Nelson Algren at Fifty-Five
H. E. F. DONOHUE is an editor and short story writer whose first novel, HIGHER ANIMALS,will soon be published. Two years ago, Mr. Donohue began a series of interviews with NELSON ALGREN,author of the prize novel THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM.From their many discussions has emerged CONVERSATIONS WITH NELSON ALGREN,to be published this month by Hill and Wang. This is good talk from one of America’s ablest writers.
THE strong, set expression on his face — an alert, angular concordance of total acceptance and bemused surprise — has caused some spectators to tell Nelson Algren he looks like a dishonest Art Carney. This always pleases him. He is even more pleased when someone tells him he looks like a healthy Baudelaire.
It is his shock of hair that does it. He has the highest widow’s peak in the world, and he keeps brushing his hair with one hand the wrong way, from nape of neck to forehead, so that the whole thatch rises torturously, crowning him with the cheerful aspect of a noble Mohawk gone berserk. When, at some woman’s insistence, he combs it back, he can exude what Mark Twain has called “the calm confidence of a Christian with four aces.” Even without his glasses, which he usually does not wear, his eyes miss nothing. He seems constantly ready to observe everything, particularly something that is about to go crazy or wrong.
Often he will sport a cigar. He drinks when he pleases and enjoys food. Just under six feet tall, Algren has the slightly rounded but tough stomach of the mature man who takes good care of the rest of his body. He swims. He walks. With men he strides slightly ahead; with women he stays quite close, paying strict attention.
Q: How about love? Does love interest you?
ALGREN: I don’t think an unshared experience is an experience. To experience anything you have to experience it through somebody else. Sometimes you have a love feeling and it isn’t concentrated anywhere. Sometimes it’s very easy. You can look at somebody in the streetcar, and you can say, “Well, she’d do.” You don’t do anything about it. And there have been long stretches of time when I wouldn’t say I was not in love, but I was not committed. But I don’t think it’s a real life without it, without the shared experience which becomes love. Like what’s the good of going to the circus and seeing people do tremendous things if you have no reaction to consult with? There’s no point. My point in going to the circus is to take somebody who’s never seen that. You share her wonder. High-wire artists don’t particularly interest me, but if they interest her, then I get something out of it. You get something through the other person.
Q: Do you call your writing a shared experience, then?
ALGREN: NO. I don’t share that. I don’t know how you share writing.
Q: I mean, do other people share what you have written?
ALGREN: Oh, yeah, yeah. I often get that. I often get that. That’s always gratifying, of course, if somebody says, “That story really hit me.” Budd Schulberg told me about one of my light stories. He said, “This is the way a fighter really feels,” and since I think Schulberg knows how a fighter feels, that’s an achievement — when you get it from people who know what it’s like. This drug addict told me, he said, “You know how it really feels.” That’s about as much, that’s about as good as somebody telling an actor that that’s how it really is. You’ve got to be something more than just yourself. It’s many things, of course. I suppose outwardly the chief thing is it’s a way of earning a living. I don’t know if I could earn a living another way. The other way I’d earn a living would be as a porter somewhere. I wouldn’t be able to work in an oflice.
Q: If writing is the sharing of your experience, then isn’t your writing an act of love?
ALGREN: Oh, yeah, yeah. It gives some dignity to your life. Even if nobody ever read it, you’re doing something. You’re working on the most important thing. You’re not giving yourself to adding a column of figures that you know doesn’t matter whether it comes out right or not. You’re not writing phony advertisements. You’re not doing anything meaningless. You have a chance to reach people who are not even born yet.
Q: Do you think everybody can write?
ALGREN: Oh, no.
Q: What about those people who add up the columns of figures?
ALGREN: They usually like it, I guess.
Q: Should they be mocked for not doing what they cannot do?
ALGREN: I’m not mocking them. I just say I can’t do what they do.
Q: How important is sex to you?
ALGREN: Well, I think sex is part of everything. I don’t think of sex as just something that happens now and then. I can’t imagine writing without the feel of sex. I mean sex is a diffuse feeling. It diffuses everything, and only once in a while would it be called sex. Sex is diffused with love and affection, and I don’t think you can make things like that happen. It has to start the other way. Otherwise, it’s pretty meaningless. Once in Paris I was driving around with a pretty attractive girl who was a little on the loose, a good-looking girl about twenty-eight; she took me out to a swimming pool and drove me home. She talked very frankly about sex. She had the afternoon free, and I would have liked to have gone to bed with her, but I said, “The trouble with it is I’m leaving Paris. How you going to start something and then finish it?” I just didn’t have the heart, you know. It wasn’t hard to do, but the feeling went out. I thought, Oh. what the hell, and I said, “Drop me off here.” I didn’t feel any regret about that. I think I was right. It’s got to be the other way around. It’s got to be the big thing first, and then this other thing is just incidental. When you start planning it and being deliberate about it, it goes wrong. It’s usually just when you’re both thinking about something else, or rather you’re just preoccupied with one another as people, and boing! That’s when it’s all right. But you can’t make that happen. You can’t say, “Now let’s have a big sex deal.” That spoils it right away. At first I couldn’t figure something out, but it’s really very simple, that women who come around looking very persistently for sex, usually married women looking for sex, I thought that this meant that they’re sexy. But it means that they are sexless. I think the people who like sex stay home. I mean, I don’t think they make a big thing out of it.
Q: How about you and marriage?
ALGREN: I wouldn’t say I plan to be married again, but I would like to be. It’s not such an easy thing to do. . . .
Q: As a heterosexual man, do you feel that the homosexual world is growing or that simply more of it is being discussed more honestly?
ALGREN: I think if it isn’t growing, at least they’ve got uniforms now. I think that’s an improvement. That is interesting in New York. I never saw that before — about the narrow pants and this very obvious thing, which shows it now has prestige. It always had a terrible stigma. In fact, it was unheard of, you know. There were secret rumors when I was a kid that something’s wrong there with someone, but nobody spoke of it.
Q: But now it is a new status symbol?
ALGREN: Yeah, it seems so. In my own neighborhood it’s not a new, strange thing now, as it was.
Q: But you don’t feel threatened by any kind of homosexual onslaught? You don’t think our culture is going to be taken over by homosexuals? ALGREN: Well, it’s becoming an effeminate culture. Look in the ads. Look at the dress of men. Listen to their voices. It’s a very common complaint.
Q: How do you feel about this? Do you mind? ALGREN: Yes, I mind. I would prefer to live in a masculine culture. I don’t mean that everybody has to knock somebody’s head off to prove he’s a man. But I prefer masculinity in writing, simply because it’s stronger. And I like a country to be masculine. It’s a weakening thing. I’m not talking about morality. I’m talking about the kind of thinking that goes with homosexuality — it is a very inferior kind of thinking because it’s a very cold way of thinking. I’m fully capable of admiring the homosexual writers. But all the same, there is a coldness that comes along with it that we didn’t have when the great writing was being done by men like Mark Twain. Homosexuals can’t write like this. They don’t have the warmth. They have a humor, but it’s a cold humor. It’s a dehumanized thing. What a homosexual is, he’s an inferior woman. I think that sort of culture is an inferior culture. So far as good masculine writing goes and good feminine writing goes, the masculine writing I believe is better. Just like a good male horse will always beat a female horse. It’s stronger. It makes a better animal, and it makes a better thinker. The people who have hit the high points in this country were very well balanced sexually I think. Anyway, I think of— Oh, boy, I really got into it that time. (Laughter) I just ran into Walt Whitman. Well, I wouldn’t do without Whitman, but the big voices of America, I think, from Jefferson to Lincoln and Jackson have been masculine voices.
Q: Tell me about the kind of woman you might like to marry. How old should she be?
ALGREN: Well, she can’t be too young.
Q: How young? What if I were to introduce you to a sixteen-year-old?
ALGREN: I’d tell her to come back in three years.
Q: Say she was a beauty, very bright, very mature, very nice, and looked good. You’d tell her to come back in three years?
ALGREN: Well, I certainly wouldn’t stick my neck out on that.
Q: Oh, because of the law.
ALGREN: Oh, no, not because of the law.
Q: And if she expressed an interest in you?
ALGREN: Oh, if she expressed interest, I’d encourage her, I’d encourage her. I certainly wouldn’t turn her down, but I’d go very, very easy because any girl like that I wouldn’t feel able to deal with her.
Q: Why not?
ALGREN: Because she’s too smart, too intuitive. She could make an ass out of me almost momentarily. I wish she would.
Q: So a wife should be a little older than that?
ALGREN: I think if I met a very attractive woman, say about thirty-six, still at the childbearing age, who didn’t have a great repugnance for raising kids - I wouldn’t even care if she had a kid or two by somebody else, although I wouldn’t want to just raise somebody else’s kids - a woman of thirty-two or so, thirty-three, thirty-four, maybe. She’s got to be sort of joyous and she’s got to be good-looking and she’s got to know how to wear clothes. She’s got to be presentable. She’s got to know how to cook.
Q: Any preference about blondes or brunettes?
ALGREN: Oh no, no. It just depends on the woman.
Q: Long? Fall? Skinny? Pleasingly plump?
ALGREN: Well, I’ve never gone for fat six-foot heavy-set blondes, but I wouldn’t rule them out. It just so happens I’ve always gone for smaller women. Maybe they make me feel taller, I don’t know. I just like darkness in a woman, I don’t know why.
Q,: Do you think you are going to get married?
ALGREN: There’s probably a fifty-fifty chance, probably a pretty fair chance within a couple of years. Not before that, I don’t think.
Q: By the time you are fifty-seven?
ALGREN: That’s a fair, reasonable, fifty-fifty bet.
Q: Where will you live?
ALGREN: I’ll leave that up to her. See, I don’t know her yet,
Q: Tell me about your writing plans. What other novels do you want to write?
ALGREN: I’d still like to write about a prostitute in an American city —just the comings and goings of a woman practicing her trade, without giving it any morality, just explain the trade as a trade.
Q: Do you think you’ll ever write about the affluent society?
ALGREN: NO, no, I never will. I don’t see any chance of doing that. I don’t feel any impulse to do it.
Q: Will you ever write a political novel?
ALGREN: NO. Never. Never.
Q: How about a boxing novel?
ALGREN: That would be too hard to do. I don’t know enough about it. The only way I’d do that would be if I could buy a fighter and live with him. If I could buy a welterweight’s contract for fifteen hundred dollars and have a place where he could train and bring him along; go down to New York and talk to fight managers and do as though I were in the fight game, really get in the fight game. Q: Do you think you will do that?
ALGREN: If I had the money, I’d like to do it. I wouldn’t rule it out. I’d like to do that kind of book because it would be about more than just boxing. This guy would come into it only incidentally— it would just be a way of writing about New York actually, and it would just be a reporting job. I wouldn’t try to do more than discover details and get the speech down, at the same time try to create enough interest in the main character. Q: When you’ve finished, as you come toward the end of a book, do you have a feeling that you’ve been with it too long, and, at the same time, you hate to finish it, to give it up?
ALGREN: Oh. yeah, yeah, yeah. I do have that deep reluctance to let it go, yeah, just hanging on and hanging on and hanging on until it almost has to be pried away from you. I’ve had that.
Q: As you’ve been writing a book, have you found that it revealed to you the profound feelings about a number of disturbing things?
ALGREN: No, I wouldn’t say so. I do know that when you have a book under way and are working well you feel much better about your own relationship to the world, and the way to feel good all the time is to always have a good book going. But I’m not conscious of any particular strain about it.
Q: Well, do you end up exhausted toward the end of each book you do?
ALGREN: NO, no, I don’t recall ending up exhausted. Just impatient, that’s all, just feel impatient with the feeling of a lot of tag ends. While I’m finishing a book it’s a little bit like tying a lot of knots that keep slipping, and you’re just impatient to get it done. And then you have to go all the way back in, in order to tie it up. and you find you just can’t tie it up at the end. You have to go all the way back and tie it up. And once I’ve done that I don’t feel any sense of exhaustion about it. I just feel a sense of completion.
Q: Are you pleased with what you’ve completed? ALGREN: Well, not entirely. I always have the feeling that why didn’t I put this in there or that in there. There’s always the misgivings and — that you have to brush aside and the stuff that you didn’t get in —
Q: How do you brush it aside?
ALGREN: Oh. you don’t, you pay the misgivings no heed. First they bark just like little dogs inside you; they keep barking and you just keep walking away. You can’t do anything about it anymore. The book is out of your hands. After a while they quit barking, and a new set come in and take over and start barking.
Q: Have you ever felt on any of your books that you were really doing something good and that it made things easier for you?
ALGREN: Oh, yeah, yeah. When you have a good story you know it’s good, and then you feel better for it. It’s about the only thing that makes you feel really good.
Q: What kind of writing do you think is coming up? I mean, your books have beginnings, middles, and ends. You don’t write the anti-novel. You deal with people’s emotions. You care about what happens to them. You care about telling a story. Do you think this kind of writing is becoming less and less the fashion?
ALGREN: Yes, it seems so.
Q,: What’s taking its place?
ALGREN: Well, I think maybe we’re coming into a time where the writing is much more detached and much less compassionate, much less concerned with the individual. I mean, we’re living so much in a world where personalities count for so little. Society’s become so depersonalized that it’d be pretty difficult now to write a book that would depend simply on strength of character, in which the people are attractive simply by force of their personality. We don’t seem to be writing about individuals now. We’re writing about society. Writing is likely to become more documentary, in the way that Sinclair Lewis wrote. His people were just one-dimensional people. I mean, you could tell what kind of people they were just by the names he stuck on them. I have an idea that we’re going to get more of this thing and less of the kind of personalized American: the man or woman with many dimensions and human complexity. I’m just guessing. I don’t know, but I don’t see anybody writing any —
Q: How about the style of writing? Do you think there’ll be less naturalism, that there is less and less naturalism?
ALGREN: Most people are writing from other writers. They’re not writing first person directly from life as Hemingway did. This is the sort of novelist we’re going to have: the no-novelist.
Q: When you’re working on a book, do you schedule the day or does it fall into any kind of pattern? ALGREN: Oh, a general overall pattern, I guess. I don’t make a schedule. I just have a general feeling that I ought to be typing.
Q: Do you enjoy writing?
ALGREN: It’s pleasant in a tedious sort of way.
Q: Are you much of a rewriter?
ALGREN: I rewrite all the time. I never stop rewriting.
Q: Tell me something. Do you think there’s any purpose to life?
ALGREN: Well, no ultimate purpose. The purpose is to live it. It has its own purpose. Its only purpose is part of itself. You’re alive. That’s its only purpose. The only meaning that life has is to have it while you’ve got it, to use it while you’ve got it. Life’s meaning simply comes in within your senses. That’s your only justification - just sight and smell and sound. And you keep those as sharp as you can for as long as you can, and then you go out as fast as you can. You’ve lived successfully or not depending on how much you got out of life in terms of living, not in what you acquired. Although, of course, if you acquire something, you probably get more out of life.
Q: What do you mean, “go out as fast as you can”? ALGREN: Well, it’s a terrible drag to go out one toe at a time, and I think Hemingway must have felt this. When he started dropping off, I think he lost sixty pounds, something like that, when he started being reduced to a vegetable, he went, which makes sense because he was just going to be reduced to a heap of garbage in another six months and he’d always respected himself as a man. As a physical being I guess he just couldn’t take that, ah, humiliation.
Q: Your health is good now?
ALGREN: Yes, it is.
Q: Although you don’t sleep properly, you don’t eat properly?
ALGREN: That’s true. I don’t, I don’t.
Q: How come your health is good?
ALGREN: Well, I don’t know. I’m fortunate that way, and I have just not been afflicted with the common afflictions, the countless multitude of afflictions you can have, beginning with A, arthritis, and ending with Z, zilicosis of the veins or varicose veins, I haven’t been struck. I had a backache a few years ago which simply terrified me.
Q: What was it?
ALGREN: It was just a little backache. It was one of these things that double you over a little bit, not at all an uncommon tiling. I was immediately terrified - what if I can’t straighten up again? And I guess some people can’t. So I never let myself get complacent about it, because I feel I may wake up someday with a splitting headache, a sore jaw, sinus, a hacking cough, rheumatism — all at once. All of these things are going to hit me at once. But I’ve really had good health, and I would like to have more of it if I may. And I did it without prayer. I don’t pray. I smoke too much. I drink too much. I eat too much. I don’t exercise. Q: You swim, don’t you?
ALGREN: I swim a little bit, and I don’t say my prayers.
Q: bell me once again about the last time you saw your mother.
ALGREN: Well, the last time I saw her she’d been dying for six months. She was supposed to be dead in January, and in July she was still sitting there just too strong to go. She wanted to go, and it was time to go, so I came in and I lit a cigarette. She was reduced at this time to just simply a little mess of shaking bones.
Q: How old was she?
ALGREN: Eighty-six. And she would just sit there and shake, just that prolonged, perpetual discomfort, and I lit a cigarette, and she said, “Give me one.” I thought at first she was kidding. I said, “No, you don’t want to smoke, Ma, do you?” She said, “Well, I have to do something.” So I gave her the cigarette, and she smoked it. The nurses came around and watched.
Q: Had she ever had a cigarette before?
ALGREN: Once or twice. But she simply wanted to do something, so she smoked the cigarette. The attendants watched, really quite amazed. She died the next day.
Q: That’s about all the questions I have.
ALGREN: She added one thing. That morning she said — there was sort of a murmur of steam or something from the radiator, some sound in the radiator — and she said. “Voices are coming up from below.”But she said it in this rhythm, with a certain rhythm to it that surprised me very much.
I was surprised that she should put her last strength into trying to make a poem.
Q: One more question: Are you glad that you are alive?
Q: When are you not glad you’re alive?
ALGREN: Oh, I’ve never been not glad. I’ve always been glad to be alive.
Q: Even when things go badly?
ALGREN: Oh yeah. yeah. They couldn’t go that badly. I just can’t imagine anything going that badly.
Q: Have you ever contemplated suicide?
ALGREN: No. I’ve thought about it in a very abstract way, but I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t even chop off the end of my little finger, and Pm sure I would never have the nerve to put a gun in my mouth as the Great White Hunter did in Idaho. In fact, I’m afraid if I found out what he found out — that he had cancer, that it made no sense to go on — I’d pin myself on some abstract hope that somebody was going to come up with some magic penicillin. I don’t think I’d give up. I don’t think so.
Q: At fifty-five, does the world look like an interesting place to you?
ALGREN: It’s getting more and more diverse, more and more wild. More and more people are around who don’t know what they’re doing, and there arc more and more things to sec.
Q: Is it more fun?
ALGREN: Oh, there’s more fun to be had. It’s getting harder and harder to get at it. 1 keep having to go home and work. But there are certainly more things to do.
Q: Would you rather be the age you are now, or is there some other time of your life you’d like to get back to again?
ALGREN: Oh, thirty-nine is the time.
ALGREN: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. The time between the time I got out of the army in 1946 and 1950. That was a very good time.
Q: The time you got out of the army and wrote The Man With the Golden Arm?
ALGREN: Uh-huh. A very fresh time.
Q: You are the first man I’ve ever met who thinks the 1940s were the good old days. Is there anything you want to add about yourself, or about the interview?
ALGREN: Well, just put in that I’m well dressed, attractive, and single.
Q: What’s your address?
ALGREN: 1958 West Evergreen. Third floor. Just walk in.
Q: And the zone?
ALGREN: Zone twenty-two.
Q: What’s your name?
ALGREN: Nelson Algren. A-l-g-r-e-n. Army serial
ALGREN: 125th Evacuation Hospital. That’s all I have to say. That’s all I have to tell. And I may be a spy! Nobody’ll ever know, for sure!