BORN: 1897, Paris
DIED: 1982, Paris
GENRE: Poetry, Nonfiction
The Adventures of Telemachus (1922)
Treatise on Style (1928)
Persecutor Persecuted (1931)
The Communists (1951)
Holy Week: A Novel (1958)
Louis Aragon was a writer, poet, and critic who analyzed the underlying messages in the literature and politics of France. Giving his voice and images to the art of France, Aragon was a leading influence on the shaping of the novel in the early to mid-twentieth century. He was also a founder of the Dada and surrealist movements.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Child Prodigy Aragon was born in the Beaux Quartiers section of Paris on October 3, 1897, to Marguerite Toucas-Massillon and Louis Andrieux Aragon. His mother was single, and his father was already married. To hide the circumstances of his birth, his parents arranged for him to be brought up as the adoptive son of his maternal grandmother, Claire Toucas. At fourteen months he was reunited with his parents, though he was brought up to believe that his mother was his sister, his father was his godfather and tutor, and his grandmother was his adoptive mother.
Aragon was reading and writing even before he started attending Madame Boucher's private school in 1906 and the École Saint-Pierre in 1907. He completed his first novel at age nine. In 1912, he went to the Lycée Carnot in Paris, earning degrees in Latin and the sciences in 1914 and in philosophy in 1915.
In 1908, he enrolled in the Faculté de Médecine de Paris, met André Breton at Adrienne Monnier's avantgarde bookshop, and his writing came to the attention of Guillaume Apollinaire. When Aragon published his first article on Apollinaire, “Alcide,” in the journal Sicoú (1917), Apollinaire asked Aragon to write a review of his play The Breasts of Tiresias (1917).
Wrote While Serving in World War I By this time, France as well as much of Europe were embroiled in World War I. While the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria- Hungry, invoked a domino effect of war declarations because of entangling alliances of many European countries, the Great War was also caused by various military, economic, and ethnic rivalries as well. World War I was primarily fought in trenches on the Western Front, including France.
In 1917, Aragon learned the truth about his parentage after he was called into the French infantry, where he met up with fellow draftee Breton. Aragon was sent to the frontlines as a medical orderly. In the midst of battle, he composed some of the poems that appear in his first collection, Bonfire (1920). He also began to write his first novel, Anicet, or, The Panorama (1921), and the narrative The Adventures of Telemachus (1922). Aragon served in the military until 1919, taking part in the Allied military occupation of the Rhineland and Saar. In the spring of 1919 he, Breton, and Philippe Soupault formed a group dedicated to establishing a new art form, one that reached beyond realism to a dreamlike quality.
Medicine Abandoned for Literature Returning from war, Aragon resumed his medical studies, pondered his literary career, and set out to establish a new kind of literary movement in postwar Paris. The horrors of the Great War compelled some artists to comment on the new way they saw existence and to reject the principles upon which society was founded. Throughout 1920, he and his group staged events at venues for this unique movement called Dada, which included literary as well as artistic elements. Though the origins of the word “Dada” are unclear (it is most likely just a nonsense word), Dadaists wanted to found an alternative to established artistic conventions. Dadaist events included staged scandals of anti-art art where, for example, spectators were provided with hatchets and invited to destroy the exhibits. Aragon also considered joining the French Communist Party—as did many intellectuals in Europe excited by the potential they saw in Communism, especially after the Russian Revolution—but temporarily abandoned the idea.
Aragon's fiction also began to appear in print, including The Panorama (1921) and The Adventures of Telemachus (1922). Failing his second doctoral examination, he withdrew from medical studies to concentrate on his literary career. He published short stories in France and Paris at Night (1923) in Berlin. In March 1923, he
became editor in chief of the weekly Paris-Journal, but he stayed in the position only one month. During the summer of 1923, Aragon began exchanging love letters with Denise Lévy, whom he later identified as the model for Bérénice, the heroine of his novel Aurélien (1944). In 1924 and 1925, Aragon worked with Breton and others to promote surrealism—the movement that included a style of writing that has surprising, dreamlike images.
“Doctor of Dada ” Another of his novels and two additional narratives of the 1920s survived Aragon's getting frustrated and burning several segments. In between two critical works, he published the most important work of criticism in his career, Treatise on Style (1928). In November 1928, Aragon happened to meet the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky at a Montparnasse café. The next day, Mayakovsky introduced him to his sister-in-law, Elsa Triolet. Aragon and Triolet immediately fell in love and married soon thereafter.
Commitment to Communism Aragon had joined the French Communist Party in 1927. His commitment to communism became more intense after he met Triolet, an award-winning novelist who was herself a dedicated communist. In 1930, the couple traveled to the Soviet Union to attend a revolutionary-writers conference, and Aragon returned determined to combine his art and politics. His provocative poem “The Red Front” (1933) earned him a suspended five-year prison sentence for allegedly inciting troops to mutiny.
Writing for French Communist Party publications, Aragon praised the 1939 German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. Signed only days before World War II began, the agreement stated the two countries would not attack each other and included the division of Eastern Europe into spheres of influence. (Despite this pact, the Germans later attacked the Soviet Union, drawing the Soviets into World War II on the side of the Allies.) One 1939 piece by Aragon, “Long Live the Peace!”(published in CeSoir) provoked the French authorities into shutting down the newspaper.
Served in Military During World War II In September 1939 as Aragon was starting his major work, the narrative series The Real World, he was mobilized for war as a member of the French military. He was first sent to the 220th Régiment Régional de Travailleurs, a labor battalion to which politically suspect individuals—communists, anarchists, fascists, and others—were assigned. By February 1940, he was put in charge of a unit of stretcher bearers attached to the newly created Third Division Légère Mécanique. Captured by the Germans in Angoulême, Aragon led a daring escape, getting thirty men in six vehicles to freedom in June 1940. Two days later, he volunteered to rescue several wounded men who were trapped by enemy fire. For this action, Aragon was awarded a Croix de Guerre as well as the Medaille Militaire.
Postwar Emphasis on Nonfiction Immediately after World War II ended, Aragon returned to writing nonfiction and took on the editorship of the journal French Letters, for which he had served as a staff writer since 1949. During the 1950s, the still-confirmed communist also worked to strengthen literary alliances between France and the Soviet Union, published several works on modern painters and art, and continued to offer loving tributes to his wife right up until she died of a heart attack on June 16, 1970. Aragon himself died peacefully in his sleep just before Christmas 1982, after two months of deteriorating health.
Works in Literary Context
Louis Aragon is more than a writer to be studied for a style or a running theme. His themes were his life and his life was a composite of concerns not just with personal motifs but entire literary movements. Thus, Aragon is a twentieth-century personification of Dada. He was also at the forefront of the period in which he lived and wrote, with his pacts with surrealism and communism. All three movements make up the bulk of Aragon's fiction, poetry, and essays in his collected works and in his posthumous publications.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Aragon's famous contemporaries include:
Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948): Primary spiritual guru of India, and a major leader of the Indian independence movement.
James Joyce (1882–1931): Irish expatriate author, considered to be one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century.
Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893–1930): Russian poet and playwright, considered one of the forerunners of Russian futurism.
Dada: The Anti-Art In his poems, there exists the “antithesis of art.” Such works as “The Talking Dog” are intentionally artless, nonlinear, and absurd, demonstrating the essence of Dada. In his fiction, such as The Adventures of Telemachus, Aragon introduced a protagonist who is an “anti-type,” the classical archetype turned inside out, an everyman who is also no man and who is
immersed in a narrative technique of stream of consciousness that is reduced to a single lingering utterance. The name “Eucharis,” for instance, is enunciated four hundred times: “Eucharis, Eucharis, Eucharis ….”
Postwar Novels Aragon's work had a great impact on others. Some of his postwar works can be seen as anticipating the nouveaux romans, or new novels, of postmodern writers as varied as Alain Robbe-Grillet and Kathy Acker. As were the existentialists and others he included in his ambitious studies, Aragon was a commanding intellect of la France réveillée (France awakened).
Works in Critical Context
Because Aragon's career was marked by distinct, even contradictory phases, he took criticism from two different sides. As one of the leading theorists of the avant-garde art movements of Dada and surrealism, he received fairly favorable, though limited, criticism of his writing. In response to his surrealistic novel Paris Peasant (1926), for example, several critics gave high praise. Biographer and critic Lucile F. Becker, for instance, called the book “one of the masterpieces of French twentieth-century literature.” As a loyalist to the French Communist Party, however, Aragon received several conflicting responses. Early on he was labeled an opportunist or political hack by some observers, while his political allies praised this “Poet of the Resistance” whose stirring patriotic works inspired the nation's fight against the Nazi occupation forces of World War II.
By the 1950s, as a writer of politically oriented fiction for a limited audience, Aragon was little noticed outside his political circle. “Even in France,” Becker reported, “very little critical material [had] appeared on Aragon other than in the Communist press, which hailed all of his work indiscriminately.” It was not until the late 1950s and the appearance of his series The Real World—a cross between a communist manifesto and a kind of personal communist coming-out—that the author reached a wider critical audience, with such works as the final novel in the series, Holy Week.
Holy Week Less politically motivated than his earlier work, the story of French king Louis XVIII's escape from Napoleon in the nineteenth century was favored by the literary critics. As Becker noted, those who had “ignored or discounted Aragon's previous work because of his political sympathies praised what they termed his return to objectivity.” Leon S. Roudiez observed in the Saturday Review, “a philosophy of history, a social ethic, and a political ideology inform [the novel's] entire structure … its Marxist flavor is rarely obtrusive.”
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Aragon's involvement in Dadaism and surrealism had a profound impact on literature. Here are a few works by writers who have also been associated with one or the other movements in particular or who influenced Dadaism and surrealism in general:
The Automatic Message (1933), by André Breton. In this important nonfiction treatise, the author discusses automatism in the context of surrealism.
Last Nights of Paris (1929), by Philippe Soupault. In this small novel is some mystery, some obsession, and much Dada.
Djinn (1981), by Alain Robbe-Grillet. This nouveau roman, or new novel, presents itself as one of the most experimental and most challenging reads.
Responses to Literature
- In the 1920s, Aragon made a transition from Dadaism to surrealism. In the 1950s, Aragon made a transition from surrealism to Communism. His series The Real World demonstrates these “themes” and expresses his personal and stylistic transformation. Make a group effort to distinguish these literary and political shifts by surveying the three movements. In pairs, do research in order to define one of the three: Dadaism, surrealism, and communism. Share your definitions as a group. How are the movements similar? How are they different?
- Historians look back on the periods of 1917 through 1920 and the 1940s through 1950s as those involving the “Red Scare.” In the United States, the fear of communism's infiltration was so great that accusations were made against citizens who might or might not have been “commies,” “pinkos,” or “reds.” Research the Red Scare by investigating such phenomena as the anticommunist witch hunts, McCarthyism, slander, libel, and propagandist technique. Where would Aragon fit into your research? How did he combine his art and politics?
- The literature and art of any period is a response—to social concerns, political attitudes, or cultural events. As a group effort, find several selections of social or political music or art. Make copies to teach each other in a seminar session. For instance, if one person chooses “L'internationale” to share with the group, what could be said about this Soviet national anthem? Who wrote the lyrics? Who composed the music? What, in addition to patriotism, is being expressed?
- To put Aragon's military contributions into perspective, conduct a group investigation into France's part in World War II. Search for military documents, personal or professional letters, newspaper entries, journal entries, or anything useful in aiding your understanding of France and its fighters. Who were their allies? What goals did the resistance groups fight for? How did they perform rescues? What is meant by the Fall of France?
Adereth, Max. Commitment in Modern French Literature: A Brief Study of “Littérature Engagée” in the Works of Peguy, Aragon, and Sartre. London: Gollancz, 1967.
Becker, Lucille F. Louis Aragon. Boston: Twayne, 1971.
Bree, Germaine. Age of Fiction: French Novel from Gide to Camus. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1957.
Cardinal, Roger, and Robert Stuart Short. Surrealism: Permanent Revelation. New York: Studio Vista/Dutton, 1970.
Roy, Claude. Aragon. Vichy, France: Pierre Seghers, 1951.
Mobilio, Albert, “In Short: Fiction,” review of The Adventures of Telemachus. New York Times (March 1, 2008).
Rahy, Philip, “From Surrealism to Socialism.” Nation (September 26, 1936).
Roudiez, Leon S. review of Holy Week. Saturday Review (August 8, 1964).
Babilas, Dr. Wolfgang. Louis Aragon Online. March 29, 2007. Retrieved February 24, 2008, from http://www.unimuenster.de/Romanistik/Aragon/welcome.html.
Louis Aragon (1897-1982) was a surrealist author, poet of the French Resistance during World War II, and the leading Communist writer in France.
Louis Aragon was born in Neuilly on Oct. 3, 1897. He was educated to be a physician. In 1917, while in the army medical corps, he met André Breton, who enlisted his support in the "surrealist revolution," a literary and art movement that emphasized the irrational and the unconscious. Aragon's poems and prose pieces of the 1920s are all strongly surrealist. The collections Feu de joie (Bonfire) and Mouvement perpétuel (Perpetual Motion) show not only the verbal gratuity that surrealism advocated but the lyrical transformation of humdrum reality as well. In prose, too, Aragon demonstrated the "daily marvelous" by drawing a veil of enchantment over a modern city, as in LePaysan de Paris (1926; Parisian Peasant). In his essays he lambasted everything and everybody representing established values.
When Aragon became a Communist in 1927, the boisterous and brawling surrealist broke with his companions to dedicate himself to a revolution that he considered more viable than Breton's. He married Elsa Triolet, the sister-in-law of the Russian poet V. V. Mayakovsky and an author in her own right.
Aragon radically shifted the basis of his art and wrote a series of four novels during 1933-1944 in a style that harkened back to 19th-century realism. The novels paint a panorama of French life before World War I. Although intended to be an indictment of the bourgeoisie, they do not show Aragon's political views so obviously as the next series, Les Communistes (1949-1951; The Communists), which deals with France of 1939-1940. For his next novel he went back a century; La Semaine sainte (1958; Holy Week) is about the painter Théodore Géricault and his times. With La Mise à mort (1965; Death Blow) Aragon returned to his own times and his own story. His interest in the work of painter Henri Matisse, whose work Aragon collected, led him to write the novel Henri Matisse (1971).
Aragon's personal story has been the subject of his poetry for, other than his surrealist "exercises," it is essentially a poetry of self-expression. Its first great theme is patriotism, the sentiment which promoted a remarkable flowering of poetry in France during the Occupation. Among Resistance poetry, Aragon's volumes entitled LeCrévecoeur (1941; The Broken Heart), Le Musée Grévin (1943; The Grévin Museum), and La Diane française (1944; The French Diana) stand with the finest. The second great theme of Aragon's poetry is love, which surrealism exalted in particular. In volume after volume Aragon sang of his love for his wife, Elsa. Just as he rejoined, in the novel, the older tradition of didactic realism, in poetry he pushed back to romanticism for theme and form. With verses as regular as Victor Hugo's, his poetry is eminently accessible and direct in its appeal.
Aragon published numerous essays on art and literature and particularly in support of the political cause to which he devoted all his mature years. In 1937 he became editor of the newspaper Le Soir. During the war he helped found the Communist weekly Les Lettres françaises. Speaking at Communist meetings and serving in organizations of writers, Aragon gave unstintingly of his time to causes he thought worthy, defending and attacking with the same spirit that had made him the fire-brand of the twenties.
In 1981, French president François Mitterand made Aragon a member of the Legion of Honor. He died in Paris on December 24, 1982.
Hannah Josephson and Malcolm Cowley, eds., Aragon: Poet of the French Resistance (1945), contains useful introductions to both the poetry and prose. Catharine Savage, Malraux, Sartre, and Aragon as Political Novelists (1964), illuminates the conflict between art and politics for these Marxist writers. Maxwell Adereth, Commitment in Modern French Literature (1967), places Aragon in the context of littérature engagée Background material is provided by Henri Peyre, The Contemporary French Novel (1955), and Germaine Brée and Margaret Guiton, An Age of Fiction: The French Novel from Gide to Camus (1957; rev. ed. published as The French Novel from Gide to Camus, 1962). See also Adareth, Max. Elsa Triolet and Louis Aragon: An Introduction to Their Interwoven Lives and Works (Edwin Mellen Press, 1994); Aragon, Louis, translated by Alyson Waters, Treatise on Style (Traite du Style) (University of Nebraska Press, 1991); Becker, Lucille F., Louis Aragon (Irvington Publishers, 1971); and the New York Times (December 25, 1982). □