Louis Aragon 1897-1982
(Born Louis Andrieux; also wrote under pseudonyms Albert de Routisie, Arnaud de Saint Roman, Francois La Colere, Francois Lacolere) French novelist, poet, nonfiction writer, journalist, essayist, and critic.
Regarded as one of the most distinguished figures in modern French literature, Aragon was a prolific writer whose works reflect some of the most significant artistic trends and political events that took place during a lifetime that spanned much of the twentieth century. While he produced works in various genres and styles, from political tracts to love poems to multi-volume novels, he is most honored for a relatively small number of works that he wrote at several critical points throughout his life. These include his Surrealist novel Le Paysan de Paris (1926; Nightwalker) and the historical novel La Semaine sainte (1958; Holy Week).
Aragon was born the illegitimate son of a married man, whom he was told was his “tutor,” and a woman he was raised to believe was his sister. His parents ran a boarding house in a respectable, though not fashionable, section of Paris. From the age of eleven Aragon was captivated by literature and literary life through his reading of French novelists Maurice Barrès and Stendhal, as well as through the influence of his mother, who was a translator of novels and introduced her son to the works of the major Russian novelists of the nineteenth century. He also read Maxim Gorky, a twentieth-century Russian author whose novels became a model for Soviet literature and promulgated the advancement of communist society over the life of the individual. In 1916 Aragon received a bachelor's degree from the Lycée Carnot and afterward began to study medicine. During World War I he served in the medical corps, and it was at this time that he met André Breton and Phillipe Soupault, with whom he would later found the Surrealist Movement. After the war, during which he was awarded the Croix de Guerre for his role in the occupation of the Rhineland, Aragon, along with Breton and Soupault, started publishing the journal Littérature, which initially aligned itself to the new movement of Dadaism, whose founder, Tristan Tzara, preached a philosophy of nihilism and revolt against social convention as a reaction to what he considered the madness of a civilization that was responsible for the First World War. Aragon, Breton, and Soupault ultimately broke with Tzara and later founded Surrealism, which was more vital and affirmative than Dadaism, though no less rebellious against the established social order. In its early stages in the 1920s, Surrealism was influenced by the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud, and its primary goal was to create artistic works that were spontaneous outpourings from the unconscious as a means of bypassing the conditioned modes of thinking that society imposed on the individual. Aragon's outstanding work that derived from this technique was Nightwalker. Later, however, Aragon and the Surrealists, influenced by the writings of Karl Marx and the example of the newfound Soviet Union, increasingly viewed their mission as one of social and political change. Even more decisive for Aragon's political awakening in the direction of Soviet communism was the influence of the Russian-born Elsa Triolet, whom Aragon met in 1928 and later married. From the 1930s until the end of his life, Aragon was a supporter, often indefensibly so in the view of critics, of Soviet ideology and activities, from Joseph Stalin's bloody purges of both actual and suspected political dissidents to the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan in 1980. While Aragon was occasionally critical of Soviet policy and aggression, he essentially functioned as an apologist for the USSR and was bestowed with honors by that country for his service. Aragon's political sympathies are evident in much of his work, including his Hourra l'Oural (1934; Hurrah, the Urals), a paean to the Soviets, and his six-volume novel Les Communistes (1949-51; The Communists), a celebration of the French Communist Party's activities during the Nazi occupation of France during World War II. In these works Aragon adhered to the artistic doctrines of Socialist Realism, which was intolerant of literary experimentalism and viewed literature as an extension of political propaganda. Later in his career Aragon employed a more inventive and unconventional technique in the composition of his works, most prominently Holy Week. He died in 1982.
Among Aragon's works, those that account for his international acclaim as a modern author are Nightwalker and Holy Week. The first of these originated in the artistic ideals of Surrealism and explores two central motifs of the movement: the search for the “marvelous” behind the mundane appearances of the everyday world and love as a means for achieving an experience of transcendence. In the first part of the book, the “Paris peasant” of the French title wanders the city, observing seamy or downtrodden sites such as transients' hotels, brothels, and run-down shops through a dream-like perspective that projects upon these venues a sense of magic and wonder. As Breton commented of Aragon's imaginative abilities: “When one walked through parts of Paris with him—even the most colorless places—the experience was greatly enhanced by his magical-novelistic gift for stories, a gift that never failed and that came to him at any corner or shop window.” The second part of Nightwalker introduces three young men in search of love and, in Surrealist parlance, the “ideal woman”—a “child-woman,” part muse and part sorceress, who would inspire her lover to artistic creation and transport him beyond the confines of ordinary existence. Throughout Nightwalker, Aragon employs techniques borrowed from visual media to create an effect of immediacy, reproducing placards, menus, and other non-literary elements that are redolent of Cubist collage works of the period. In Aragon's historical novel Holy Week, it is evident that the author had left behind the “marvelous” of Surrealism and had for a time turned away from the more strident and doctrinaire political views that had motivated such serial novels as The Communists. While Holy Week was written as the last of the series of “Real World” novels in which The Communists is subsumed, critics praise this work for integrating its political agenda into a rich narrative that relates the historical events that brought about Napoleon's short-lived return to power in 1815, employing what Aragon termed a “stereoscopic” technique in which complex parallels between the past and present are artfully illuminated. The result is a highly inventive novel that blends the political aims of Aragon's Socialist Realist style with a more objective and deeply insightful view of its vast and varied subject. After the 1958 publication of Holy Week, Aragon produced several highly ambitious works of fiction during the 1960s and 1970s, including a two-volume novel based on the life of the artist Henri Matisse.
Critics have often viewed Aragon as a twentieth-century counterpart of such titans of nineteenth-century French literature as Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac, both for the prodigious nature of his output and the ideological passions that drove him to produce so much of his work. At the same time, those passions—most conspicuously his attachment to the Soviet Union and its policies—have caused a good deal of his work to be viewed as misguided or irrelevant in retrospect. Nevertheless, Aragon retains a high literary stature as the creator of several widely recognized masterpieces of modern world literature and as an important figure in the political history of France. French President Francois Mitterand declared following Aragon's death: “France is grief-stricken by the death of one of its greatest writers. … I bow before his memory.”