Traveling the World with Nelson Algren

Among other interests and also things like work that are taking up my spare time, I’ve been reading Nelson Algren’s Who Lost an American? I started in on this hot on the heels of finishing Never Come Morning, a positively amazing book on the promises of the America received by the parents of a neighborhood of 1st generation immigrants’ parents’ that have turned out unredeemable. It’s Ilya Murametz in America, and in the New World the dragon eats the paralyzed Slavic giant, even after he’s finally found his strength.

I started this post to talk about Who Lost an American: Being a guide to the Seamier Sides of New York City, Inner London, Paris, Dublin, Barcelona, Seville, Almeria, Istanbul, Crete, and Chicago, Illinois. Dedicated to Simone De Beauvoir, whose husband, Sartre, translated Algren into French, it’s a very loosely associated book of essays, some reprinted from other places, on the author’s impressions of the aforementioned cities. It’s hit-and-miss. A few of the essays read like a Groucho Marx monologue with a sentence flow just as jarring. A few of the essays make the whole book worthwhile.

Algren is a precursor to Pynchon. Both authors share a penchant for a meter in the written word that is esoteric and hard to find. They strike off on flights of poetry and fractally compounding sentence structure bidden by internal cues, seemingly struck somewhere amid the work of building sentences by the thing they are really talking about- the thing they are going to bend the factual stuff and grammar of the sentence in a knot around, eventually describing the real issue’s circumference. Both men write as though no one has ever written before and nothing is expected of them except that which they expect of themselves. Both men are American writers, real moral voices who, though they may break into song or verse mid-story, or erect an addition to a sentence to house the meat of three or four more concepts than the reader could have anticipated being associated with the original subject, write with a unique and sympathetically motivated fervor, and eventual pity for the human condition as it remains bound and chained in a modernity that really hasn’t changed since the American Revolution. Hey, who can ignore, also, that both have drawn heavily on their experiences with the conscripted and laggard military bureaucracy as a primary introduction to the greater world.
Algren draws on his memories of the Europe he saw in WWII in Who Lost an American? to compare the places he is seeing presently with those things he caught the tail end of at the aftermath of the war. In doing this, sure, he is able to outline some of the changes that have occurred in the countries of Europe he visits, but also by revealing to the reader what he thinks he saw then, we understand his motivations as a writer better.

47 pages into the book, I had already found reason to photocopy a portion to give to a friend: the essay on Dublin, entitled The Banjaxed Land (You Have Your People and I Have Mine).

Very meaty stuff here from a land long embroiled in violence… and prescient, too. In it he meets with Irish writers Brendan Behan (former IRA operative, once imprisoned for being such), Patrick Kavanagh, and John Montague, and talks with an American voice about life in a world of “Coca-Cola Culture.”

In the essay, Behan is said to have sat on a televised discussion panel on “The Art of Conversation”, in which he states, according to Algren’s pen, “The art of conversation is dead and you Americans have murdered it as you are murdering everything else worthwhile in the world…”, a statement on par with Zizek or Baudrillard, a comment on the reversal of the meaning of being free to have conversation when it is an imperative to talk. Talking becomes simple repetition of approved and expected themes in a highly mediated culture when communication becomes not only commonplace, but expected in all cases. Take into account the idea of the environment in Ireland then, a paranoid police imperative to inform that often simply had the opposite effect: silence.

Algren shows, then, that this is not an American endemic trend, but a global one.

And he drives this home, too, when he shows up at the door of John Montague, Brooklyn-born first chair of the Ireland Chair of Poetry. Algren writes:

I was confident that my appearance at 6 Herbert Street would come as a complete surprise and I have seldom been so completely surprised. Mr. Montague greeted me with a warmth recalling the passion of Buster Keaton. “We don’t want your Coca-Cola culture around here,” he welcomed me; “our Ancient Nation is not on the market for cool sound.”

“That’s my ancient nation you’re talking about, Bud,” I informed Mr. Montague, as I consider it my mission to defend culture even in its most curious forms.

Culture in all cases is curious, and the things we fear in others can just as easily be found in ourselves despite the urge to fish for that red herring of xenophobia.

The last little passage I want to highlight is Algren’s conversation with “Mary, a girl of twenty, who was going to America to work as a domestic ‘In a place called Pasadena.'”

“I’m fed up here,” Mary told me, putting my cap on her head to pretend she was now having fun.

I might as well tell you right here that, when she did that, we both had the peak of the evening.

“I hope you don’t get fed up with Pasadena,” I voiced a hope while concealing a doubt.

“I’m already fed up with Pasadena,” she told me; “I hate the very sight of the place.” Under the cap her eyes turned inward to a dark hollow no Pasadena would fill.

Describing the ennui of the Irish during a time of depressed economy in a consumer’s world (already, even then) with nostalgia and wistfulness, Algren reveals the American’s ennui, as well. Just as Mary can’t be sated by any place or any idea anymore, but must have the next one, and then the next, so too does our American author-adventurer-carouser reveal in his sympathy and nostalgia for an Ireland gone by the ennui we all share in an accelerating modernity hungry for The Real Thing.

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