Nelson Algren and Simone De Beauvoir’s Road Trip Through Franco’s Spain

Only a handful of photographs exist of Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren together from a love affair that persisted, mostly across the Atlantic ocean, for over a decade. Possibly the last photograph of them together is from a visit to Spain in May 1960.

In the photograph, they stand with Catalan writer Juan Goytisolo to their right along the wall of the Alcazaba, an old Moorish palace, in Almería. A glimpse of the mountainous landscape beyond can be seen over Goytisolo’s shoulder. Beauvoir, in the middle, looks intently into the camera with the air of a school teacher, while Algren casually rests his shoulder on the wall, his head turned toward the camera. Algren holds a Kodak snapshot camera in his hand. Light pours between the gaps in the wall onto the faces of Algren and Beauvoir, while Goytisolo, obscured in shadow, glances away to the side, as if his mind is somewhere else.

While visiting Beauvoir in Paris, Algren was invited, along with Goytisolo, to participate in a gathering of novelists and publishers in Mallorca. Following the conference, the group set off on a road trip through the south of Spain along the rapidly developing Costa de Sol. They were joined by filmmaker and photographer Vicente Aranda, who documented the trip and drove the rental car.

Setting off from Malaga, they visited the nearby beach resort of Torremolinos and then worked their way east along the coast, where the landscape grew increasingly barren and depopulated. They stopped to spend the night in the town of Almuñécar. Beauvoir later described whitewashed houses terraced up the hillside, naked children in the street, and glimpses of “sordid interiors.”

The choice to come to Almería, at the extreme southeastern corner of the Iberian peninsula, was unusual. For centuries, the province had remained a forgotten backwater. In 1960, it was known more for its exodus of emigrants than as a travelers’ destination. But Goytisolo had been studying the people of Almería. His realistic depictions of life under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco had also drawn the attention of Spanish authorities, so this time he brought Algren and Beauvoir along for cover. He would go on to write two books about Almería, which would see him banned from Spain.

The photograph of the trio at the wall of the Alcazaba appeared alongside an article by Goytisolo titled “La Chanca,” which was published the following year in Destino, a cultural magazine out of Barcelona. The portrait seems out of place. The article, tracing Goytisolo’s search for the relative of a friend from Barcelona, makes no mention at all of either Beauvoir or Goytisolo. They are identified only in the photo caption, both names misspelled.

The article opens with a description of the view from the Alcazaba, from the same spot where Goytisolo, Beauvoir, and Algren stand in the photograph. Looking down on the neighborhood of La Chanca, one sees a patchwork of whitewashed homes strewn about the barren hillside. Goytisolo describes the view from above as “one of the most beautiful in the world.”

But close up it is not so picturesque. Goytisolo went on to write a book about La Chanca, exposing the poverty, endemic disease, and hopelessness under which the population lived.

After returning to the U.S., Algren wrote a book of travel essays, including a chapter devoted to Almería. While he dismissed the provincial town as, “a kind of Indianapolis without smoke,” he was fascinated by those who lived on the margins. He wrote, mockingly, about his desire to photograph “The People from God Knows Where, the cave-dwelling race who live in the immemorial rocks in the heights above the city” and catch the attention of a generous glossy magazine editor. He describes empty, sun-beaten streets, with no sign of toys or playthings, and sums up the locals as “a tough and vigorous race” controlled by a corrupt, military establishment (aided by the U.S. government).

For Algren and Beauvoir, the road trip was one of their final adventures together. After Algren left Paris at the end of the summer, they never saw each other again.

While a few of Aranda’s photographs from the trip appeared alongside Goytisolo’s writings, they were largely forgotten. Then, several years ago, Goytisolo began working with José Guirao Cabrera, an arts administrator and longtime Director of La Casa Encendida in Madrid, to publish the photographs in a book. Unfortunately, Goytisolo died in 2017 before the project was completed. With help from the Centro Andaluz de la Fotografía, a commemorative edition of Goytisolo’s Campos de Nijar was published in 2018, accompanied by 45 of Aranda’s photographs, including two photographs with Algren and Beauvoir in Almería.

My photograph of La Chanca taken from the Alcazaba. The photograph appears in ‘Once Upon a Time in Almería‘ (Daylight Books, 2017).

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