Triolet, Elsa (1896–1970)
Triolet, Elsa (1896–1970)
French novelist, short-story writer, Communist sympathizer, and member of the French Resistance who was awarded the Prix Goncourt in 1945. Name variations: Mme Aragon. Born Elsa Yureyevna Kagan in Moscow, Russia, on September 24, 1896; died in Saint-Arnoult, France, on June 18, 1970; daughter of Yuri Alexandrovich Kagan (a Lithuanian Jew and lawyer) and Yelena (Borman) Kagan (a Latvian Jew); married Pierre-Marie-André Triolet, in 1918 (divorced 1939); married Louis Aragon (a poet and writer), on February 26, 1939 (died December 24, 1982); no children.
Met Vladimir Mayakovsky (1911); studied at the Institute of Architecture, Moscow (1913–17); left Russia (July 1918); journeyed to Tahiti (1919); separated from husband (1921); published first book, In Tahiti (Moscow, 1925); met Louis Aragon (November 1928); published first book in French, Goodnight, Thérèse (1938); German occupation of France (June 1940–August 1944); was a member of the French Resistance (1941–44); helped establish the National Committee of Writers (1941); awarded the Prix Goncourt (1945).
Elsa Triolet was a Russian, a Jew, and an ardent, lifelong supporter of Communism. She was an independent, seemingly innocent, promiscuous, and elusive woman who inhabited two worlds, her beloved Russia and her adopted country, France. Ever aware that she was an outsider, an alien, in France, Triolet realized: "To be a foreigner is not a question of a passport, it is to feel unwelcome." Adored by her poet-writer second husband Louis Aragon, who created a "cult of Elsa," she was not loved by everyone who knew this enigmatic couple. As she related in Putting into Words (1969): "I have a husband who is a Communist. And the blame lies with me that he is a Communist. I am a tool of the Soviets…. I am a lady and a slut…. I am a moralist and a frivolous being…. I am the muse and the curse of the poet. I am beautiful and I am repulsive." And because she was an excessively private, evasive figure, "People fill me up with thoughts and with feelings, as one stuffs a straw doll, while I have no hand in the matter at all." Elsa Triolet can be found in her novels and short stories, in her ambiguous relationships with her husbands, her work with the French Resistance, and in her expressions of loneliness and exile. As one of her heroines lamented, "No one loves me"; Elsa feared this, too.
Born Ella Kagan in Moscow in 1896 to well-educated, talented, middle-class Jewish parents, Triolet enjoyed a privileged childhood. Her father Yuri Kagan was a lawyer and a judge who had comfortably assimilated into Russian and Western European culture, as had her mother Yelena Kagan , a German-speaking native of Latvia. Elsa and her sister Lili Kagan Brik , five years her senior, were independent, free-thinking mavericks; Elsa disliked being the younger sister and walked in Lili's shadow until she married and left Russia. Loyal servants, a house filled with music and culture, and travel outside of Russia with their mother provided the girls with a stable, comfortable lifestyle. Religion played no part in their lives; the Kagans did celebrate the "Christian festivals as a social conformity," not from any religious conviction. Elsa and Lili spoke Russian and German as their native languages, and learned French from their governess. In Triolet's first book, she recalls her happy childhood, her "snug and cozy" home, falling asleep listening to her mother playing the piano and her father "crumple the pages of his newspaper … sounds which, in my drowsy state, strike me as divine."
Triolet remained attached to the Kagan house; in her Notebooks Buried Under a Peach Tree, she admits "that even today I seem to look upon this Russian house as the house … something that is human, understanding and sunny which I never came across since." And Elsa respected and admired her parents, though their conventional lifestyle was not appealing. They were "genuinely good people" who finally gave up trying to make their uninhibited daughters fit into their middle-class milieu.
Triolet's love of poetry, especially the Russian symbolists, led to a close friendship with the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky whose bohemian dress and slovenly manners shocked her parents. Though polite to Mayakovsky, they disapproved of him, and Elsa broke off relations with the poet rather than upset her mother. There is no strong evidence that Triolet and Mayakovsky were lovers, but in the late 1950s she did admit that she had had an abortion, and it is likely that Mayakovsky was responsible for the pregnancy. At age 17, Elsa left secondary school with a gold medal and a diploma and enrolled in the Institute of Architecture, as had her sister Lili. They were fortunate to have been admitted, since Jewish students were subject to a 3% quota. Elsa also studied painting and music at the institute for four years.
When Yuri Kagan died in 1915, Elsa and her mother moved to Petrograd to be near Lili who had married Osip Maximovich Brik, a revolutionary Marxist. Mayakovsky came there to look for Elsa who introduced him to the Briks. This unkempt, "hulking, uncouth celebrity" fell in love with Lili, and for the next 15 years lived with the Briks in an amicable ménage à trois. Elsa refused to become a member of the group, and she and her mother returned to Moscow just as the revolution broke out in October 1917. Both Elsa and Lili were attractive young women, and Elsa was pursued by many admirers, but she was determined to finish her studies.
Nobody who knew [Triolet] ever thought she was a happy woman. Many wondered if they had ever really known her at all.
During the winter of 1917–18, revolution, starvation, cold, and epidemics ravished Russia, and Elsa decided to leave the country, but only temporarily. She and her family supported the revolution "with enthusiasm… struck by the comradeship and great hopes which it brought about." Triolet had been converted to the Marxist ideology and became a passionate defender of the Soviet system. Her reasons for leaving Russia were personal, not political. It is thought that she met André Triolet at the French Embassy in Moscow in 1917. André was from a wealthy French landowning family, loved women and horses, and fell in love with Elsa. To the surprise of Elsa's family and friends, they married in 1918. She and André had nothing in common; Elsa, at age 21, had not yet had "a proper life of her own," she was "incompletely human," while André was a sophisticated, cultured "dandy." When he left Russia, Elsa remained to complete her education. However, as the country plunged into civil war, she and her mother applied for passports, leaving Lili, Osip, and Mayakovsky who were all firmly committed to the new Bolshevik regime.
Elsa met up with André again in London, from where they moved on to Paris. However, only a few months later this incongruous couple set out for Tahiti. André had survived four years of war, and in 1919, he just "wanted to forget both the living and the dead." Elsa, too, had escaped the turmoil afflicting her native land. Life in Tahiti was routine and tranquil. Typically, Elsa soon "yearned for another country, any ordinary country, a country which is like all countries." Consequently, she left André, and Tahiti, and returned to Paris. They were simply not suited to one another, but divorce was not contemplated at this time. André granted Elsa a monthly allowance so she would not need to work, and they remained on friendly terms even after she began her relationship with Louis Aragon. Life in Tahiti provided the material for Triolet's first published work, In Tahiti, published in Russia in 1925.
Restless and uncertain of her future, Elsa went to London, where her mother was working for the Soviet commercial bureau and her Uncle Borman owned a factory. For a short time, Elsa took a position with an architect but could not settle down. In 1922, she went to Berlin with her sister. Here she found an apartment and a variety of lovers among the large Russian expatriate colony. Russian artists and writers had established a thriving community and several publishing houses in Berlin. Mayakovsky was one of the prominent figures among these avant-garde Russians. However, Elsa was not interested in him any longer as an intimate friend; he gambled, drank, was socially inept, and was, after all, Lili's lover. Elsa Triolet had numerous brief liaisons, but Lachlan Mackinnon claims that her sexuality was held in check because "it may be that she feared the loss of self that sex entailed." Despite her reticence, Triolet attracted men throughout her life.
Victor Shklovsky was one of her admirers, but more important he helped launch her career as a writer. In his novel Zoo, he included some of Triolet's letters to him. Maxim Gorky, who was living near Berlin, read the manuscript, asked to meet Triolet, and encouraged her to write; "And that is how it all began," Elsa noted. In 1923, Elsa Triolet became a writer. By that autumn, the Russian community was dispersing, and Triolet returned to Paris. Max Adereth remarks that she did not choose to return to Russia or join her mother in London because "it mattered little where she was for she had by now grown accustomed to travelling inside [her] solitude." Elsa chose to reside in the Hotel Istria in the Montparnasse district of Paris; here she lived among the Surrealists and Dadaists, Fernand Léger, Man Ray, Francis Picabia and his wife Gabrielle Buffet , and Marcel Duchamp. Russian émigrés, such as Ilya Ehrenburg, met in the cafés in Montparnasse, and Triolet acquired a number of friends; "I was young, I was merry, loaded with lovers." She had found a familiar milieu which she described as "my family, the one which does not depend on bloodties, and that one acquires in the course of life." Triolet completed In Tahiti and wrote Wild Strawberry, the latter based on childhood memories, her "attempt to rebuild a world which no longer existed." She made many French and Russian friends, but she also made enemies; the French police kept a dossier on Triolet and other Russians suspected of being Soviet agents. The creative energy that characterized the habitués of Montparnasse undoubtedly affected Elsa who continued to write. In July 1925, she went to Moscow where she remained for eight months. Her two novels, published there before the end of the year, were well received but not financially successful. Back in Paris, Triolet began working on her third novel, Camouflage, which she brought with her during her next visit to Moscow in May 1927. Trouble with the Soviet censor delayed publication until November. This novel was not a success because, as Elsa noted, it was "too unhappy, its true subject being … the fear of life." The two women portrayed in the work reveal much about the author: "Lucile [a Frenchwoman] is the Elsa the world saw, Varvara [a Russian] her inner destitution." Disappointed
over the negative reaction to the book, Triolet rejoined the Russian circle in Paris, decided to abandon writing, and contemplated going home permanently. And then she met Louis Aragon, which changed her life forever.
Aragon was a Parisian, a medical school graduate, decorated war hero, poet, womanizer, bisexual, a member of the French Communist Party (PCF), and active in the avant-garde movements which came out of the war experience of so many young people of France. Wrote one historian, "The first Dadists intended to mock and destroy the culture which was … busy killing their contemporaries." Surrealism, too, attracted the disaffected and disillusioned generation that rejected reality and set out to shock the banal bourgeoisie. Triolet did not share Aragon's enthusiasm for these movements, nor did she like Aragon's friends.
Elsa had read Aragon's novel The Peasant of Paris, and asked a mutual friend to introduce her to the author. They met at a café on November 6, 1928, and would remain together until Triolet's death in 1970. No one, including Elsa, believed their relationship would last, "especially because of my character, for I really have the temperament of an independent spinster," as she explained to Adereth. But for Triolet this unlikely liaison meant the end of being just another foreigner in France, "the end of aimless drifting." For Aragon, it was an all-consuming love that permeated his work from then on. He later acknowledged that it was Elsa "to whom I owe everything that I am, to whom I owe having found … the entrance to the real world where living and dying are worthwhile." In Aragon, Triolet had found "a kindred poetic soul," but denied that he ever had any direct influence on her writing; writers started with reality, she believed, and transformed it by imagination "to make us dream."
Shortly after their affair commenced, Triolet began separating Aragon from his Surrealist friends and forbade the mention of his former lovers in her presence. She brooked no rivals, male or female who might threaten her position. On the other hand, Elsa remained friends with André and his various mistresses. Triolet was the dominant partner, and she succeeded in creating for herself and Aragon a private life that "remained just that—private." Aragon usually acquiesced to Triolet, but he objected to her still receiving the monthly allowance from André. However, their combined incomes were inadequate even for their simple needs. A chance meeting in a Paris art gallery between Elsa and a man from Vogue magazine in August 1929, opened up a new opportunity; Triolet began making necklaces, a kind of chic "junk jewelry" for the fashion houses of Paris. Coco Chanel was not interested for she had "political suspicions about expatriate Russians." Aragon, too, was involved, peddling Elsa's handiwork to various customers. This business enterprise earned enough money for the couple to travel to Berlin to meet Lili and Mayakovsky (he would commit suicide in 1930).
In September 1930, Triolet, Aragon, and their friend Georges Sadoul set out for Russia to attend a congress of writers in Kharkov, Ukraine. On this, Aragon's first trip to the Soviet Union, he fervently expressed support for the Soviet system, ignoring the ruthless, repressive aspects of the regime. Elsa shared his Communist ideals, but her attachment "was largely of a sentimental nature" rather than political. Triolet has been blamed for Aragon's refusal to speak out in favor of creative freedom at the congress; he and Sadoul stated that they intended to adhere to the dictates of the Communist Party "to whose discipline and control we undertake to submit our literary activity." Mackinnon claims that Aragon's repudiation of freedom of expression "turned him into Elsa's creature" and against his Surrealist friends, which had been her objective all along. On subsequent visits to the Soviet Union in 1931 and 1932, neither Triolet nor Aragon had anything critical to say about the "totalitarian police state" that terrorized thinkers, writers, and political dissidents. They were fully aware of the situation "but they did not speak out," even when they returned to France.
In Paris, Aragon began to work as a journalist on the Communist daily L'Humanité, and Triolet turned to translating French novels for publication in Moscow. When the Russian publisher severely edited the translations without consulting her, Triolet said, "I gave up." Inexplicably, Aragon did not want Elsa to take up her own writing again, but Triolet ignored his wishes and produced her novel Necklaces, based on her brief venture in making and selling jewelry. After a portion of the book was published in a magazine in Moscow, it was banned without explanation, and it would not appear during her lifetime.
If she could not publish in her native country, Elsa would become a "French" writer. "Abandoning Russian," wrote her biographer, "she accepted her French destiny." Characteristically, she did not consult, or inform, Aragon when she was writing her first novel in French, Goodnight, Thérèse, in 1937. Triolet confessed in a public statement in 1964, addressed to Aragon, that she wanted to write "because everything prevented me. You could have helped by taking my side, by saying to me: write! But you weren't willing to say it, you knew nothing of what I was writing." Aragon eventually recognized and acknowledged that he had been excluded from an important part of Triolet's life; in his poem Elsa (1959), he wrote, "Beings were born of you whom I had not given you/ No one will ever know the violence/ The torture the jealousy/ The frenzy that came over me." Robert Denoël, Aragon's publisher, agreed to accept Triolet's novel "after reading only a few pages." It received favorable reviews, one by the French intellectual Jean-Paul Sartre.
Despite this success, the 1930s were largely devoted to "holding Aragon's fragile personality together," forcing Elsa into a subservient position in relation to him and his obligations to the French Communist Party (Triolet was never a member). It was "the most dispiriting decade of Elsa's life." However, she was active—though "an appendage" to Aragon—and they attended party meetings in France and writers' congresses in Spain, the Soviet Union, and the United States. It took the intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt for them to enter the States in 1939; Aragon had stated on his visa application that he belonged to the Communist Party. While in New York, Paul Robeson, the African-American actor and singer, showed Triolet and Aragon around Harlem; Elsa was struck by capitalist American society, "an image which was to haunt her."
With war imminent in Europe, Aragon would undoubtedly be called to active military duty. Since he and Triolet had never married, she would not be permitted to have authorized contact with him. So, in February 1939, after her divorce from André was final, Triolet and Aragon were married in Paris. That August, the German-Soviet non-aggression pact was signed; this presented the couple with a dilemma and placed them in an awkward position. Elsa was afraid to criticize the agreement since Lili still lived in the Soviet Union. The French Communists had no hesitation, however, in supporting the pact. The French government quickly accused them of treason, and the following month declared the party illegal. Triolet and Aragon went into hiding in the Chilean embassy for several days. Aragon was called into service as a medical auxiliary and left Paris in early September. For Elsa, "by both origin and association," writes her biographer, "the war was to begin in ambiguity and end in disillusionment."
Aragon was actively involved in fighting in northern France and was awarded two medals for bravery before being evacuated at Dunkirk. France was defeated by the Germans in June 1940, and Triolet suffered along with her adopted compatriots: "in those moments," she recalled, "the supreme horror is not knowing where one's country is … or even if one has one." A year later, the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union, "a double defeat" for Triolet. After the French signed an armistice with the Germans, Aragon was discharged from the army. He and Elsa could have emigrated, but instead decided to remain in France and fight the German occupiers in any way they could. This would place them in danger; Triolet was a Russian Jew, Aragon was a Communist. They fled south to the unoccupied zone of France and joined the French Resistance.
In July 1940, members of the French Communist Party began to be arrested. Triolet and Aragon eluded the authorities by moving frequently from one town to another, to Carcassonne, to Avignon, Lyons, Nice, and several isolated villages. They began to organize a "literary Resistance" of writers and publishers in the south and in Paris. They also renewed contact with the outlawed Communist Party. In June or July 1941, Triolet and Aragon traveled to Paris, using false papers. They were detained by the Germans before reaching the city and spent ten days in prison. Elsa wrote of this experience in her story "It Was Only a Border Crossing," published in February 1945. She and Aragon were released and made their way unhindered to Paris where they met with other writers and founded the National Writers' Committee. Then they returned to the unoccupied zone to organize the Committee there.
War, occupation, arrests, and being constantly on the move seemed to stimulate Triolet's creativity. Her short stories reveal a new self-confidence; "The Beautiful Woman Grocer," "Personal Destiny," and "A Thousand Regrets" are critical of the "triviality and hypocrisy" of French society and depict marriage as "bogus." While living in Nice, Elsa worked on The White Horse, her most autobiographical work to date, written during "one of the happiest periods of her life," according to Mackinnon. The novel appeared in 1943, but only after the final sentence had been removed; Elsa made a reference to concentrations camps, and Denoël, the publisher, had to accommodate German censorship in Paris. Triolet's writing provided her with personal satisfaction and independence, a life separate from the stifling adoration of her husband. A local bookstore was the social center in Nice for people like the Aragons, "transients trying simply to survive." Triolet also became friends with the artist Henri Matisse whose work "spoke to and evoked something in Elsa herself."
In November 1942, Triolet and Aragon fled Nice as the Italians moved in to occupy the area; at the same time, the Germans took over the rest of France in response to the Allied landings in North Africa. Eager to continue their writing on behalf of the Resistance, the couple went to Lyons where they became part of a clandestine organization of intellectuals called "Les Étoiles" (The Stars), a "cell" of about five members who had implicit trust in one another. Their work in the Resistance movement created a personal crisis in 1943. Triolet informed Aragon she was going to leave him. Husbands and wives who were active in these closely knit cells were not to remain together. Elsa announced: "I cannot allow the idea that we shall get to the end of the war and when people ask me, 'And what did you do?' I shall have to say, 'Nothing.'" Not surprisingly, Triolet stayed, but on her own terms. Dominique Desanti , Elsa's French biographer, claims that Triolet actually wanted to leave Aragon permanently, that she was reacting against "having to play second fiddle to her male partner" as she had done during most of the 1930s.
While in Lyons, Elsa wrote a moving story that lends credence to Desanti's claim. Two lovers, Juliette and Célestin, who are involved in the Resistance, are forced to separate, and Juliette says, "I have always known that love was only a counterfeit and that there is no truth, only illusion. People do not love one another, nobody loves anybody." Triolet's "The Lovers of Avignon" was illegally published in October 1943, under the pseudonym Laurent Daniel. The story also includes allusions to the French Communists (the party was still forbidden in France) as " le parti des fusillés" (the party of those who were shot). After the Liberation of France, the French Communist Party took this expression as their own, to remind the nation that they had been among the most active resisters and that many of their members had been killed by the Nazis.
During the war, Triolet and Aragon continued to write and distribute an illegal newspaper; if caught, they would have been deported to a concentration camp or killed. As soon as Paris was liberated in August 1944, they returned to find their apartment had been requisitioned by the Germans. Amazingly, the four years of German occupation, of engaging in dangerous resistance activities, and constantly moving to evade capture was a time of great productivity for Elsa: "Writing was my freedom, my defiance, my luxury." Her collection of short stories, The First Tear Costs Two Hundred Francs (1944), won the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1945; the title was taken from "a coded message to the Resistance on the eve of the Normandy landings." With the advent of peace came the Cold War, and Elsa's disillusionment is reflected in her novels Nobody Loves Me, Armed Ghosts, and The Inspector of Ruins. The "ruins" refer to "ruined men with nothing to go back to." Triolet was now a famous writer, and through Aragon's poems, especially Elsa's Eyes (1942), she became "an icon," a national symbol. But after the years of war and occupation, Triolet "would never live so intensely again."
Everyone in France wanted to forget the war, and Triolet and Aragon were quickly forgotten, too, "relegated to the [Communist] ghetto." They remained uncritical of the repressive Communist regimes in Eastern Europe where they traveled extensively. Their role in the "bloody and vindictive" purges of those who had collaborated with the Nazis in France, even former friends, "ensured … that Elsa and Aragon contracted a kind of intellectual leprosy." Most of Triolet's postwar novels and stories did not appeal to the war-weary French, and memories of the Resistance were fading. Both Triolet and Aragon were again contributing to the revived Communist newspapers in France; Triolet attended the Nuremberg trials and wrote "The Judges' Waltz" in which she stated that the public "feels a revulsion for the interminable judging of someone judged in advance by humanity" and did not need to be reminded of the camps of Dachau and Auschwitz. Her novel The Red Horse (1953) was practically ignored by the critics, which Triolet attributed to her Communist affiliation and to the fact that she was a woman and a foreigner.
Elsa Triolet was ever aware of her divided allegiance between her native and adopted lands. A poem by Mayakovsky describes her own feelings: "I would have loved to live and die in Paris/ If there had not been that land—Moscow!" Her novel Where Strangers Meet (1957) reflects these feelings for her two "homes." Triolet was not uncritical of Communism, as seen in The Monument (1957), the story of a sculptor in an unnamed Eastern European country who commits suicide because he believes his statue of Joseph Stalin is a failure. Based on an actual event, it drew sharp criticism from French Communists. Triolet defended her novel, saying "it was the duty of a socialist realist to tell the truth, no matter how unpleasant." Attacks by her political comrades left her "sick of it all. Sick of my own self, being as I was, obviously not meant for peace and quiet, sick of my personal feelings … sick of the scuffle." Although she won many French Communists over to her point of view, Triolet would try to avoid such controversy in the future. She began work on a trilogy, The Age of Nylon, which dealt with 20th-century issues such as modern technology, consumerism, and the position of women in modern society. Writing was "both pleasurable and painful" for Triolet, and she claimed she never had a specific conclusion in mind. In The Grand Never (1965), for example, the heroine leaves her lover, "and when she did," Elsa notes, "I asked myself: why on earth did she do that?"
During the last ten years of her life, she and Aragon were more financially secure which enabled them to live in an exclusive area of Paris and to purchase a small villa in the village of Saint-Arnoult. They also began to collaborate on a collection of their novels; these appeared in 40 volumes between 1964 and 1973, and "stand as the couple's best memorial." Since the early years of the war, Triolet had suffered from heart problems which led to her death in June 1970. She is buried in Saint-Arnoult where she died. Some years later, in tribute to Elsa, Aragon wrote, "My life… lasted forty-two years/ The rest… before, after/ The rest is only the rest/ Not even the remainder." He died on Christmas Eve 1982 and is buried next to Elsa.
Adereth, Max. Elsa Triolet and Louis Aragon: An Introduction to Their Interwoven Lives and Works. Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1994.
Aragon: Poet of the French Resistance. Edited by Hannah Josephson and Malcolm Cowley. NY: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1945.
Mackinnon, Lachlan. The Lives of Elsa Triolet. London: Chatto & Windus, 1992.
Casey, Brenda Bruckner. "Elsa Triolet: A Study in Solitude," dissertation, Northwestern University, 1974.
Desanti, Dominique. Elsa-Aragon: le couple ambiguous. Paris: Belfond, 1994.
——. Les Clés d'Elsa (The Keys to Elsa). Ramsay, 1983.
Oeuvres Romanesques croisées d'Elsa Triolet et Aragon. Paris: Robert Laffont, 1964–73.
Jeanne A. Ojala , Professor Emerita, Department of History, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah