Aragon, Louis (Vol. 3)
Aragon, Louis 1897–
Aragon is a French Communist novelist, poet, and essayist. Formerly associated with both the Dada and Surrealism movements, he has, since 1932, concerned himself almost exclusively with social revolution.
The basic pattern of [Aragon's] novels is simple. Aragon contrasts the corrupt bourgeois world and its efforts to maintain its status quo with the sane and honest proletariat struggling to establish a human order in the amoral bourgeois jungle. The history of our time quite naturally appears to Aragon as essentially the history of a class struggle. In his first four, and best, novels, the emphasis is on the jungle that Aragon, a bourgeois himself, knows all too well. His novels are one-man offensives launched against what is by his decree a socially unjust warmongering society that alienates men from their real human destiny. They give full scope to the verbal condottiere in him.
Aragon's fictional universe is thus divided into two simple zones somewhat similar to the hell and paradise of the Middle Ages, except that the line of demarcation irrevocably drawn for each individual by the circumstances of birth is less easily crossed. One is the bourgeois domain, the other the domain of the working class. Aragon's fictional chronicle is based on chance exchanges between the two, but, concentrating on the bourgeois domain, he merely opens sudden vistas on a working-class existence that the bourgeois habitually ignore. When they cannot ignore it, they attempt to destroy it….
The bourgeois world in Aragon's novels is essentially venal. Everything in it is bought, sold or bartered—in particular the women, one of its main luxury products. The quick acquisition of money is the main concern of its members. This whole system is pictured as a vast gambling establishment connected with as vast an enterprise in prostitution….
The fictional chronicle he writes is shamelessly partial and its fictional value almost nil. And yet, as is not very apparent in Les Communistes, Aragon is a born novelist. He knows how to tell an ample, living story, full of color and movement; he is able to sustain unusual and strongly differentiated characterization; his satire is often pungent. In addition, a holdover perhaps from his surrealist years, he has a fertile imagination that often carries him into the realm of pure fantasy. One can detect in Aragon a poet whose senses are alive to form and color, in particular to the charm of feminine beauty and fashion. One can detect the romantic writer of melodrama—and melodrama can make exciting reading. Unfortunately all these potentialities are hampered by Aragon's oversimplified Marxist dogma. He has an answer to all the questions of his time. This allows him to order his novels unhesitatingly according to a consistent point of view. But his novels lose in depth and honesty what they gain in certainty. As far as Aragon is concerned, the point of view in itself justifies the existence of his novels; the result cannot be expected to sustain the interest of the impartial reader who wants to read a novel for the novel's sake, not as a document.
Germaine Brée and Margaret Otis Guiton, "Louis Aragon's 'Real World'," in their An Age of Fiction: The French Novel from Gide to Camus, Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, N.J.), 1957, pp. 84-8.
There is no doubt that Aragon's conversion to Communism gave him the impetus to write novels, as though dogma were a fixed point from which he could project third persons. Obviously Surrealism could not provide that impetus, holding as it did to an absolute negation of the world—pure insofar as all negations are, but obliged thereby to express something purer than existence: All or Nothing, the alternate faces of God. His novels acknowledge the material universe and History—both dialectically understood of course—as absolutely as his Surrealist poetry ignored it. In its essential features, his cycle, The Real World, flatters the Marxist understanding of human affairs, according to which events exist and, not only that, occur in a necessary and predictable sequence. It is in this sense a direct descendant of Zola's Rougon-Macquart. Third person narrative, a rational time scheme, the historical past (in Aragon's case less the verb tense than an interweaving of fiction and history within his novels) are so many signs invoking a destiny. The assumption, in other words, is that life follows a rationally inductive scheme of beginnings, middles, and ends. The objective Event bears much the same relationship to Aragon's novels that the objective "I" does to Surrealist poetry….
Like Balzac, Aragon must pose as History, as the Demiurge, to create a significant world, a world not of accidents but of events, where one thing causes another, meanings unfold in time—except that in Aragon's novels the time is not wholly internal but confused with the historian's history: the fictional "tragique" creates a kind of internal time which is denounced, within the novel itself, as a fiction by references to some real political event or by interventions of the author…. Aragon's novels, too, are parenthetical delusions within History, his "dramatis personae" are players, actors who, as the novel progresses, become increasingly aware that it and their roles must end in favor of History, whence the recognition (or self-recognition) scenes one often finds in the last chapter of his novels. Aragon reveals this scheme most crudely in the first novel of The Real World—The Bells of Basel…. Aragon has in subsequent novels buried the bones deeper, yet the same movement can be perceived within his heroes who step out of their own time, the time of their fictions, into History as the novel comes to a catastrophic close, usually with war….
So The Real World actually serves as an introduction to the real world; Literature effaces itself for History, which is why Aragon feels no compunctions about intervening in the novel …, as though to instruct the reader how to read it, providing the proper key lest the fiction be misunderstood, or gelded for art's sake….
Here then is what I consider the underlying continuity between Aragon's past and present. He has always subscribed to an Absolute, but the Absolute, surreal or real, lies beyond words: in the mute occupation of that "vantage point of the mind" from which opposites are perceived as One, or in the mute progression of Events. Silence lay at the heart of his Surrealist productions; and History always has the last word in The Real World.
Frederick Brown, "On Louis Aragon: Silence and History," in The Southern Review, Vol. 3, No. 2, Spring, 1967, pp. 311-21.
Despite his political beliefs, Aragon might be thought of as an excellent bourgeois novelist. He is interested less in the world of labour than in the world from which he himself sprang and which continues to occupy a considerable part of his mind….
As the spokesman in France of the theory of 'socialist realism', Aragon was obliged to set a good example. He undertook to recount in a series of novels the struggles, anxieties and victories of his political friends. However, in his Communistes, of which only the first few volumes appeared, historical truth is so mishandled, the characters are so vague and improbable, even the writing itself so foreign to the author, that he did not persevere in his self-imposed task. He chose to return to his first loves and, in 1958, to almost universal critical acclaim, he published La Semaine sainte.
Maurice Nadeau, in his The French Novel Since the War, translated by A. M. Sheridan-Smith (reprinted by permission of Grove Press, Inc.; © 1967 by Methuen and Co. Ltd.), Methuen, 1967, pp. 47-9 (in the Grove-Evergreen paperbound edition, 1969).
Louis Aragon has been described by a prominent French literary critic [Gaëtan Picon] as "one of the most gifted writers, one of the most dazzling comets to have ever crossed our literary sky." This reputation has been built on a vast literary production. Aragon has published over sixty complete books, including novels, poetry, history, works on esthetics, as well as art and literary criticism, prefaces, newspaper articles, and translations from English and Russian. While he is well known to his fellow countrymen, his literary reputation in English-speaking countries is limited and is based largely upon a few of his novels. The reasons for this neglect have been several; principal among them are the scarcity of translations of his work and the unpopularity of his political ideology…. Even in France, very little critical material has appeared on Aragon other than in the Communist press, which hailed all of his work indiscriminately. It was only with the publication of La Semaine sainte in 1958 that the non-Communist critics rediscovered this master of the French language. (Preface)
Rarely have the life and work of a writer been as inextricably linked as they have been for Louis Aragon, whose work reflects the principal trends of thought of the twentieth century. As the century has evolved, so has his work which has been a mirror of his time, reflecting the growth of a writer of genius from the nihilistic responses of the youthful Dadaists to his acceptance of the role of a responsible, social citizen. There may be traced in Aragon's novels, essays, and poems the transition from the narrowly individualistic to the vitally collective. (p. 13)
Surrealism left an indelible imprint on the work of Aragon. In the collection of essays J'Abats mon jeu, he wrote that he had studied all of his life to become the man he is, but that he has never forgotten the man or men he was, for they were stages that led to what he is now. The Surrealist dissatisfaction with the world about them and their desire to transform life are reflected throughout Aragon's work. Their concept of literature as a force for the liberation of man was to remain Aragon's concept of literature, whether Surrealist, Resistance or Communist. Their search for an absolute has been Aragon's lifelong search, and their concept of woman as the bearer of magical powers leading to the conquest of this absolute has led to the rehabilitation of woman and to the subsequent concept of the couple as the base of a new society. (p. 21)
After 1939, in the face of the German menace, a new nationalistic sentiment entered into the poetry of Louis Aragon. Poetry was no longer to represent the search for an absolute, nor the invention of a super language, nor a weapon to be used against the bourgeoisie, but an attempt to define transcendent values and to give a meaning to the French struggle against the Fascist invaders. (p. 41)
In a series of theoretical works written in the early 1950s, Aragon explained that all of his novels were constructed according to the doctrine of Socialist Realism…. Aragon expounded upon and developed this theory in many works devoted to the application of Socialist Realism in poetry, prose, and art. He saluted Courbet, Stendhal, and Victor Hugo as significant ancestors of Socialist Realism in France: Courbet because he was the first to proclaim in painting the primacy of matter, the independent existence of the object in relationship to the artist, the absolute necessity to paint according to nature and to paint solely according to nature what the eye saw, and only what it saw. It was Courbet who broke with idealism, his painting affirmed with all his materialistic faith, the belief in the existence of the external world. (pp. 56-7)
Aragon's theory of the novel is similar to that of Norman Mailer, who sees the novel as a great instrument of collective knowledge, a means for social vision. Thus it is that Aragon's mirror reflects the bitterness of a world made more bitter by the revelations of Stalin's atrocities. When the novelist looks into the mirror, he sees "this empty world, like a room hastily abandoned, the book thrown on the ground, torn, torn."… The goal of the novel is to return man to the mental framework of childhood, a period during which the child refuses to accept conclusions and always wishes to know more. Aragon wants his novel to force the reader to think beyond what he has read, to stimulate him to ask questions. In this way, the novel will serve to change those who read it. (pp. 107-10)
Aragon's progressive disillusionment with Marxism … is reflected [in the remark] that he was one of those who firmly believed that it was enough to change the economic basis of society to make theft, murder, and unhappy love disappear. This was because the idea we have of things does not necessarily take into account the complexity of life. In Blanche ou l'oubli, Aragon writes that he has spent his life trying to imagine the world other than it is, but to no avail. (p. 110)
Aragon's evolution as a writer has been characterized by the search for the meaning of man's existence. While the answers he has proposed have varied, his quest has remained constant. He has stated that he writes to learn and to communicate what he has learned to others, not in detailed form or in the form of a scientific treatise, but through "the short cut of the image, the short cut of poetry, which offers all possibilities, all ramifications of knowledge." Aragon believes that writing is the highest form of expression and that what has been written, whether novel or poetry, is, in a sense, a letter which breaks down seemingly insurmountable barriers between people or nations. It is his writing that makes the world bearable for the author, both because it serves him as a means of confession and because he creates a new way of thinking that can be followed by others. This concept of literature as means of rendering service to mankind has been dominant throughout Aragon's work. (p. 112)
Aragon has excelled in various genres during different periods of his career. In his early, Surrealist days, his prose works, such as Le Paysan de Paris, were vastly superior to his verses. Indeed, this work is one of the masterpieces of French twentieth-century literature. During the 1930s, Aragon's major achievements were the novels of "Le Monde réel," which painted a revealing fresco of French society at the turn of the century. His poetry of this period, published in the collections Persécuté persécuteur, Hourra l'Oural, and La Grande Gaieté, like his later novel Les Communistes, subordinated the esthetic to the political and, as a result, have suffered the fate of thesis literature. It was not until the 1940s that Aragon was to write the poems that are among the finest written in the French language. While the verses of this period and the following ten years sing of Aragon's love for his wife and country with great power and beauty, his short stories dealing with the same themes seem almost artless and näive in comparison. La Semaine sainte, published in 1958, inaugurated a new series of prose works. This novel, as well as La Mise à mort and Blanche ou l'oubli which followed it, re-established Aragon's reputation as a major novelist. (p. 113)
Lucille F. Becker, in her Louis Aragon (copyright 1971 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with permission of Twayne Publishers, Inc.), Twayne, 1971.