Aragon, Louis (Vol. 22)
Louis Aragon 1897–
French poet, novelist, playwright, short story writer, journalist, historian, and critic.
Aragon's work has evolved through the avant-garde movements of cubism, dadaism, and surrealism. Many absurdist playwrights credit Aragon's early surrealistic poetry as a major influence on their work. Aragon's dissociation from the surrealist movement in the thirties and subsequent commitment to social realism radically changed the thrust of his work, but he has maintained his reputation as a compelling force in French literature and politics. According to Jean Genet, Aragon is "French Communism's undisputed intellectual, literary, and artistic leader."
(See also CLC, Vol. 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72.)
When Louis Aragon, one of the founding fathers of dada and surrealism, turned to the proletariat for regeneration, he did so with that splendid violence characteristic of the cults he once championed…. His poem, "The Red Front," brought down the wrath of the authorities upon his head, as their police minds would not put down to poetic license his open advocacy of the shooting of prominent politicians.
In time, however, Aragon's initial intoxication gradually gave way to the more sober tendencies in the literature to which he was now organically bound. And it is a tribute to the integrating powers of the doctrine he embraced that his first novel written under its influence [The Bells of Basel (Les Cloches de Bâle)] should surprise us by its gravity of intention and maturity of performance. This poet of cosmopolitan rhetoric has turned into an eager student of history; and in his aspiration to the role of social analyst, he must needs rehearse the parts he once neglected. Like other contemporary novelists, Aragon returns to the pre-war scene in order to find and correlate the elements that shaped our present destiny. And the world he discovers in his expedition to the past is a world that cannot survive.
But in treating this material he adopts a particular angle of vision. His novel is built around the lives of three women, who become the focus of his insights into the society that produced them. Thus the...
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[It was surprising to learn that Aragon] had written a social and collective novel, "The Bells of Basel." For the social novelist has to be not only the master of his characters but also their humble servant. He has to do what Aragon always refused to do: he has to surrender himself in order to create a work that will have an independent life.
"The Bells of Basel" … is a novel of the class struggles in France that preceded the Great War. The subject is similar to that which [Jules] Romains is treating in "Men of Good Will"; there are even characters that seem to be copied from the same living originals. But Aragon is approaching his subject from a different angle, with more emphasis on labor unions and financial intrigues and the social position of women….
Reading the novel I could not help thinking that Aragon as a socialist realist was acting an alien part. Yet he has too much talent not to play any part with high distinction. His story of Diane de Nettencourt is a beautifully cruel picture of the financial world. Catherine Simonidze is convincing both as a symbol and in her own person. The police intrigues around the Bonnot affair are described with a political acumen that no other novelist has surpassed. But gradually we begin to feel that the author is distracting our attention from his own characters. He seems to be angry at their meanness and vacillation. The baldness of his style makes us guess that he is...
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"Residential Quarter" ["Les Beaux Quartiers"] is the second novel in [Aragon's] projected series. It is longer and more unified and far more exciting than "The Bells of Basel."…
The general theme is the social struggles and political intrigues that preceded the World War….
In this novel there are types of writing that Aragon does supremely well—for example, satire of the middle class in its own language, lyrical apostrophes to Paris and its workers, outright melodrama. There are scenes that he describes more vividly than any other living French novelist—for example, the markets at night, the homeless men sleeping under the bridges, the telephone call to the chief of police that leads to a raid on a gambling club. There are emotions that he excels in rendering—for example, sensual love, family hatreds and hysterias, violence bursting out of everyday life. Because of his skill in these matters, he tends to overemphasize them, letting the rest of life slip into the background. His "real world" is too much a world of cunning, lust and murder. But this is a criticism that occurs to you only after the story is ended. "Residential Quarter" is an absorbing and brilliant novel, one of the best that has been written in France since the War.
Malcolm Cowley, "The Real World," in The New Republic, Vol. 97, No. 1251, November 23, 1938, p. 78.
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["Residential Quarter"] is very uneven in quality. Aragon has much talent: his power of description is remarkable, his virtuosity brilliant, his style nervous and swift. He keeps the complicated strands of his oversize novel well in hand; sweeps the reader along, achieves excitement, terror, and emotional stress. But his novel is marred by gratuitous obscenity and a ribald vulgarity that detracts from its serious purpose as a social commentary…. In Edmond's thoughtless affair with an elderly professor's wife and its inexorable aftermath of sordid tragedy, the author is dealing with realities. But he cannot stay on this ground very long; he cannot refrain from undressing humanity in public. The result is not only unedifying, it is often grotesque.
Gilbert Chase, "French Panorama," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1938 by Saturday Review; copyright renewed © 1965 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XIX, No. 9, December 24, 1938. p. 15.
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Leon S. Roudiez
["Holy Week" ("La Semaine sainte")] is crammed full of figures bearing historic names and describes aspects of a well-known episode of nineteenth-century French history [the weeklong journey towards exile of Louis XVIII to escape the triumphant Napoleon]. Nevertheless, Aragon warns us that "Holy Week" should not be read as a historical novel; and in the main this admonition should not go unheeded. For if, on the one hand, the definition of what constitutes a historical novel is broad enough to include almost anything, it is clear on the other hand that if Aragon had meant only to tell an engrossing story involving a set of historical characters he would have justified the reaction of those dissenters from the concert of praise that greeted the original French version in 1958—critics who shook their heads sadly and spoke of him as a second-rate Alexandre Dumas.
Aragon is unquestionably a gifted story teller, and he has solidly grounded his novel on a selected number of facts and gone into painstaking research to insure the physical accuracy of his various settings. But he has also used an episode of French history as other writers might have used a Greek myth, thus making characters and events unmistakably his own. "Holy Week," the impression of somewhat naïve commentators notwithstanding, is engagé in the fullest sense of the term: a philosophy of history, a social-ethic, and a political ideology inform its entire structure....
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Holy Week deals, in some 270,000 words, with one of the most stirring episodes in French history…. And what does M. Aragon make of it? One of the dullest chronicles that ever came from the pen of a poet—which is saying much. Poets, used to the exactions of verse, imagine prose to be easy. Holy Week reads as if it had been compiled by a committee of fact-finders and translated by an electronic computer. The author not only indulges in a ponderous style, he seems unable to select his materials and gives no sort of life to his characters….
[The] lifeless monster is pushed and shoved along. Every collected detail, from the shape of a buckle to the name of every citizen who ever signed a deposition, is somehow shoehorned into the mash. No doubt the author seriously intends to recreate a period, but the effect is as cluttered, stifling and still as an unvisited attic.
Olivia Manning, "Daring Too Much," in The Spectator (© 1961 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 207, No. 6955, October 13, 1961, p. 514.
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Holy Week is a rich, complex, poetic novel which rewards several readings and its author is the same penetrating Marxist thinker, the same staunch patriot and lover of his country, who before taking this journey to the past, sent book after book into the thick of contemporary political battle. There has been no change, and no recantation before the literary and cultural Inquisition. Just as Galileo muttered, "The earth does move," so Aragon, not under his breath however but openly, says here that art is firmly linked to politics; not that a novel should be a political tract, but that the artist must get to know the same real life of the people which finds expression in their political consciousness. The main theme of the book is the picture of the French nation in the critical week in which Napoleon, just returned from Elba, is making his desperate effort to regain power; but a central thread running through it is that of the artist and his discovery of the people of his nation. For although the novel is crowded with historical personages, turned "inside out" with fine historical and psychological insight, the one personage who appears again and again, his inner life traced from the first chapter to the last, is Theodore Gericault, the great French painter. And in the course of depicting the inner debates on art and life of this artist, Aragon presents us with a chapter in his own spiritual autobiography. We learn of the impact made on Aragon as...
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Aragon believes that the task of literature is to explain the whole personality of man, and he feels that both history and love are its constituting factors. It is both symbolic and significant that it was through love that he discovered the existence of others and he never tires of recalling that he owes this discovery to his wife, Elsa Triolet…. His path to commitment is the path of a poet who has constantly sought inspiration from reality. Personal lyricism and social responsibility are happily blended in his art…. (p. 82)
[Louis Aragon], is a little older than the present century, but it is difficult to think of him as an old man. Youthful passion is still the main feature of his personality, and in everything he writes it is always the young poet whom we see, impatient, impulsive and unpredictable, indelibly marked by what he calls "la couleur des années vingt", "the hue of the twenties". In those days, he was a fiery young man, associated at first with Dadaism, and then with surrealism, eager to express his rebellion against hypocrisy and cynicism. (p. 84)
Surrealists tended to despise prose and the novel and to condemn descriptions of real places as incompatible with automatic writing. It was therefore a clear sign of Aragon's independence that he decided to shock his friends and publish [Le Paysan de Paris (The peasant from Paris)],… based, not on an imaginary city, but on the Paris which he...
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[Henri Matisse is] a personal meditation by a poet and novelist, whose own place in 20th-century letters has at least minor distinction, on an artist whom he admired from youth, then finally met, to establish a rather formal friendship, dialogue and collaboration. The result is this marriage of a series of texts composed over a period of 27 years with a profusion of images, constituting what Aragon prefers to call a novel, with Matisse evidently the protagonist.
The book can be seen as belonging to a long and more or less glorious French tradition: the Meeting of the Poet and the Painter…. To append oneself to this tradition is not without its dangers, and Aragon's effort is inevitably marked by a certain pretentiousness. This is in part a product of the excessive nonchalance of the form: an assemblage of several different fragments written on different occasions …, interspersed with more recent notes on the older material, plus, sometimes, comments by Matisse himself, followed by Aragon's comments on the comments. (p. 25)
Yet, all told, the Meeting comes off, and both Aragon's text and his choice of images provide considerable insight into Matisse's creative processes…. The presence of Matisse is impressive in these pages. It is not so much his presence as a man—we see very little of the private man in Aragon's text: even in the chapter on "Pain," he remains curiously distant, formalized—but as a...
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Aragon's speciality is a kind of internal rime-calembour, a device which he has never abandoned. The echoes have sometimes a largely musical value, but they often produce a comic juxtaposition which … [makes the words] parody and deflate each other…. (p. 221)
This kind of dislocation requires a sense of location: in Feu de joie we find not an absence of logical structure but a parody of structure, as well as an acute verbal intelligence which revitalises both meaning and form.
It would appear so far that by choosing to renew the familiar instead of destroying it, Aragon has taken in his stride the reconciliation of liberty and tradition. However, in Le Libertinage (1924), Aragon's preface seems ready to equate liberty with anarchy. He affirms his belief in a love which is destructive of social and intellectual norms and of order, being entirely non-rational…. The central theme of his book is 'le scandale'…. Aragon hastens to insist that le scandale has no moral aims; it is a gratuitous explosion like anger or love, le scandale pour le scandale…. His rejection of moral aims is evidently a way of preserving his freedom; so is his refusal to be defined…. [The] shock tactics of Le Libertinage are based on a controlled use of parody; the pieces in this volume are formal variations on traditional themes and genres: conte, epistolary novel, memoirs, and so on. (pp....
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Annabelle Henkin Melzer
L'Armoire à glace un beau soir is a play which emerged as the door closed on dada and that to surrealism opened. It displays the impulse to break new ground while continuing to express trust in instincts founded in Aragon's dada past. (p. 50)
In L'Armoire à glace un beau soir, the opening roster of characters admits us into the world of the play. The names are largely generic. La Femme, Le Soldat, Le Général, Le Président, Les Deux Soeurs. Even the names Jules, Lenore, and Mme. Léon are fairly unspecific. One pauses, however, at the name Théodore Fraenkel as if suddenly finding a breathing body among a pile of puppets. Here Aragon plays his first card, for Fraenkel was a real person: a staunch member of the surrealist group and a childhood friend of Breton who had participated in all the dada manifestations. The appearance of Fraenkel, noted for his cutting humor, as master of ceremonies … is an in-joke, not surprising among the surrealists. For the surrealists, as the dadas before them, created and performed for one another with at least as much relish as they did for an "outside" audience…. In this context it is not surprising that Aragon's play is dedicated to Roger Vitrac and includes Fraenkel as one of its characters.
The characters of the prologue move in a uniquely surrealist world: a world marked by the conflict of two orders—the waking order and the dream order. Each order is in...
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In perspective, Aragon may well loom as the Victor Hugo of this century…. Like his predecessor he has had an active role in forming a literary movement, he has had his politically and patriotically inspired phases, his colossal narratives, and if he was not exiled at a certain period in his life like Victor Hugo, he has known what it is to be a stranger in his own land, evidenced in the poignant poetry of En Etrange Pays dans mon pays lui-même.
The current preoccupation with structual analysis puts Aragon at a great disadvantage. He writes plain, vigorous French, he is not neurotically subtle, he takes his structures where he finds them—in the satirical novel, the sotie, the historical romance, and a poetry largely conveyed in Romantic lyricism except for a brief early period in which he indulged in Dada écriture. In Le Paysan de Paris and in Le Traité du style Aragon crystallized and intellectualized the precepts of surrealism better than most of his colleagues who practiced the surrealist metaphor.
But in his earliest prose work, Anicet, he accomplished something even more significant: he gave the "materialization of a moral symbol in violent opposition to the morality of the world in which it emerged." These are the words with which he was to characterize some years later the sense of the marvelous which he shared with Breton and a few others in their search for a concept...
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