Following Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existential Café, a group biography of the Existentialists and their tangled relationships comes Douglas Cowie’s Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago, a fictionalisation of Nelson Algren’s relationship with Simone de Beauvoir (itself fictionalised by de Beauvoir in The Mandarins) over seventeen years while simultaneously de Beauvoir was in a similarly intense relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre.
Their first meeting is in 1947 when de Beauvoir is looking for “the real city of Chicago” and is given Algren’s phone number, in return Algren takes de Beauvoir on a trip to an identity parade in a police station, a first date that echoes the opening of Algren’s Man With The Golden Arm. From the start their relationship is material for their writing, and while this could make Noon in Paris… a novel that repeats scenes already written by Algren or de Beauvoir Douglas Cowie deals admirably with this competition and establishes his own perspective on the relationship. Algren and de Beauvoir are always aware of a situation’s potential for literary recreation and an emotion’s place in a narrative but Cowie’s sympathetic eye draws a realistic, if wordy (on de Beauvoir’s part), relationship.
Yet this is not a relationship that was ever likely to end well for Algren. The fictional Algren is the most moving figure in this novel, a striking portrait of a tormented man who takes on the emotional damage of everyone he meets and is incapable (unless drunk) of anything but unguarded honesty. Beside this portrait of Algren, Simone de Beauvoir often sounds like a student on a gap year (though looking for a break from her relationship with Sartre). In many ways this is a classic chick-lit novel, revolving around a woman choosing between two men, determined to have a career and independence as well, but with a depth that makes it a philosophical novel (and not only because several of its characters are philosophers).
Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago dramatises opposing views of the role of the writer. Algren’s individualism is set against de Beauvoir’s ideological involvement, and while Algren writes in the isolation of his flat de Beauvoir writes in a Paris cafe (where the public watch her, and she relishes being such a public figure). Algren writes about junkies and criminals who have no other voice while de Beauvoir autobiographically portrays “their private lives together for public gossip.” This conflict in their respective concepts of the role of the writer eventually separates them, when de Beauvoir becomes the public figure she has always regarded herself to be and Algren is “shrunk so small inside the Nelson Algren-shaped body that he’d become”.
Any Cop?: Entertaining and moving, intelligent and questioning, this portrayal of Algren and de Beauvoir feels honest, true and insightful.