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by Bamber Gascoigne

Louis Aragon (1897-1982) - original surname Andrieux


Poet, novelist, and essayist, a founder of Surrealism with Paul Éluard, André Breton, Luis Buñuel, and others. Aragon's work reflects the principal trends of thought of the 20th century – he was also a political activist and spokesman for communism. His influence on the theory of the novel and on poetic theory was considerable.

"Ma patrie est comme une barque
Qu'abandonnèrent ses haleurs
Et je ressemble à ce monarque
Plus malheureux que le malheur
Qui restait roi de ses douleurs"

(in 'Richard II quarante')

Louis Aragon was born in Paris in the fashionable sixteenth arrondissement, where his family ran a pension. After studies at Lycée Carnot, Aragon graduated in 1916. He then entered the University of Paris, where he studied medicine. In World War I Aragon served briefly as an 'auxiliary doctor'. After the war he continued at the university.

Through the Surrealist poet André Breton, Aragon was introduced to Dadaism and Surrealism. In 1919 he founded the review Littérature with Breton and Philippe Soupault. The magazine and public happenings were a vehicle to scorn on all the bourgeois values that intellectual saw destroyed by the horrors of war. The artist Marcel Duchamp occasionally attended the café meetings of the group at the Certá, in the Passage de l'Opéra.

Aragon's first collection of poems, Feu de joie (1920), echoes the proposal of the Dadaists to destroy all traditional institutions and values. Picasso's success prompted Aragon to publish Anicet; ou, Le panorama (1921), in which the painter Bleu was a parody of Picasso. Bleu "the genius of our times" is juxtaposed with Jean Chipre, who suffers in poverty and oblivion. "I have never painted except to seduce," Bleu concludes.

Le Libertinage (1924) was a collection of very short stories, fragmentary episodes pieced together in the manner of a Surrealist collage. In the preface Aragon said: "I have sought the illusion of having infinite power over the world, as others seek it in opium. Events yielded to my will. I retouched the good Lord and gave him whiskers." In 'The Big Torus' Aragon juxtaposed the preparations for a wedding with the images of emerging war. "Blood flows in the rebellious town. Now the man is looking at a patch of stars and the bride's white stockings are raised up over her thighs. Shadows dance in the wind."

Anicet was followed by Le Mouvement perpétuel (1925) – they both mocked poeticism and reflected the dadaist play with words. The novel Le paysan de Paris (1926, Paris Peasant) mythologized the arcades and parks of Paris as sacral places. Aragon tried to create a new kind of novel "that would break all the traditional rules governing the writing of fiction, one that would be neither a narrative (a story) nor a character study (a portrait)..." The work celebrated the city as a place of stimulating encounters in its cafés and parks. Walter Benjamin, who read the Surrealistic novel soon after its appearance, tells in a letter to Theodor W. Adorno, that he had to lay the book aside because his heart started to beat so strongly after only reading a few pages. ('Uncreative Influence: Louis Aragon's Paysan de Paris and Walter Benjamin's Passagen-Werk' by Vaclav Paris, in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 37, No. 1, Fall 2013, p. 21)

For a modern reader Paris appears rather idyllic and innocent with its chorus girls and artists, bar rooms and commercial travellers. "Turn round, and see, there right opposite is the little restaurant where, in our progress towards the depths of the imagination, I fond the last traces of the Dada movement. When Saulnier seemed too expensive for us, we used to come here, appeasing our inopportune appetites as best we could with food cooked in rancid coconut oil and with their sharp, unpleasant wine, consumed in a stuffy, vulgar atmosphere."

To break out from the political vacuum, surrealists adopted the Marxist idea that a change in the social structure is a necessary precondition for revolution of ideas. Like many radical intellectuals in the 1920s, Aragon joined the Communist Party, and in 1930 he visited the Soviet Union. Back in France, he published Le Front Rouge (The Red Front), a poem influenced by Vladimir Mayakovsky. It called for a revolution in France and Aragon received a five-year suspended sentence for "inciting to commit mutiny and of provocation to murder".

On his own return from Russia, the American poet and artist E.E. Cummings translated the poem into English. The American writer Richard Wright was fascinated by its experimental techniques and dedicated his long poem Transcontinental to Aragon. Wright also heard Aragon speak at the Third American Writers' Congress in  New York in 1939.

For reasons unknown, Aragon wrote at the end, "Down with imperialism down / SSSR SSSR SSSR" – not meant to be read as an attack upon the first communist State. Forty-five years after the publication of Le Front Rouge, Aragon called it "a poem which I detest".

Before Aragon met in 1928 the Russian-born Elsa Triolet (1896-1970), his future wife, he had had several affairs, among others with Nancy Cunard, heiress of the famous shipping company. Shortly after their breakup, Aragon wrote that "Nancy drank and became drunk often. Then she would become unpleasant, slapping her companion's face with the ivory of metal which clasped he from wrist to elbow." (Nancy Cunard: Heiress, Muse, Political Idealist by Lois G. Gordon, 2007, p. 113) Still, Aragon loved Nancy and remained devoted to her, except that when she took up with the jazz pianist and composer Henry Crowder, Aragon had a brief affair with the dancer Lena Amsel. (Photography and Surrealism: Sexuality, Colonialism and Social Dissent by David Bate, 2004, pp. 150-151)

The red-haired Triolet, Aragon's companion for the next forty years, deeply influenced his writing. "I was her dog. It's my fashion," he once said. After her death, Aragon revealed that he was bisexual. The Soviet author Ilya Ehrenburg (1891-1967), a friend of both of them, saw Aragon as a follower of Victor Hugo. Triolet was the sister of Mayakovsky's great love and unofficial wife, Lily Brik. In 1944 Triolet received Prix Goncourt for her book Le premier accroc coûte deux cents francs. Her other works include Bonsoir Thérèse (1938), Maïakowski (1939), Le cheval blanc (1943), Les amants d'Avignon (1943), L'inspecteur des ruines (1948), Le cheval roux (1953), Le monument (1957), Le grand jamais (1965), Ecoutez-voir (1968), Le rossignol se tait à l'aube (1970).

After the journey to the Soviet Union, Aragon's political commitment resulted in a break with the Surrealists; Breton, who was formally expelled from the Communist party in 1933, never spoke with him. Aragon contributed to such Communist journals as L'Humanité, Commune and Europe. From 1937 to 1940 he was coeditor of the newspaper Ce Soir. On Aragon's suggestion, Maurice Duchamp began to write in a weekly chess column for it. Surprised but loyal to Stalin, Aragon defended the Russo-German Pact, and the newspaper was banned by Prime Minister Édouard Daladier. In the last edition of Ce Soir, he called for struggle against Hitlerism.

Aragon's fiction in the 1930s and 1940s, as in the four-volume novel sequence Le Monde réel (1934-1944) and Les Communistes (6 vol., 1949-1951; rev. ed., 1967), advocated socialist realism. This massive fresco, which weaved together numerous individual fates and fortunes to create a collective history, covered the period from the 1890s until the débâcle of 1940. Besides being a critique of French capitalist society, it was an attempt to write another Comédie humaine, but from a Marxist perspective. In Les Communistes Aragon played with a new kind of novel, that gave the effect of a series of newspaper reports, editorials, and Communist Party speeches.

The collections Persécuté persécuteur (1931) and Hourra l'Oural (1934) were more political manifestos that poetical works. "Comrades the past is cracking / Where your powerful emblem stands," Aragon declared in 'Waltz' from Hourra l'Oural. (translated by Nancy Cunard, Left Review, 1/1, October 1934) 

While visiting the USSR once more in 1934, Aragon wrote to his old friend the director Luis Buñuel, and invited him to the Ukrainian studios, where he was trying to turn his novel Les Cloches de Bâle (1934) into a screenplay. "I am sure all your friends in Madrid would be delighted with the film you could make here, and if they advice you to come, let yourself be led. "Buñuel would only have to pay his travel expenses. Aragon also said, optimistically, that the "studio is . . . extremely rudimentary in terms of means: but it might improve." (Luis Buñuel: The Red Years, 1929–1939 by Román Gubern & Paul Hammond, 2012, p. 148)

In the Spanish Civil War, Aragon fought against the Nationalists, and when the Nazis occupied France in WW II he was a member of Resistance movement. During this period a new nationalistic sentiment entered into Aragon's poetry. He helped to build up through the National Writer's Committee a network of major and minor writers who contributed to the Resistance journals, among them La Drôme en armes and Étoiles. Many of Aragon's poems were set to music and quoted in letters. Le crève-coeur (1941) was the first of five other collections that chronicled France under the Nazi occupation.

"Que l'un fût de la chapelle
Et l'autre s'y dérobât
Celui qui croyait au ciel
Ceui qui n'y croyait pais
Tous les deux étaient fidèles
Des lèvres du cœur des bras
Et tous kes deux disaient qu'elle
Vive et qui vivra verra"

(in 'La rose et le réséda')

After the liberation, Aragon resumed the editorship of Ce Soir although many party member suspected that he was too independent for the post. Following the demise of the paper in 1953, he was named editor of the arts and literature weekly Les Lettres françaises, which was under the control of the party. When Aragon heard news about Stalin's death, he asked Picasso to draw a portrait of the Soviet leader on the cover of the weekly. This picture was condemned by influential hardline Communists. The humiliated Aragon said in his self-criticism in the issue of April 9, 1953: "It is grave that, habituated all my life to look at a drawing by Picasso in function of its being a work of Picasso, I forgot the reader, who would look at it withiout paying attention to the strokes, to the technique, That was my error. I have paid for it dearly." (Grand Disillusion: François Mitterrand and the French Left by Joseph P. Morray, 1997, p. 53) In 1950-1960 Aragon served on the Central Committee of the French Communist Party. He was rewarded with the Lenin Peace Prize in 1957.

'"Poor Aragon," Picasso chuckled as soon as Aragon had left his studio. "He doesn't know anything about pigeons. And as for the gentle dove, what a myth that is! There's no crueller animal... How's that for a symbol of Peace?"' (in Picasso: Creator & Destroyer by Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington, 1988)

Along with Breton, Aragon was one of the few living writers criticized by Camus in L'Homme révolté (1951). When Stalin died in 1953, Aragon was completely shattered. He published a portrait of the dictator in Les Lettres françaises under the headline 'What We Owe to Stalin". It was drawn by Picasso and arose furor. Aragon thanked the party leaders for their rebuke and printed excerpts from the outraged letters sent from the different Communist cells. After the uproar had died down Picasso asked: "How can Aragon, a poet, endorse the view that it is the public which should judge reality?"

Like many leftists intellectual in France, he reacted to the trial and conviction of Iuli Daniel and Andrei Siniavski for spreading "anti-Soviet propaganda" in their works published in the West. Aragon stated in a letter published in L'Humanité of 16 February 1966, that to convict these two Soviet dissidents was "to make difference of opinion a crime, this is to create a precedent that is more harmful to the interests of socialism than the works of Siniavski and Daniel could be." (French Intellectuals Against the Left: The Antitotalitarian Moment of the 1970s by Michael Scott Christofferson, 2004, pp. 160-161) In 1968 Aragon publicly condemned the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia – he also denounced Stalinism. Aragon's later works include autobiographical poems, critical works, a history of the Soviet Union, and historical novel Holy Week, which centered on Louis XVIII's flight to Brussels from the advancing Napoleon in 1815. Among its several characters is the painter Géricault, who discovers his commitment to the masses. The work bored Simone de Beauvoir.

As a communist intellectual, Aragon had once declared that "apolitical works are really militant works for the benefit of the bourgeoisie in power," but following his crisis of conscience, he expressed a hostile attitude toward Socialist Realismin his last novels. When Sartre advised Aragon to visit Cuba, Aragon considered himself too old. In 1965 he began a new series of novels, including La mise à mort (1965), Blanche; ou L'oubli (1967), and Théâtre/Roman (1974), in which his fictional material came from his own experiences. Lecturing at the Sorbonne on Petrarch, Aragon spoke for forty-five minutes on Matisse, until a voice from the audience yelled "Get to the point". Aragon replied that digresion was the key to the art of this great poet. Aragon died on December 24, 1982 in Paris.

For further reading: Aragon: Poet of the Resistance ed.  H. Josephson and M. Cowley (1945); Communism and the French Intellectuals by D. Caute (1964); Malraux, Sartre, Aragon as Political Novelists by C. Savage (1965); Louis Aragon by L.F. Becker (1971); Aragon by P. Daix (1975); Elsa Triolet and Louis Aragon: An Introduction to Their Interwoven Lives and Works by Max Adereth (1994); Socialist Realism in Louis Aragon's Le Monde Reel by Angela M. Kimyongur (1995); 'Aragon, Louis,' in  World Authors 1900-1950, Vol. 1, ed.  M. Seumour-Smith and A.C. Kimmens (1996); Elsa Triolet und Louis Aragon: "die Liebenden des Jahrhunderts" by Unda Hörner (1998); 'Aragon, Louis,' in Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 1, ed.  Steven R. Serafin (1999); Etudes sur Louis Aragon by Wolfgang Babilas (2002); 'The Tiger Leaps: Louis Aragon, Gustave Cohen, and the Poetry of Resistance' by Jeffrey Mehlman, in Artists, Intellectuals, and World War II: the Pontigny Encounters at Mount Holyoke College, 1942-1944, edited by Christopher Benfey and Karen Remmler (2006); Engagement et ecriture chez Louis Aragon by Okri Pascal Tossou (2009); 'Uncreative Influence: Louis Aragon's Paysan de Paris and Walter Benjamin's Passagen-Werk' by Vaclav Paris, in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 37, No. 1 (Fall 2013) - Suomennoksia:  runoja antologiassa Tulisen järjen aika, toim. Aale Tynni (1962)

Selected bibliography and translations in English:

  • Feu de joie, 1920
  • Anicet; ou, Le panorama: Roman, 1921
  • Les Adventures de Télémaque, 1922 - The Adventures of Telemachus (translated by Renée Riese Hubert & Judd D. Hubert, 1988)
  • Les plaisirs de la capitale, 1923
  • Une vague de réves, 1924 - A Wave of Dreams (translated by Susan de Muth, 2010)
  • Le libertinage, 1924 - The Libertine (translated by Jo Levy, 1987)
  • Le movement perpétuel, 1925
  • Le paysan de Paris, 1926 - The Nightwalker (translated by Frederick Brown, 1970) / Paris Peasant (translated by Simon Watson Taylor, 1971)
  • Le traité du style, 1928 - Treatise on Style (translated by Alyson Waters, 1991)
  • Le con d'Irène, 1928
  • La grande gaï eté, 1929
  • La peinture au défi, 1930
  • Le Front Rouge, 1930 - The Red Front (translated by E. E. Cummings, 1933)
  • Persécuté persécuteur, 1931
  • Le Monde réel, 1933-44 (4 vols.) [The Real World]
  • Les Cloches de Bâle, 1934 - The Bells of Basel (translated by Haakon M. Chevalier, 1936) - Baselin kellot (suom. Matti Pyhälä ja Johanna Pyhälä, 1964) - television film 1981, dir. by Jean Kerchbron, starring Bernard Brieux, Jean-Philippe Puymartin, Julien Guiomar, Loleh Bellon
  • Hourra l'Oural, 1934
  • Pour un réalisme socialiste, 1935
  • Les Beaux Quartiers, 1936 - Residential Quarter (tr. 1938) - Kauniit kaupunginosat (suom. 1949)
  • Cantique à Elsa, 1941
  • Le Crève-coeur, 1941
  • Les yeux d'Elsa, 1942
  • Brocéliande, 1942
  • Les voyageurs de l'impériale, 1942 - The Century Was Young (translated by Hannah Josephson, 1941)
  • En français dans le texte, 1943
  • Le Musée Grévin, 1943
  • Aurélien, roman, 1944
  • La Diane française, 1945
  • Aragon: Poet of the French Resistance, 1945 (eds. H. Josephson and M. Cowley)
  • En étrange pays dans mon pays lu-même, 1945
  • Servitude et grandeur des Français, 1945
  • Aurélian, 1946 (translated by E. Wilkins) - television film 1978, dir. by Michel Favart, starring Philippe Nahoun, Françoise Lebrun, Liliane Bertrand, Adriana Bogdan ; television film 2003, dir. by Arnaud Selignac, starring Romane Bohringer, Oliver Sitruk, Ute Lemper, Natalia Dontcheva
  • L'enseigne de Gersaint, 1946
  • L'homme communiste, I, 1946
  • Apologie du luxe, 1946
  • La culture et les hommes, 1947
  • Chronoques du bel canto, 1947
  • Le nouveau crève-coeur, 1948
  • La naissance de la paix, 1949
  • Les Communistes, 1949-51 (6 vos.) 
  • L'exemple de Courbet, 1952
  • Hugo, poète réaliste, 1952
  • Avez-vous Victor Hugo?, 1952
  • La neveu de M. Duval, 1953
  • L'homme communiste, II, 1953
  • Journal d'une poésie nationale, 1954
  • Mes caravanes et autres poèmes, 1954
  • La lumière de Stendhal, 1954
  • Les yeux et la mémoire, 1954
  • Littératures sovétiques, 1955
  • Introduction aux littératures soviétigues, 1956
  • Le roman inachevé, 1956
  • La Semaine sainte, 1958 - Holy Week (by Haakon Chevalier, 1961)
  • J'abats mon jeu, 1959
  • Elsa, 1959
  • Entretiens sur le musée de Dresde, 1959 (with J. Cocteau) - Conversations on the Dresden Gallery (translated by Francis Scarfe, 1982)
  • Poésies, 1960
  • Les poètes, 1960
  • Histoire parallèle (U.R.S.S.-U.S.A), 1962 (with André Maurois) - A History of the USSR from Lenin to Khrushchev, 1964 (translated by P. O'Brien, 1964)
  • Le fou d'Elsa, 1963
  • The Mirror-Wardrobe One Fine Evening, in Modern French Theatre, 1964 (eds. M. Benedict and G.E. Wellwarth)
  • Entretiens avec Francis Crémieux, 1964
  • Il ne m'est Paris que d'Elsa, 1964
  • La Mise à mort, 1965
  • Les collages, 1965
  • Le voyage de Hollande, 1965
  • Shakespeare, 1965 (illustrated by Picasso) - Shakespeare (translated by Bernard Frechtman, 1966)
  • Elégie à Pablo Neruda, 1966
  • Blanche; ou L'oubli, 1967
  • Aragon parle avec Dominique Arban, 1968
  • Les chambres, 1969
  • Je n'ai jamais appris à écrire, ou les Incipit, 1969
  • Henri Matisse, roman, 1971 - Henri Matisse: A Novel (translated by Jean Stewart, 1972)
  • Théâtre/Roman, 1974
  • Le temps traversé: correspondance, 1920-1964 / Louis Aragon, Jean Paulhan, Elsa Triolet, 1994 (edited by Bernard Leuilliot)
  • Oeuvres romanesques complètes. I, 1997 (edited by Daniel Bougnoux and Philippe Forest)
  • Lettres à Denise, 1994 (edited by Pierre Daix) 
  • Oeuvres romanesques complètes. II, 2000 (edited by Daniel Bougnoux and Raphaël Lafhail-Molino)
  • Aragon, 2002 (edited by Lionel Ray)
  • Oeuvres romanesques complètes. III, 2003 (edited by Daniel Bougnoux and Bernard Leuilliot)
  • Oeuvres romanesques complètes. IV, 2008 (edited by Daniel Bougnoux and Nathalie Piégay-Gros)
  • Oeuvres romanesques complètes. V, 2012 (foreword by Jean Ristat; edited by Daniel Bougnoux and Philippe Forest)
  • 'It's Up To You,' 'Note On Freedom,' 2015  (in The Surrealism Reader: an Anthology of Ideas, edited by Dawn Ades and Michael Richardson with Krzysztof Fijalkowski) 

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