Biography of Louis Aragon
Despite there being no official record of his birth, it is known that Louis Marie Alfred Antoine Aragon was born in the Beaux Quartiers arrondissement of Paris in 1897. His father, Louis Andrieux, commanded a high standing within the community as a prefect of the French police. Andrieux was 57 when his 24 year-old mistress, Marguerite Toucas, gave birth to their son (the surname "Aragon" was suggested by Andrieux after a location in Spain where he had been a former ambassador). Because he was married, and because of his elevated public standing, Andrieux could/would not publicly acknowledge their relationship. Despite this, Marguerite remained devoted to Andrieux and raised their son jointly with her own mother while Andrieux adopted a supporting role in his son's life in the guise of a godfather. Louis's grandmother posed in fact as Louis's adopted mother while Marguerite took on the role of a (considerably older) second sister.
Marguerite Toucas, who helped run a woman's boarding house for migrant women, possessed a great passion for literature and the arts. Indeed, her biographer, Nathalie Piégay, explained how she supplemented her income from the boarding house by painting plates, which she sold at the local market, by translating English thrillers into French, and by writing romances for low-brow newspapers. Aragon was heir to his biological mother's passion for writing and had written his first poems and short stories even before he entered the prestigious (probably with the financial support of his father) public school Lycée Carnot from where he graduated with degrees in Latin and philosophy in 1916. In 1917 (and to please his grandmother/mother) he enrolled at the Faculté de Médecine de Paris where he trained as an auxiliary doctor. Aged nineteen, and preparing to assist the war effort as a medical orderly, Marguerite, fearing her son might never return from the trenches, revealed to Louis the truth about his parentage which he, though devasted, agreed to keep secret (he remained true to his promise until his mother's death).
Early Training and Work
In 1917 Aragon was introduced to André Breton at the Val-de-Grâce military hospital. The two men bonded through their shared experiences of war, and particularly through their first-hand experience of reconstructive surgery on bodies that had been maimed by the mechanical weapons of war. Breton made such an impression on the young medic that in a letter home Aragon described Breton as "more friend than all the colours of the rainbow". The pair soon made a companion of a third countryman, the poet Phillipe Soupault. Aragon too was writing poems at this time. His war poetry, which soon drew the attention of the poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire, conjured up terrifying mental images of life in the trenches. After the war - and having been awarded the Croix de Guerre medal for heroism - Aragon returned to Paris where he reunited with Breton and Soupault. Between them, the trio launched/edited the Dadaist magazine Littérature which published between March 1919 and August 1921. (Littérature was relaunched by Breton In March 1922 under the title Littérature: New Series before ceasing publication altogether in June 1924.)
Aragon, who had by now commenced his lifelong affiliation with the French Communist Party (PCF) (though yet to be welcomed as a full member), participated in several Dada events during the early 1920s. He published Dadaist poems, including "Feu de joie" ("Bonfire") in 1920, and the novels Anicet ou le panorama in 1921 and Les Aventures de télémaque in 1922. The former was both a roman à clef (where recognizable people, such as Breton, Picasso, Charlie Chaplin are given fictional titles), and a fantasy drama in which the book's protagonist (Anicet) descends into a "parallel" modern world full of bourgeois society scandals. The latter was an undisguised parody of Finelon's seventeenth-century didactic (in the moralistic sense) novel of the same name. These novels announced Aragon's arrival as a Dadaist but by now the Paris Dada group was coming to an end; an expiration that was accelerated when Breton and Tristan Tzara clashed in a physical fight at an event at the Theatre Michel. Witnessed by Aragon and Paul Eluard, the fracas even resulted with writer Pierre Massot having his arm broken by Breton's flailing walking stick!
In 1924 Breton's Manifeste du surréalisme formally announced the birth of Surrealism. For his part, Aragon's Le Mouvement perpétuel, poèmes (1920-1924) (Perpetual Motion: Poems 1920-1924) offered a literary contribution in support of the nascent movement. Poet Jean Ristat suggested that Aragon was seen as "second in command" to Breton; that Breton was to Aragon like a guide and mentor. But there would soon be a strong, but friendly, rivalry between the two men.
Soupault and Breton had published "Les Champs magnétiques" ("Magnetic Fields") as early as 1920 and this is often cited as the first example of the surrealist technique of automatic writing. Based on Sigmund Freud's writings on the unconscious mind, and Freud's idea that dreams were the "royal road" to the unconscious, spontaneous automatism (which supposedly sprung from the unconscious) became perhaps the defining feature of Surrealism. But, in 1926 Aragon, who had already translated several of his beloved (surrealistic) Louis Carroll books from English into French, published what was destined to become a masterwork of the Surrealist Movement: Paysan de Paris (Paris Peasant).
Dedicated to painter André Masson, the book, which was serialized in Soupault's magazine, Revue européenne, amounted to a dreamlike amble through the back streets of Paris. Aragon described his Parisian locations as "the true sanctuaries of a cult of the ephemeral, the ghostly landscape of damnable pleasures and professions. Places that yesterday were incomprehensible, and that tomorrow will never know". As the literary historian Johanna Malt put it, "Le Paysan de Paris is in many ways the archetypal surrealist text. Combining autobiography and polemic in the form of a sometimes fantastical stroll through Paris's more obscure and insalubrious locations, it is the literary record of surrealism as a lifestyle". The work drew praise from many influential names, most notably the German philosopher Walter Benjamin who cited it as the major inspiration for his career defining Arcades Project.
Aragon, and a four other Surrealists - Breton, Éluard, Pierre Unik and Benjamin Péret - were finally welcomed into the PCF during 1926-27. There had till now been a perceived disparity between PCF members and the "bourgeois" Parisian artists and poets community that seemed to rub against the Party's core socialist ideals. This objection dissipated as the PCF and the Surrealists found mutual ground in their profound concern for the rise of fascist ideology in Germany and across Europe. At this time, Aragon wrote Traité du style ("A Treatise On Style"), which was based on the execution in America of the anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. In this piece he argued that without a political impetus Surrealism was in fact the art of "tristes imbécillités" ("sad imbecilities"). Indeed, it marked the point when socialist politics would overtake surrealism as the dominant drive behind his writing.
Elsa Triolet (born Elsa Yureyevna Kagan in Moscow in 1896) was the second daughter of affluent Jewish professionals. Despite her comfortable upbringing, she (and her elder sister, Lili Kagan Brik) became active in revolutionary activities in Russia. She had arrived in Paris in 1919 having married the Frenchman, André Triolet. The couple separated in 1921 and she spent several years touring Europe, including extended stays London and Berlin, before settling in Paris. As a published novelist herself, she befriended several avant-gardists, including Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. In 1928, having himself recently ended a two-year love affair with the flamboyant publisher and heiress to the Cunard shipping fortune, Nancy Cunard, Aragon was introduced to Triolet, the Russian Futurist Vladimir Mayakovsky, prominent author Ilya Ehrenburg and pioneering Constructivist filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, at a well-known bohemian café-cum-nightclub called La Couple.
Aragon and Triolet fell in love and would remain coupled for the rest of their lives. Although Aragon later cited Mayakovsky as the man who persuaded him that poetry could serve as a revolutionary "weapon", Triolet's commitment to communism merely strengthened Aragon's own political beliefs and, in addition to a series of erotic/love poems (referred to later by Albert Camus as "the best and most beautiful of erotic texts"), Aragon embarked on his four volume Le Monde reel (The Real World) (133-44) series. It became an epic political history that allowed for Surrealism and Social Realism to overlap in an attack on bourgeois literary and cultural conventions.
The late 1920s was a most turbulent period in Soviet communism with Stalin cracking down on dissenters, namely Leon Trotsky, who was forced into exile. Deep divisions emerged amongst the PCF. Aragon was loyal to Stalin which further strained his relationship with Breton (who was loyal to Trotsky). Aragon in fact visited the USSR in 1930 where he received the kind of reception reserved for VIPs. His visit inspired his 1931 poem, "La Front Rouge" ("Red Front") but Aragon, who in the poem had declared "kill the cops", "shoot Léon Blum" (the French Prime Minister), and implored the French military to "disobey orders", was promptly charged by the French authorities with "provocation to murder for the purpose of anarchist propaganda". Anarchism was a crime that carried a maximum sentence of five years imprisonment and, despite their disintegrating friendship, Breton wrote two poems in support of Aragon and circulated a petition demanding that all charges against his colleague be dropped. Although Stalinist/Trotskyist divisions polarized French intellectual life, most signed the petition on grounds of freedom of artistic expression and Aragon was duly exonerated at trial.
The rise of fascism across Europe was becoming a matter of pressing concern by the mid -1930s and Aragon joined the socialist newspaper L'Humanité, writing pieces against Mussolini (in Italy) and Franco (in Spain). In 1934 Aragon published the first of his Real World series of novels, Les Cloches de Bâle (The Bells of Basel). It marked a shift in style which he called "revolutionary romanticism"; a style whereby, in Aragon's words, "Zola's Germinal meets Hugo's Punishments". He also worked as co-editor for Commune, the newsletter of the Association des Écrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires (Association of Revolutionary Writers and Artists) and was invited by the PCF to create an evening newspaper, Ce-Soir (Tonight), in 1937. Aragon's reputation was such he was able to draw together a strong cadre of writers bringing Ce-Soir an annual readership in excess of 250,000 by the beginning of the war. In a biography of Triolet, Huguette Bouchardeau notes, however, that Aragon, whose new wife ( Aragon and Triolet married in 1939) was Jewish, had become "aware of the anti-Semitism of certain French Communists [...] and tried as much as possible to fight against it". This would become a cause of great internal struggle for the writer who at the same time "never wanted to be in direct conflict with the French Communist Party or the Soviet Union [which carried a strong strain of anti-Semitism under Stalin's rule]".
In 1939 Germany and the USSR signed a pact of non-aggression. This raised alarm bells within the French government that duly banned all affiliated PCF publications including Ce-Soir and L'Humanité (fear of personal persecution, exacerbated, no doubt, by his earlier brush with the authorities, saw Aragon take brief refuge in the Chilean Embassy in Paris). Once France and Britain had declared war on Germany (following its invasion of Poland), however, Aragon was drafted once more into the French medical corp. where he was attached to a tank regiment. Aragon was captured by the Germans in the 1940 "Battle of France" but in a remarkable act of daring, he managed to lead 36 countrymen in an escape back into French held territory. It was an act that would bring him a second Croix de Guerre medal for bravery.
Once France had surrendered, the Nazi's drew up a list of banned authors, and having been "listed", Aragon and Triolet joined the Resistance in southern France. Once there, the couple established a network of writers affiliated to the Comité national des Écrivains (National Committee of Writers). Aragon's mother died in 1942 in Cahors in the South of France. He was able to spend the last moments of her life with her and on her tombstone carved: "Here lies the one I loved so much".
Bouchardeau (in conversation with journalist Benjamin Ivry) states that there was an "idealized romantic mythology created by Aragon in his poems inspired by Elsa" and his mother's death was quickly followed with the publication of what was for many his most profound love poem, "Les Yeux d'Elsa" ("The Eyes of Elsa"). Of his wife he wrote:
"Your eyes are so deep that leaning down to drink
I saw all suns mirrored in them
All desperate souls hurled deathward from their brink
Your eyes are so deep my memory is lost there"
In 1943 Aragon published his poem collection, "Musée Grévin" (named after a Parisian waxworks) which is the first known example in French literature to mention the Auschwitz concentration camp. Bouchardeau explained that Aragon was also writing "articles for clandestine journals", one of which was the underground newspaper Les Etoiles ("The Stars"), "conveying information about the existence of the gas chambers". Maintaining his balance of political and romantic writing, Aragon published what would become perhaps his most famous novel, Aurélien, in 1944. The story, written in the mid-1920s while in his relationship with Nancy Cunard, concerns a poet in the interwar years who falls in love with a married woman who he sets his heart on winning.
Following its liberation in 1944, Aragon and Triolet returned to Paris as war heroes and national symbols of the spirit of the Resistance. Triolet's novel about the liberation, Le premier accroc coûte 200 francs (1944) won the Prix Goncourt, France's most prestigious literary prize. She became the first woman to win the award but, as Bouchardeau, pointed out, "The authority which she [Triolet] and Aragon wielded in the French Communist literary world created lots of bad feelings". Indeed, had both been killed during the war they would have lived on as martyrs and then "surely attitudes towards them [within the Party] would have differed greatly". For his part, Aragon was by now fully committed to social realism as was evidenced in his novel, Les Communistes (6 vol., 1949-51) which was a blunt chronicle of the French Communist Party in the years leading up to the Nazi occupation.
Aragon emerged in the post-war years as one of France's most important intellectuals. He worked prolifically as a translator, as the writer of monographs, historical studies and books on politics, art, and culture. He would in fact publish somewhere in the region of 100 books during his lifetime. He remained a prominent member of the PCF throughout the forties and, in 1950, was, as an "exemplary Stalinist", elected to its central committee. Ivry recounts (through Pierre Daix) that in 1952 Stalin was "preparing anti-Semitic purges" and that Triolet, following a trip to the USSR, said of the Soviet leaders: "They are Nazis" (Triolet put the fact that she was banned from attending a Soviet-backed peace conference in Vienna down to her Jewish heritage). Bouchardeau suggests that it was "curious that Aragon and Elsa kept secret the anti-Semitism that they saw in the Soviet Union in 1952-53 [at] a time when people in Hungary were executed because they were Jewish" and that when Stalin died in 1953, Aragon in fact "wrote an article full of extraordinary praise for him".
Aragon kept touch with the artistic avant-garde too and in 1953 became editor in chief of the journal Les Lettres Françaises, which published a portrait of Stalin by (fellow PCF member) Picasso in commemoration of the dictator's death. The publication of the portrait brought Aragon - still the committed Stalinist - widespread criticism since Picasso was effectively accused of treason for what was perceived by many in the Party to be an ironic and contemptuous portrait (a charge firmly refuted by the artist himself).
Alongside his political post and his journalistic writing, Aragon was also running a publishing house called Editeurs Français Réunis which printed and distributed many books in the social realist idiom. Published in 1955, and considered one of his career defining poems, "L'Affiche rouge" ("Red Poster") - named ironically after the Nazi propagandist Red Posters that sought to convince the French people that the Resistance was a foreign movement made up of hostile Jewish, British and Russian factions - honored all the non-nationals that fought in the fight for French liberation. A year later Aragon received the Vladimir Lenin Prize for his work as a communist and supporter of the USSR. After 1956, however, Aragon abandoned his support for social realism and petitioned the PCF not to interfere in acts of personal and creative freedom.
French poet Olivier Barbarant notes that as well as being a guiding hand in the political field, Aragon was also, in line with the writers-cum-filmmakers at the famous Cahiers du Cinéma, a great champion of the Nouvelle Vague which, through the work of writer/directors such as François Truffaut and Jean Luc Godard, placed France at the cutting edge of European avant garde film-making. In the vein of La Semaine sainte (Holy Week) 1958, he published two further novels - La Mise à mort (The Moment of Truth) in 1965, and Blanche ou l'oubli (Blanche, or Forgetfulness) in 1967 - which were part autobiography; part Communist propaganda. Meanwhile, the PCF was beginning to distance itself from Soviet Communism following international condemnation of its military intervention following the workers revolution in Hungary and its new government's attempts to gain neutrality from Moscow. Although he remained loyal to the ideals of the USSR, Aragon railed against the Soviet state's persecution of intellectuals and backed the political tumult in France that reached its climax in the famous Paris student riots of 1968.
In 1970, almost 40 years after they first fell in love, Elsa Triolet died suddenly from heart failure. It was the end of an era for Aragon who, after a period of mourning, resumed his life as a public figure and celebrity. He had grown his hair long and was easy to spot around Paris at Gay Pride events driving his pink convertible car. Indeed, he lived openly as a homosexual man with the poet Michel Larivière and was seen regularly in public with young men hanging on his arm. It is thought he had taken many clandestine male lovers during an open relationship with Triolet but writer Philippe Sollers remarked on the "novel air of cheek" that Aragon carried with him as he flaunted his homosexuality in public for the first time.
Following the publication of Collages (1965), a collection of essays on art and politics written between the 1920s and 1960s, Aragon published what is now considered his last important project, a comprehensive twin-volume novel/memoir of Henri Matisse: Henri Matisse, Roman (1971). Aragon had visited Matisse in his home in Nice during the 1950s and, from a series of lengthy conversations with an artist he had known for nearly 30 years, he constructed his "novel" around memories of their meetings. He presented the work in a manner that reflected the elliptical decoupage style of the artist and in so doing offered a series of meditations - accompanied by over 500 illustrations (155 color) of Matisse's work - on the relationship between painting and literature.
Hilary Spurling of the New York Review wrote: "This is an elaborate firsthand account in two volumes, published seventeen years after its subject's death in 1954 and described by its author as a work of imagination, 'not mine but the painter's'". Indeed, having now reversed his earlier socialist ideas that tied art to political propaganda, Aragon now proposed that it was "the duty of people like himself, who knew Matisse, to conceal or destroy anything that might cast light on the painter's private life". Spurling described how, in his postscript, Aragon expressed "his invincible contempt for the role of biographer: 'We didn't challenge him to say the unsayable, we didn't subject him to the sort of crude blackmail common to every sort of investigative inquiry today'".
Aragon continued to embrace Surrealism through his poetry and remained a member of the PCF, working as editor of the communist cultural weekly Les Lettres Françaises, until his death on Christmas eve in 1982. He was buried next to his beloved wife in the grounds of their home at Parc Moulin de Villeneuve.
The Legacy of Louis Aragon
Regarded now as a national treasure, Aragon is one of France's most important literary figures. Celebrated as a founder of the Surrealist movement, and best known for his books Paysan de Paris and Aurélien, he has been immortalized at a number of his books' Parisian locations, including the Place Louis Aragon, a small area in the fourth arrondissement overlooking the Seine. His Le Monde reel series is widely held up as the prototype for the radical nouveau roman (new novel, or, anti-novel) movement in French literature that emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s, while his name also lives on through the many reinterpretations of his poems, some of which have been put to music by the likes of French cultural icons Yves Montand and Jean Ferrat.
The biggest caretaker of Aragon's legacy is the Maison Elsa Triolet-Aragon which is now a public museum consisting of a sculpture garden, exhibition hall, conference and performance rooms and the restored Maison Villeneuve where Aragon and Triolet spent so much of their lives together. Fellow writer and member of PCF, Pierre Juquin, spoke on behalf of the French people when he said of Aragon "he belongs to all of us, from our heritage to all". But Aragon also left his mark on the wider gay community. The online publication Gay Influence included his name in their international list of all the "kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment world, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes" who have served as "role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation".
Content compiled and written by Esme Blair
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Content compiled and written by Esme Blair
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
First published on 25 Jul 2021. Updated and modified regularly