“Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.” –Nelson Algren, Chicago: City on the Make (1951)
I’m reading Bernard-Henri Lévy‘s American Vertigo, his reprise of Tocqueville‘s journey through the United States as described in the famous Democracy in America. In the chapter that I’m reading, he’s talking about meeting Chicago mayor Richard Daley, and the contrast between Chicago as Daley wanted it to be seen and the Chicago of Otto Preminger and James T. Farrell. He talks about the Chicago that was described in the novels of the great American novelist and Chicago-lover Nelson Algren. I was pleased to read this, as I had read a couple of Algren’s novels as a teenager. His shitty world of junkies, drunks, murderers, thieves, and other assorted low-lifes had a certain resonance for me as a problem child. I was struck by how much his photo on the back cover of one of his books looked like my father–short hair, glasses, borderline angry, smoking a cigarette, a book sticking out of the pocket of his Army field jacket (Algren was a stretcher-bearer during World War II)–and later, in my early college years, I flirted with the look myself, wanting to look like my father and hoping for a little bit of that Algren magic. (The book sticking out of my pocket was most likely Nausea, by Jean-Paul Sartre, for whom Algren’s long-time lover Simone de Beauvoir left him. The book sticking out of my father’s pocket… Hard to say. I’m going to guess the poetry of Fernando Pessoa, but it could have been anything. I’m typically a cheerful person, and left the borderline-angry part out, myself.)
Trying to find that old back-cover photograph of Algren, I read his Wikipedia page, and got the best treat of this whole trip down memory lane. It turns out that he is the source of one of my favorite quotes–see above about lovelies. Of course, there is no discovery without Zipf’s Law, and here are some of the words that I had to look up in Lévy’s description of Chicago:
…le Chicago des camés, des paumés, des putes, des freaks et des voyous peints par Nelson Algren.
…the Chicago of the junkies, of the lost souls, of the whores, of the freaks, and of the thugs painted by Nelson Algren.
–Bernard-Henri Lévy, American Vertigo
- le camé: junkie.
- le paumé: lost soul, drop-out.
- le voyou: thug.
Definitions from WordReference.com.
3 thoughts on “Never a lovely so real: talking about Nelson Algren’s Chicago in French”
I like your reminding me of Algren who I enjoyed in a past life – and Chicago I love – but Bernard-Henry Lévy is to my mind of a generation of French intellectuals who never quite shook off their latent anti-Americanism sufficiently to describe the USA with any manner of real emotion…. Do please post your impressions when you finish it?
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Will do, Bea.
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