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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. 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) mythologized the arcades and parks of Paris. 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. 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. On his own return from Russia, the American poet and artist E.E. Cummings translated the poem into English. 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 Nation. 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." Still, Aragon loved Nancy and remained devoted to her.

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. 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. Loyal to Stalin, Aragon defended the Russo-German Pact, and the paper was outlawed.

Aragon's novels in the 1930s and 1940s, as in the cycle long novels Le Monde réel (1934-51, 5 vols.), advocated socialist realism. Persécuté persécuteur (1931) and Hourra l'Oural (1934) were more political manifestos that poetical works. His massive fresco Le Monde réel drew a vivid picture of bourgeoisie from 1880 to the end of the 1920s. Aragon sought to interweave the individual destinies of his characters, his sense of place and eye for the telling detail, with the broader lines of the Marxist interpretation of history.

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 cur 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 until its demise in 1953. In Les Communistes (1949-51) Aragon played with a new kind of novel, that gave the effect of a series of newspaper reports, editorials, and Communist Party speeches. From 1953 to 1972 he was editor of the arts and literature weekly Les Lettres françaises. In 1950-1960 he served on the Central Committee of the French Communist Party, and in 1957 he was rewarded with the Lenin Peace Prize.

'"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?"

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's its several characters is the painter Géricault, who discovers his commitment to the masses. The work bored Simone de Beauvoir.

In his last novels, Aragon expressed a hostile attitude toward Socialist Realism. 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); World Authors 1900-1950, Vol. 1, ed.  M. Seumour-Smith and A.C. Kimmens (1996); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 1, ed.  Steven R. Serafin (1999) - Suom.: - Runosuomennoksia 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 (tr. Renée Riese Hubert & Judd D. Hubert, 1988)
  • Les plaisirs de la capitale, 1923
  • Une vague de réves, 1924 - A Wave of Dreams (tr. Susan de Muth, 2010)
  • Le libertinage, 1924 - The Libertine (tr.  Jo Levy, 1987)
  • Le movement perpétuel, 1925
  • Le paysan de Paris, 1926 - The Nightwalker (tr. Frederick Brown, 1970) / Paris Peasant (tr.  Simon Watson Taylor, 1971)
  • Le traité du style, 1928 - Treatise on Style (tr. 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 (tr. E. E. Cummings, 1933)
  • Persécuté persécuteur, 1931
  • Le Monde réel, 1933-44
  • Les Cloches de Bale, 1933 - The Bells of Basel (tr.  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 (tr. 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 (tr.  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, 6 vol., 1949-51
  • 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 (tr. 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 (tr. 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 (tr. Jean Stewart, 1972)
  • Théâtre/Roman, 1974

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