the bulk of this astonishing correspondence, though it goes on sporadically for another 10. She writes in English, with all the awkwardness of a non-native speaker. The clumsiness is endearing. Stripped of the logical precision of French, de Beauvoir emerges as tender and passionate, even frisky and playful, always greedy for love. English forces a directness on her.

Part of the drama of these letters lies in the fact that they coincide with the writing of The Second Sex, where de Beauvoir exposed love as woman's greatest trap. The woman in love, she writes, lives on her knees and few crimes entail worse punishment "than the generous fault of putting oneself entirely in another's hands". On that word "entirely" the relationship with Algren hinged, then creaked and cracked.

De Beauvoir met Algren in 1947 on her first trip to the US. She was 39 and already famous. As she began her lecture tour, the New Yorker hailed her as the "prettiest existentialist". From impoverished, war-torn Paris, the US presented a haven of freedom and plenty. Simone spoke and listened, wined and dined, walked for miles, made forays into the forbidden world of Harlem. She also observed acutely. In America Day by Day, she notes: "In the eyes of the average American, imperialism takes on the guise of charity. Their arrogance lies not in their love of power. It is the love of imposing on others that which is good."

A New York acquaintance suggested that Simone look up the left-wing writer Nelson Algren during her stay in Chicago. Algren's stories had just appeared to critical success. Simone rang him. She wanted to see Algren's nether America of drug addicts and gamblers and prostitutes. Algren twice hung up, unable to understand her accented speech.

Finally, a meeting was arranged. No sooner had Algren opened the door than the electricity between them crackled. They walked and attempted to talk, drank in Polish bars, and parted with a kiss. Simone's first letter to Algren confides: "I was happy, being with you. I did not like to say good bye, perhaps not to see you again in my life ..."

The dominant note of the relationship is struck. Goodbyes are implicit in hellos, parting in presence. However much Simone's letters may iterate that Nelson is her "only true love" - that she dreams of being a good frog-wife to her "sweet crocodile" - it is clear that her life is elsewhere. At first the letters name this as her working life of a writer, editor and intellectual. Only gradually do they disclose Sartre as a major component of that French life.

In fact, Sartre - embroiled in his own affair with Dolores Vanetti in 1947 - was instrumental in launching de Beauvoir into a relationship with Algren. He asked Simone to postpone her arrival in Paris by 10 days. She returned to Chicago to see Algren and the physical bond was sealed. In May, she flew to France only to make the difficult journey back to Chicago again in September.

The following May, she was once more in Chicago; she and Nelson then travelled around Mexico. Simone cut this trip short on account of Sartre. He grew increasingly morose, hostile, until Simone said she could leave immediately. He responded by asking her to marry him.

On her return to Paris, her letters are riddled with despair and guilt. She tries to explain the nature of her relations with Sartre: "I should not be the Simone you love, if I could give up my life with Sartre. I should be a dirty creature, a treacherous and selfish woman ... Sartre needs me ... I am his one true friend, the only one who really understands him, helps him, works with him, gives him some peace and poise."

Three weeks later, she amplifies: "Sartre was my first love ... We spent a long time together and I told you already how I care for him, but it was rather deep friendship than love ... Chiefly because he does not care much for sexual life. He is a warm, lively man everywhere, but not in bed ... it seemed useless, and even indecent, to go on being lovers." Both hindered and abetted by distance, Algren and de Beauvoir carried on passionate relations through his stay in Paris in 1949 until her stay on Lake Michigan in the summer of 1950, when he brutally announced he no longer loved her. He remarried his first wife.

Back in Paris, Simone (as she periodically did when her emotions overwhelmed her) suffered a physical breakdown: this time, a breast cancer scare. When she recovered, she began a love affair with a car, learning to drive with reckless abandon. She also carried on writing, now in friendship, to her "beloved Chicago man", telling him that what was to become The Mandarins, her best book, was his book since it also told their story. The letters continue to chart her efforts to have his work translated. They chronicle French intellectual and political life, and the Algerian liberation struggle, as well as Simone's extensive travels.

What these letters lack is their co-respondent. The fierce, trenchant voice of the author of The Man with the Golden Arm is nowhere to answer de Beauvoir's passion and despair. Sylvie le Bon de Beauvoir - Simone's adoptive daughter, who compiled this volume - intimates that the fault lies in Algren's estate.

Algren finally broke off all relations with de Beauvoir after the appearance of the third volume of her autobiography, Force of Circumstance, in 1963. Here she coolly sums up her thoughts on the possibility of "reconciliation between fidelity and freedom", her and Sartre's notion of "contingent loves". Far too coolly for Algren, who reviewed the book with a pithy hostility that speaks of years of simmering anger. "Anybody who can experience love contingently has a mind that has recently snapped," he wrote. "How can love be contingent?"

Algren's wounded vanity shows. Then, too, his star was on the wane. He never rose again to the heights of his early work. And the "little frog- wife"? Well, she was faithful in her fashion. De Beauvoir was buried wearing Nelson Algren's ring.

Simone de Beauvoir, A Biography

The French novelist, socialist and existentialist writer was born in 1908 in Paris into a middle-class family. She read philosophy at the Sorbonne, where she met Jean-Paul Sartre, her life-long companion. After a teaching diploma, she taught briefly in Paris before moving to Rouen until 1936. In 1937 she returned to Paris. The Second Sex (1949) caused an uproar on publication, being a comprehensive study of the role of women in society and their oppression, drawing on history, mythology and literature. It is hailed by many as one of the first major feminist texts. Her first published novel was She Came to Stay (1943), followed by The Blood of Others (1945) and All Men are Mortal. The Mandarins (1954) won the Prix Goncourt. It examines the dilemmas of politically active intellectuals during the Occupation. She sympathised with the Communist Party but, like Sartre, never joined. They founded Les Temps Modernes in 1945. She also wrote many autobiographical works. In 1981 La ceremonie des adieux, her uncharitable account of the last years of Sartre's life, was published. She died in 1986.