Louis Aragon

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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.)

Philip Rahv

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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 story gains from the specific nature of its major theme, the theme of woman as a social animal….

But the mists of the happy future into which the novel vanishes cannot altogether conceal its defects. As with some other French writers, the charm and fluency of Aragon's prose is at times more expressive of the current level of French literary achievement, smoothly functioning in all of its works, than it is of the individual accents of an original creation. Catherine is somewhat too exotic to suit the part the author has assigned her within his social scheme; and Victor, intrinsically the same type as Edmond Maillecottin in Jules Romains, is nowhere realized as freshly and vividly as Edmond is in that remarkable seventeenth chapter of "The Earth Trembles." In fact, the whole section bearing Victor's name, which describes the great taxi strike in which he is involved, seldom rises above the plane of reporting. Aragon's problem, already solved in some measure by other revolutionary artists, is to wrestle with and overcome the tendency of his sociological facts to become the limbo of his imagination.

Philip Rahv, "From Surrealism to Socialism," in The Nation (copyright 1936 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 143, No. 13, September 26, 1936, p. 368.

Malcolm Cowley

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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...

(This entire section contains 394 words.)

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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 tiring of the taxi strike….

In those earlier romantic stories of his Aragon had often done something like this: he had swept his puppets into the wings and appeared on the stage in his own person, speaking with that disdainful eloquence for which he is famous. This time he surpasses himself, but uselessly; for his characters this time are more than puppets and we do not like to see them swept aside. We are a little disappointed to find that Aragon in spite of his new life has remained what he was in the beginning: a sharp, engaging writer who has never produced anything cheap or dull, but also a writer whose personality as revealed in his books is more brilliant and coherent than the books themselves.

Malcolm Cowley, "Louis Aragon," in The New Republic, Vol. 88, No. 1140, October 7, 1936, p. 258.

Malcolm Cowley

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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.

Gilbert Chase

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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.

Leon S. Roudiez

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["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. (p. 40)

Except through their spokesmen, the people play practically no part in the plot, any more than they did in the historic events involved….

Among the fleeing royalist troops, however, many individuals are treated with sympathy. Aragon, respecting historical perspective, refuses to judge by twentieth-century standards, and singles out for special consideration those figures, like Baron Fabvier or the Duc de la Rochefoucault-Liancourt, who may have been determinants of historical change. The general atmosphere of the régime is nevertheless symbolized by the stench emanating from the king's chambers: a nauseating smell of ineffective medicine and spreading pus. And, as one might expect, minor incidents that reveal the frivolity or selfishness of quite a few noblemen are not lacking.

In spite of the ideology that sustains "Holy Week," its Marxist flavor is rarely obtrusive. Critics more sensitive to exposure to adverse political ideas might even call it insidious. Social significance and esthetic pleasure are expertly blended, and only occasionally does one find pages marred by the sentimentality that is one of Aragon's major weaknesses. In short, this is one of the better examples of Aragon's brand of Socialist Realism, a fascinating and meaningful glance at somebody else's civil war…. (p. 41)

Leon S. Roudiez, "When Royalty Had to Run," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1961 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 44, No. 40, October 7, 1961, pp. 40-1.

Olivia Manning

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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.

Sidney Finkelstein

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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 an artist by the discovery of the "real French people," the working people, the "nobodies" of official society whose life and struggles were the substance of the nation itself. (p. 44)

The characterization of Theodore Gericault is only one of a number of such brilliant portraits, whose stories are connected to his only by the accident of being involved in the same eventful week in French history. If we can call this book at least in part a novel about an artist, that is because it is with Gericault that Aragon begins and ends the book, and it is to him that Aragon returns at crucial moments in the book's course. We can with equal validity call the book a novel about France in a historic crisis, when all the tangled threads which make up the real national life can be seen in their true connections. And we can also call it a novel about Aragon himself, about his own struggles to find the real France and to discover his true artistic path. (pp. 49-50)

[Aragon] has brought to this episode from the past of French history, not merely "imagination," but the imagination of a patriot liberated by Marxist knowledge and by his own lifetime of defense of the real France…. He writes of every class of French society with the same keen interest, and the same understanding of what contrasting decisions can be made by people with the same background…. The novel illuminates profoundly the character of the nation, and the meaning of his nation to an artist. This is a great deal for a novel to embrace, and Holy Week will be read long after the shoddy best-sellers of our day are forgotten. (p. 50)

Sidney Finkelstein, "Aragon's 'Holy Week'," in Mainstream (copyright 1962, by Masses & Mainstream, Inc.), Vol. 15, No. 1, January, 1962, pp. 44-50.

M. Adereth

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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 loved so much, and which he never ceased to love. He revealed many unknown aspects of the capital, and although his style is in the best surrealist manner—lyrical, poetic and spontaneous—the source of his inspiration is thoroughly realistic. The distinctive qualities of his future poetry are already there, for he lets his imagination run wild, whilst keeping his feet firmly planted on the ground. The book contains many other indications of the themes which he later developed and which helped him to become a committed writer, such as his passion for "la lumière moderne de l'insolite" ("the modern light of the unusual"), his belief that poetry is a way of life, ("je mène une vie poétique") ("I lead a poetic life"), his conviction, even before meeting Elsa, that love is the highest individual passion, and his awareness of the limitations of philosophical idealism. One can regard the book as the starting-point of Aragon's subsequent evolution. (p. 86)

Although Aragon joined the Communist Party in 1927, he did not immediately break with the surrealist group. The poems which he wrote between 1927 and 1929, gathered under the title La Grande Gaité (Great Fun), show that his growing awareness of the "real world" had not yet killed his surrealist beliefs. He had, in fact, divided his life into two separate compartments, political and poetic, and he was not yet regarding his commitment as an integral part of his whole self. The Traité du style (Treatise on Style), published in 1928, displays the same internal struggle. (p. 88)

[Aragon] knew, theoretically, that the greatest poetic dreams spring from reality, but his own temperament and background were such that theory was not enough to discipline his imagination. The chief result of his new approach was a series of novels to which he gave the general title of "Le Monde réel". In writing them, he combined his personal recollections and his social experience, drawing upon many events of his own childhood and youth, and transposing social and political scenes which he had directly witnessed. Although he intended his novels to have a political significance, his main concern was with private individuals. The clue to his approach is provided by what he says in the third novel of the series, Les Voyageurs de l'impériale, translated into English under the title of Passengers of Destiny. He breaks through his narrative (a favourite device of his) in order to remark that private life may appear to follow its own course, "without any relation to public affairs, to the history of the world", but that, in fact, it is "inscribed in this history, it derives from it its essential features". (pp. 90-1)

The first novel, Les Cloches de Bâle …, deals with the position of women in bourgeois society…. The author's obvious intention was to portray the capitalist world as one in which there can be no genuine love. This was necessary before he could show the contrast which, in his view, socialism affords. (p. 91)

Les Cloches de Bâle is badly constructed, as there are no real connections between its various parts. The pages devoted to Clara have all the appearance of a contrived moral which is meant to give the novel a socialist message. No attempt is made to describe her own evolution, and, in the main, Aragon's aim (to describe how a few members of the bourgeois class embrace the cause of the workers) is not fulfilled. (pp. 92-3)

His next novel, Les Beaux Quartiers …, shows a great improvement…. Aragon made no mystery of the fact that with this "national moral" he was carrying out the Party line as it had just been defined by Maurice Thorez when he stressed the bonds between patriotism and the struggle of the working class. The novel is not a particularly good illustration of this line, as it fails to show convincingly why Armand had to go to work in a factory in order to become a good Frenchman. On the other hand, it depicts fairly well the anti-national character of high finance. As a socialist novel, it is far more successful, particularly in its description of the dual personality of those who have to live in a society torn by class contradictions. (p. 93)

In Les Voyageurs de l'impériale, completed just before the second world war, the theme is the need for commitment. Once again, it is with the help of a negative character that the author makes his point. Pierre Mercadier, one of Aragon's most tragical figures, refuses commitment in the name of freedom….

Mercadier ends up alone, "… without any friends, without any purpose." It is his son Pascal who, at the end of the book, draws the obvious moral that refusal to face facts leads to disaster, both personal and social, and he blames his father's generation for having made war possible thanks to "their superb contempt for politics." The novel contains two other lessons. One, illustrated by the fate of Mercadier, is that complete selfishness destroys the possibility of love, and the other is given by the painter Blaise d'Ambérieux when he asserts that art is one way of contributing to the future happiness of mankind, provided it aims at a truthful portrayal of reality.

Aurélien, the fourth novel of the series, was entirely written during the war, but only saw the light of day in 1945. Its central theme is love, and a number of Aragon's friends, including some narrow-minded Soviet critics, were shocked at the thought that he had found nothing better to do in those years. (pp. 94-5)

The last novel belonging to the "Monde réel" series, Les Communistes, appeared after the war. It was intended to be the epic of the French people's struggle against the Nazis and was to cover the whole period from 1939 to 1945. Only the first section (in six volumes) has appeared so far, and it ends in June 1940…. According to Aragon, the reception of the novel confirmed its central thesis, which was that the progressive writer has to contend with the hostility of open foes as well as with the incomprehension of some of his friends. This, he claimed, is why he is reluctant to complete a novel which he intended as a "monument" to his cause…. (p. 95)

As it stands, Les Communistes is the climax of "Le Monde réel"…. Aragon tells the story of a large number of characters, many of whom had appeared in previous novels. Among the new ones, the two who stand out are Cécile Wisner, who is married to a pro-Fascist industrialist, and Jean de Moncey, a young lad whose evolution recalls that of Armand Barbentane. Their love story is one of the main themes of the book. So is their slow, very slow, progress towards what Aragon calls the "light", although neither of them is a Communist or becomes a conscious Marxist at the end of the novel. The title Les Communistes is perhaps misleading, for the book is in no way a history of the French Communist Party during the second world war. What it is meant to convey is that the Communists' policy expressed in a systematic way the feelings and interests of France's citizens, workers, peasants, middle classes, and even some big industrialists, who were determined to hold back the invaders. It is true that Aragon takes Communist policy at its face value and never questions its motives, but his account of the situation is historically accurate. (p. 96)

It was the second world war which re-kindled Aragon's poetic flame and gave him an opportunity of expressing his militant patriotism. His love for France strikingly recalls Péguy's feelings, for both poets are attached to the soil of their country and to its traditions. The poems which Aragon wrote from 1939 to 1945 had no other ambition than to contribute to the fight of Free France against the Germans. The first book to appear was Le Crève-coeur (Heartbreak), in which the poet expresses his sorrow at being separated from Elsa and his anger at the betrayal of his country. (pp. 98-9)

Lastly, Aragon published La Diane française (French Reveille), in which he sang of the patriots' coming victory. It contains some of his best known poems, such as La Rose et le reseda (The rose and the mignonette), dedicated to Catholics and Communists …; [and] Il n'y a pas d'amour heureux (There is no such thing as a happy love), in which he recalls all the suffering that must be endured in order to enjoy a few moments' happiness…. (p. 101)

[It] has been truly said of La Semaine sainte that, in dealing with the past it is basically directed towards the future. It is the work of a committed writer who has himself taken sides in the issues of his age, and is working, according to his lights, for the future. (p. 102)

In the last few years, Aragon's work has tended to become increasingly autobiographical and personal. The public man has gradually made way for the private individual, with his sorrows and his hopes. The explanation that this approach is to be expected from an old man may be partly true, but the poet's main purpose seems to be an anticipated repudiation of the edifying picture that well-meaning friends might be tempted to draw of him, particularly after his death. Commitment, he protests, has not reduced him to being the impersonal spokesman of a cause…. (pp. 103-04)

[Les Yeux et la mémoire (Eyes and Memory)] is the first book published by Aragon which consists of a series of poems around a central theme—in this case, the author's political philosophy and his committed struggles. Significantly, it is with an assertion that life is worth living that he starts, and after listing all "the miseries that flesh is heir to", he concludes an early poem with the following line,

      In spite of everything I shall say that this life was beautiful.

Aragon's optimism … is not achieved by denying tragedy but by transcending it, and although in subsequent books the accent is definitely on tragedy, the difference is only one of emphasis…. Les Yeux et la mémoire strikes a more confident note than the poems and novels which followed it…. (p. 104)

The political autobiography was followed in 1956 by a more personal one, [the poem] Le Roman inachevé (The Unfinished Novel)…. The poem lacks the central theme of its predecessor; instead, what unfolds before us is a succession of events viewed and experienced subjectively. (p. 107)

It is not only because of its subject matter that Le Roman inachevé represents a break from Aragon's previous poems, but because it illustrates his skill in handling the widest variety of metres. These correspond to his various moods and they are a magnificent proof both of the deeply human content of commitment and of the fact that in "littérature engagée" technical achievement is far from despised. The traditional metre of French poetry, the alexandrine, still keeps a privileged place, as if to stress Aragon's rejection of the surrealist dogma that it was a "decadent" metre, but many others find their way into the poem, including blank verse, free verse and the prose poem. (p. 108)

For Aragon, taking stock of reality does not only involve reviewing his past life, but also reflecting on the meaning of his art and on the purpose of his commitment. In a remarkable poem published in 1960, Les Poètes (Poets), he tries to divine the secret of poetic creation, drawing upon the experience of other poets, past and present, as well as his own. Once more, it is a new and unexpected aspect of Aragon which is revealed. This is particularly the case when we hear him say that his chief passion "in this age of adventures, of downfalls, of crashes, in this age of tragedies," has been the magic of language, the fascination of translating poetic images into words and vice-versa. After the initial moment of surprise, of shock even, the meaning becomes clear: what has always appealed to him is the reflection of reality embodied in language and in the images of poetry. (p. 111)

The whole purpose of Les Poètes is to claim for poetry its rightful place in the new world of technological and scientific changes. Poetry, together with science, increases human knowledge and enriches human experience, and many of Aragon's metaphors are borrowed from the latest scientific discoveries…. Although the confident optimism of Les Yeux et la mémoire has gone, the message is still one of hope: struggles and disappointments will never end, but it is up to the future to contradict the poet's pessimism. (pp. 111-12)

[J'abats mon jeu (I lay my cards on the table)] contains most of the texts which explain Aragon's purpose and method in La Semaine sainte, as well as a number of others dealing with the issue of socialist realism…. [The spirit of the book] is one of open-mindedness towards all genuine artistic and literary efforts. Aragon approaches the work of other writers without any dogmatic preconceptions, and says he asks nothing from a work of art but the power to make him "feel dizzy". (p. 113)

It is because of his commitment, not in spite of it, that Aragon can write in this vein. For him, "socialist realism" is but one way—the best one, naturally!—of depicting 'the real world'; yet it can afford not to be an exclusive club because the battle it is waging is not confined to the field of literature…. (pp. 113-14)

In 1965, Aragon made a critical reassessment of his past in a novel which he called La Mise à mort—a title which literally means 'putting to death', as if he meant to convey that he was striking a death blow at his own illusions, his own mistakes and his own limitations. He achieved his effect by a remarkable blending of humour and tragedy…. We begin to realize that there is more than one theme in the novel, and [later] the author intervenes in order to ask aloud, "What is the real subject of my book, a man who has lost his reflection in the mirror, the life of Anthoine Célèbre and Ingeborg d'Usher, song, realism or jealousy? It might also be a novel about the plurality of the human self, about fictional creation, or a novel about a novelist. Choose for yourselves." (pp. 114-15)

La Mise à mort is the sequel to Les Yeux et la mémoire and Le Roman inachevé, as it continues Aragon's exploration of his past…. [Aragon] subjects his youth to merciless self-criticism, and the pages in which he condemns his blind acceptance of Soviet propaganda in the thirties are among the most bitter he ever wrote. Yet this is not the work of a renegade. Its tragic and moving character is rather due to the undying loyalty which Aragon displays—he remains attached to his cause, despite the monstrous distortions which it suffered, and one does not have to be a Communist in order to respect his grief as well as his constancy. (pp. 115-16)

It is impossible to summarize La Mise à mort, or even to mention all its themes. At times, it is a straightforward novel, at others a lyrical poem, yet at others a critical reflection on life, on literature, on love, and lastly, as if to complicate matters still further, it contains three short stories, said to have been written by Anthoine, but without any immediate link with the main "plot". All one can do is to single out a few salient points, without claiming to have exhausted the subject. In addition to realism, an idea which recurs time and again in the book is the dissociation of personality, the fact that a man is split up into two or more different parts. (pp. 116-17)

Clearly linked with this theme of the plurality of the self is the misadventure of the character who has lost his reflection in the mirror. This allegory can have different meanings. On one level, it represents the end of Anthoine's individualism, the fact that he has begun to think of others instead of himself. (p. 117)

"Optimism" would not be a bad word with which to conclude this brief account of Aragon's evolution, provided it were qualified. Aragon's optimism could almost be called "deferred optimism", in the sense that it is a belief in the future happiness of mankind, "that great posthumous happiness", as he called it in Le Roman inachevé, which will blossom out of tragedy itself and will be the fruit of the sacrifices made by the present generation. (p. 125)

Aragon's position about the relationship between form and content can be expressed as follows: Form is the tool through which a new content must be communicated. This attitude leads him to make a serious attempt to develop form, to experiment with all the possibilities available in French prosody, to suit his metre to the various moods he wishes to convey, to make rhymes tell their own story, and generally speaking, to make such a thorough study of poetic language that it can be handled by him as a scientist handles a complex piece of machinery whose technical secrets he has completely mastered.

His conception can best be understood by seeing it as a dialectical process in which the first step is the assertion of the poet's freedom to choose the form he likes; the second step is the apparent negation of that freedom (insistence on the labour required for good poetry); whereas the third one is the "negation of the negation", i.e. liberty on a higher level, which combines the freedom of selection and of inspiration with supreme workmanship. The guiding thread of the poet throughout these various steps is that poetry is language, a means of communication. (p. 217)

Aragon's second step concerns the mastery of technique, for a poet must strive after perfection. This is not an intellectual pastime for its own sake, but a necessary consequence of commitment: if the nature of the message determines the choice of form, its importance requires the poet to tackle his verse in such a way that it yields the best of itself. The paradoxical result is thus reached that "littérature engagée", or rather, despite Aragon's dislike for the phrase, "poésie engagée" demands perfection of form on behalf of "engagement" itself…. We therefore find the poet laboriously at work in front of his writing desk, handling his poetic devices as the craftsman his tools or the artist his paint-brushes. From Le Crève-coeur to Le Fou d'Elsa, there is hardly a line of his left to chance. All his poems reveal an increasing mastery of poetic technique, achieved as a result of painstaking effort. But it is not enough to work hard in order to produce great poetry: the poet's genius consists in making one forget all the labour involved. (p. 218)

Aragon proves his freedom by selecting the metres and rhymes which best correspond to his ideas and makes them fulfil their role in conveying his message. There is a science of poetry, and if a writer does not want to master that science, he is perfectly free not to become a poet or to choose other means of expression; but if he is spontaneously led to choose poetry, he does not give up his freedom by working at his poem and by making his instrument as effective as possible—he rather establishes his freedom on a solid basis. (p. 219)

With regard to rhymes, two features should be mentioned. First, his endeavour to introduce more flexibility into French rhyming patterns in order that poetry should reflect the new world in which we live, that its language should express the scientific and technological revolution of our time, whilst still remaining musical. In order to achieve this, Aragon believes that new rhymes must be found, and he suggests in particular the modern "rime enjambée" (now known as the "Aragon rhyme"), in which a sound is carried over from the end of one line to the beginning of the other …, and the "complex rhyme" which allows one word to rhyme with many others…. The whole object is to achieve an effect of surprise, which is not to be despised since it arrests the reader's attention, and mainly to prevent the poet from rejecting certain words which are important from the point of view of the theme, but which could not find their place at the end of a line according to conventional rules. Moreover, the discontinuity of the above rhymes is particularly suited to express the realities of the twentieth century. Secondly, together with novelty, Aragon believes in tradition because it represents a link between the national past and the present…. [Aragon is] almost alone among modern poets to have used so many rhymes which recall the mediaeval epoch, the glorious period of Classicism and the early Romantics. (pp. 219-20)

M. Adereth, "Aragon" and "Poetry and Commitment," in his Commitment in Modern French Literature: A Brief Study of "Littérature Engagée" in the Works of Péguy, Aragon, and Sartre (© M. Adereth 1967), Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1967, pp. 81-126, 209-22.∗

Peter Brooks

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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 hero of art, someone whose dedication to his medium, its rules and possibilities, is so total that one understands at once why he should become, even to younger, avant-garde generations, the modern painter who mattered most. What Aragon conveys well is the gravity of a heroism that comes from an exploration to their outer limits of the means of expression of an art, the patient, unceasing reinvention of the language of painting.

It is in his attention to this language that Aragon is most valuable, most consistently serious and illuminating. He doesn't talk the language of art criticism, he offers little compositional analysis. He is, on the other hand, intelligently aware of the unbridgeable gap between written language, however poetic and evocative, and the painterly language. Through this awareness, he is able to evoke, indirectly but cogently, the painter's sign system, his vocabulary and syntax…. "I don't paint things," Matisse states, "I only paint the differences between things." The sentence suggests by implication the postulate of modern structural linguistics that sense is created by oppositions and spacings. Aragon—whose first allegiance, as a surrealist, was to modern literature's most audacious play with language—is sensitive to the importance of such a principle of analysis, to the idea of meaning generated from a relational field. He doesn't ever really undertake a systematic "linguistic" discussion of Matisse's work, but his remarks on the use of line and color, his extrapolations from Matisse's own reticent comments, are suggestive. They let us glimpse, at least, the dynamic of the process by which Matisse was to spend a lifetime in anxious daily experimentation, painting over, simplifying, correcting color values and spaces, reaching finally the art of the scissors, the bold découpage of form and meaning.

From his concern with Matisse's signs, Aragon is led into a reverie over the objects which, like faithful servants, people Matisse's canvases through the years: vases, a pewter pitcher, three or four armchairs, a ceramic pot inscribed Tabac Royal, and so on. Aragon assembles them for group photographs and juxtaposes their photographic existence to their artistic transformations. This is all a bit coy. Yet it has its point. We do gain a feeling for the painter's own reverie over objects, both his reaction to their sensuous presence and his search for syntactic arrangements. (pp. 25-6)

Aragon is at home in the atelier, following the labor and exaltation of appearances recorded and fixed. He gives, for instance, different versions of the same painting … and groups paintings that are thematically or structurally analogous. Then, in a sequence called "The Comedy of the Model," he shows Matisse, in a series of photographs, during a drawing session, where the model becomes, as Matisse puts it, the focus of the painter's energy. The focus exists only to provide a leaping-off point: the model is necessary, Matisse contends, so that he may depart from it. Some of Aragon's most interesting pages turn on this question, the problem of "Theme and Variations," and "Likeness" in portraiture….

The problem of likeness and representation leads—one might almost say seduces—Aragon into a meditation whose point of origin is one Madame de Senonnes, a rich and evidently sensual bourgeoise whose portrait, by Ingres, hangs in the Nantes Museum. With Matisse's own authorization, Aragon sees her as the mythic progenitor of a certain type of sensuality that preoccupied the painter, a type marked by a swelling in the base of the throat … and by a particular voluptuousness. Madame de Senonnes becomes Aragon's means for linking together, in a kind of demonstrative chain, Matisse's superbly and serenely voluptuous portraits and odalisques. The result is something close to the best pages Aragon did, nearer his surrealist days, in such a book as Le Paysan de Paris: a rich, arcane, subterranean illumination of a creative fixation. (p. 26)

Aragon has not felt his communism to be in opposition to his sensuality and his feeling for the voluptuous presence of the world, which he so admires in Matisse. And the point is further that Matisse, whom we think of as preeminently the painter of interiors, of bright, high-windowed rooms opening onto sun-filled gardens, and of a rich profusion of objects, bursting flowers and fruits, is only superficially the preserver and celebrator of a bourgeois world of luxurious objects. As Aragon notes, the luxury is in the creation itself. It is the beauty of things made available through the patient, ever-renewed elaboration of signs for things…. (p. 27)

Peter Brooks, "Meeting of Poet and Painter," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1972 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 167, No. 23, December 16, 1972, pp. 25-7.

Norma Rinsler

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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. 221-22)

Freedom in Le Paysan de Paris is clearly not anarchy, but a continuous dialectical play of opposites—and the volume of poems which Aragon published in this same year is called Le Mouvement perpétuel. Perpetual motion is an excellent way of avoiding the threat to individual freedom which comes from definition: for what is defined is, by definition, limited. But the distance which perpetual motion maintains between subject and object can lead to a perilous sense of alienation…. There are moments of hesitant tenderness in this volume …; but the poet is afraid of committing himself. He chooses liberty, even at the cost of alienation…. The dissolution which seems to threaten the poet is nowhere reflected in the form of these poems. This volume uses vers libres and even prose poétique, but the poet's control of his material is everywhere apparent, in the carefully orchestrated rhythms, and especially in rhyme and assonance. Compared with Feu de joie, however, Le Mouvement perpétuel seems less relaxed, more self-conscious in its manipulation of language. There are parodies which rely explicitly on literary models: 'Pastorale', 'Le Dernier des Madrigaux', 'Villanelle'…. In 'Suicide', the letters of the alphabet are arranged in neat rows, with a final line in which 'X Y Z' are spaced more widely than the letters in the preceding lines, to form a 'dying fall': it is a whole life story sans paroles, and a perfect example of what Reverdy meant by the syntax of typography. One might say that this poem and 'Persiennes' are extreme statements of the 'magical' use of form, in which the poet is shown to be lord of language; and Aragon clearly sees formal control as a further guarantee of his freedom. (pp. 222-23)

The tension between the desire for liberty and the need for order is patent in Aragon's Traité du style (1928). The emphasis in this work is again on the artist's control of his activity. An example of Aragon's position is his attitude to 'l'écriture automatique' [automatic writing]. With his usual logic, he maintains that it is not possible, or if possible not genuine: no amount of conscious abdication of reason will take the poet beyond his waking vocabulary, which is full of other men's poetry, to a genuinely 'unconscious' language…. Thus Aragon's definition of Surrealism includes a marked degree of conscious intervention…. True surréalité is not reached by passive automatism, but by the artist's active ordering of experience…. (p. 224)

In Traité du style Aragon returns to the problem of freedom and disposes, with inexorable logic, of some currently accepted false notions of liberty. (p. 225)

Aragon proceeds to review all the paradis artificiels which we imagine will bring us release. Religion, happiness, drugs, are all evasions; we must face with dignity the fact that there is no escape…. It is a sombre conclusion indeed, but not a melancholy one. Freedom, as Aragon pointed out in 1925, is the condition of personal morality, and conversely, the individual who accepts full moral responsibility for himself achieves the only possible freedom.

The first corollary of responsibility for oneself is isolation. The alienation which we have seen in Le Mouvement perpétuel is even more clearly evident in La Grande Gaité (1929). The 'gaiety' of its title is the fierce joy of destruction, and the volume contains a number of violently provocative poems. The violence is again chiefly directed at bourgeois standards, and at all forms of authority, including the rules of prosody; it polarises around two main themes: the family … and sex. In the family group the poet is the child, protesting at the repressive régime that keeps him clean, tidy and well-behaved; in the sexual context he is deliberately and triumphantly unclean, untidy and aggressive…. [The] protest indicates how passionately Aragon is still involved with his bourgeois origins. His fury is as near to tears as that of a rebellious child, and as self-destructive…. Aragon's art in La Grande Gaité is not so continuously controlled as in the earlier volumes. There is very little use of traditional forms and of rhyme; assonance and repetition strive to hold together lines which constantly threaten to become a rhythmical prose and which frequently tail off in deliberate banality…. (pp. 226-27)

The final pages of Le Paysan de Paris offer an uneasy statement of the poet's position in the face of those two abstractions, order and disorder; fragmentary propositions reflect the fragmented state of his universe, and end, like Télémaque's meditations on language [Les Aventures de Télémaque], in solipsism…. This logically implies the domination also of 'la seconde personne'. But translated in La Grande Gaité into frenzied sensuality, it reduces his contacts with the world to compulsive gestures …: he has lost both humanity and freedom. The same loss of identity occurs in Les Plaisirs de la capitale…. The consciousness of chaos, in which liberty is meaningless, brings the sexual adventure to an end. (p. 227)

Aragon's early aggressiveness is not only self-defence; it is a movement of despair which comes from his growing awareness that there is no freedom which cannot become a form of slavery…. The final irony is that even the writer's control of his art may not be real. In 1931 Aragon transformed Breton's notion of automatisme by including the action of thought on the outside world…. The young Aragon was incapable of the submission which Breton's conception implies…. The inescapable paradox is that whatever we try to control or absorb ends by controlling or absorbing us, arrests our free flight and fixes us.

The solution, once again, lies in accepting limitation…. Aragon is not the first to discover that freedom lies in the willing acceptance of destiny. His 'conversion' seems all the more genuine in that it was not effected smoothly or without pain. (p. 228)

But despite his long emotional attachment to the idea of infinite freedom, Aragon never tried to 'circonscrire l'infini' in his writings. He directed his finite means to finite ends, and 'la liberté' never presented itself to him as a technical problem. He has operated comfortably within traditional forms, innovating, as Shelley says every great poet must, 'upon the example of his predecessors'. His critical work has constantly stressed the need for tradition and order in poetry; but … he sees tradition as a base-camp for exploration…. Only in ordered activity can the poet find real freedom….

Norma Rinsler, "Aragon: Tradition and Invention," in Order and Adventure in Post-Romantic French Poetry: Essays Presented to C. A. Hackett, E. M. Beaumont, J. M. Cocking, J. Cruickshank, eds. (© Basil Blackwell, 1973), Basil Blackwell, 1973, pp. 218-29.

Annabelle Henkin Melzer

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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 "disorder" when tested by the standards of the other, and this conflict provides both incentive and subject matter for a cult of incongruity. Here, as in other places, surrealism with equanimity puts incongruous things together, though the dialogue is, for the most part, realistic…. What intrudes upon even the most logical of the conversations is the grouping of one character of normal appearance with a grotesque partner…. The principle stressed in this dream-prologue … is one grouping together subjects that normally belong in distinct orders. The inhabitants of this "dream" are the confused in time …, the confused in body …, the confused in modality …, or the authority figures with their Freudian overtones…. The tendency here, however, is toward the inventive or playful aspects of such incongruity. Its function is "fancy" rather than conflict. And since the surrealists did not advocate change from "this" to "that," the images chosen often tend to the wayward or the idly curious. (pp. 51-3)

No dramatic situation is developed. The scattered conversation invites us to attack discursive meaning. It is the visual impact which holds—a panoply of masks, an invitation to Carnival.

In the midst of all this is Théodore Fraenkel, the surrealist who moves by choice between the dream world and that of reality. (p. 53)

On one level, the action which follows is a parody of that genre of boulevard drama which has the husband, coming home after a hard day's business …, only to discover his wife's lover hidden in the wardrobe. The consciously theatrical world into which we enter is the world of the pseudo-naturalist set, the last fixture of which—the mirror-wardrobe—has just been put in place by stagehands as the curtain rises. The sets and props, in the naturalist tradition, tend to the vulgar: a flowery curtain, a cardboard calendar picture entitled "le printemps." Both plot and setting are classic models of the theatre of the boulevards, and though the war had effected certain changes in these theatres …, still the emphasis on craftsmanship which stemmed from the formula of the well-made play with its neatly turned plots, comic objects, and series of coincidences continued to reign in the farces. The emphasis on temperament and the passion of love in the plays of sex and manners continued to satisfy the public…. (pp. 53-4)

Aragon has done his homework well. The level of parody emerges quite clearly. Yet this level functions only as a substructure—a game upon which the playwright erects something quite different.

The play suggests a number of mythic relationships which, though they do not work through the entire text, are evident enough. They function as did many images for the surrealists: sometimes within a necessary and vital context; at other times, with that arbitrariness of juxtaposition in which the young poets delighted.

The curtain opened, Aragon dispenses with the niceties of exposition. We enter the action in medias res. Lenore leans crucified … against the wardrobe. Despite the many references to the crucifixion …, Lenore is no Christ figure. If she stands crucified for her sins, they are actual ones, and she more resembles Eve than Christ. (pp. 55-6)

If Lenore is Eve, is Jules Adam? No. He is rather the dada-surrealist Orpheus, an artist with a hammer for a lyre—a tool that destroys as well as builds. With the hammer in his hand Jules works his way ever closer to the mirror, the mimetic image. With the hammer he will effect its final shattering. Through his art he will open the door that leads to the hidden world of the unconscious, whose revelations are so deeply desired and feared. (p. 57)

The conclusion, inasmuch as it is macabre, has been planned for…. The artist has descended to meet his unconscious. It is the surrealist, Théodore Fraenkel, who takes the stage once more to officiate at the singing of a song of dream images, a surrealist song which celebrates the "merveilleux" in the world…. When the lights go on, the stage is empty and the orchestra begins to play regimental band music. The world must become the world again. (pp. 59-60)

Annabelle Henkin Melzer, "Louis Aragon's 'L'Armoire à glace un beau soir': A Play of the Surrealist 'Époque de sommeil'," in Comparative Drama (© copyright 1977, by the Editors of Comparative Drama). Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring, 1977, pp. 45-60.

Anna Balakian

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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 of the Beautiful to replace the standard and tired ones. If the symbolism in Anicet is overt in its personifications, its negation of the ethics of the avant-garde of the historical moment makes it an unusual monument in the history of literature, not only in French literature but in its global and epistemological context. Anicet tells us how the spirit of surrealism was ignited; but beyond that, its satire on contemporary figures of the artistic world, lightly shaded, is a pretense and a screen for something much more fundamental that troubled Aragon in 1918 as he began his emblematic tale, something that remains one of the essential problematics of twentieth-century literature on an international level: the perilous struggle of the Beautiful in art and writing.

The central magnet of the "Panorama," as Aragon calls his narrative, is a woman named Mirabelle. If "belle" obviously stands for beauty, "mira" may well imply a reflection—which indeed makes her the center of a multifaceted courtship. But it also suggests the mirror vision, the false appearance, the semblance, implying the mistake that the generation of 1918 may have made in its definition of Beauty. (pp. 237-38)

In identifying Mirabelle as the symbol of modern beauty, Aragon is stating a hypothesis, to be verified or demolished in the analogical progression of the work. At first, the most prestigious artists credited with having remodeled the concept of beauty at the dawn of the century are seen under veiled names and in Guignol exaggerations, arguing about her function…. Mirabelle's background is examined, and it will not take too much deciphering to realize that Aragon is giving the reader his version of the history of the concept of Beauty from its beginnings. (pp. 238-39)

A composite methodology for the conquest of modern Beauty emerges out of this allegorical ritual: it is solipsistic, clumsily enchanting, ephemerally glittering, deliberately orderly, perilous, intriguing, superannuated, and amateurishly versified. As narrator, Aragon has not favored any one of the suitors, not even the one with whom he identifies. There is a definite distancing between the two roles he plays: that of participant, in the guise of Anicet, and of third person narrator.

Of his identification with Anicet he makes no secret. What is the meaning of his name? Since he mentions at one point "the fresh fragrance of anise," it can be surmised that he is a fresh, young, somewhat hallucinated being—a small pinch of anise. Anicet/anisette, the drink that he and his companions took when they were not drinking grenadine! The white and the red liquors of their youth were symbolic of that unusual combination of the pure and the sanguine which was to mark the special quality of surrealism among a host of avant-garde movements: the sensual reality of red, the power of dreams and the search for absolute beauty that the white hallucinatory potion provoked.

Anicet's story could have consisted simply of a solipsistic adventure in which he might have imagined himself as the champion of Beauty, delivering her from the beasts that surrounded her. He could have cast himself as the white knight in shining armor triumphant over a series of unappetizing Minotaurs. The cloak-and-dagger imagery of Anicet is reminiscent of Breton's poetry of the same vintage, but in Aragon's story it contains a measure of realistic irony, which eventually leads his not quite heroic protagonist to prison, to face the indignation and rancor of public opinion; the accusations against him are so grievous that they may well drag him to the guillotine. His achievements in the defense of Beauty have had a destructive rather than constructive character. (pp. 241-42)

An extraordinary change of style occurs when Aragon is speaking of his friend Breton; the banal and pedestrian tenor of the conversation of the art establishment fades, and the poetic longing that was to characterize and distinguish surrealism from all the other avant-gardes is for a moment fixed on the strange young man coming from the funeral of Harry James, who, having buried the prototype of the absurd, floats in a state of transit, in search of something new.

Whereas Aragon's self-portrait is without glamour, and indeed full of candor and auto-criticism, he adorns his portrait of Breton with an aura of mystery, catches and isolates the rhythm of his speech. (p. 244)

Anicet is indeed the portrait of the author as a young man, but the viewing of the young man is distanced—just as Candide is and is not Voltaire. Candide was the mocking of an attitude of optimism espoused and then corrected by the creator of the persona; in the same manner Aragon was Anicet before he created Anicet, and Anicet's illusion and subsequent disillusionment are crystallized in a self-critical portrayal. When commentators of Aragon quote from Anicet to illustrate permanent attitudes of its author, and when they equate Mirabelle with Aragon's notion of modern beauty, they forget that Anicet is but the record of an historical moment….

Historically Anicet makes an assessment of the avant-garde of the first two decades of the twentieth century. His rejection of the reigning champions of so-called modern Beauty makes this early work a significant document in the history of modern arts. Whereas at a half-century distance the attitude of most literary and art critics has been to unite the avant-gardes in a continuous flow from cubism to futurism, to Dada and then on to surrealism, a scrutiny of Anicet opens a different perspective. Aragon viewed the early years of the century as apocalyptic rather than as avant-garde. He saw his elders in the pursuit of a false aesthetics and found his own contemporaries floundering even though they may have been rejecting the false prophets of a new Beauty. (p. 245)

In Anicet Aragon shows the threats to the cult of beauty in the twentieth century, but he offers no solutions. He leaves his young characters in a quandary and suggests that they had better not look to their elders for guidance or inspiration…. The situation at the end of Anicet has a significant historical validity; it makes it clear that whatever future aesthetics was to emerge, the composition of a new cénacle would not be that of master and younger disciples, but a fellowship of peers, shedding the past and looking forward together but without a concerted platform. This phenomenon also explains why as a cénacle surrealism would be subject to constant disruptions as each participant found his own direction. (p. 246)

Anna Balakian, "'Anicet', or The Pursuit of Pulchérie," in Symbolism and Modern Literature: Studies in Honor of Wallace Fowlie, edited by Marcel Tetel (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1978 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), Duke University Press, 1978, pp. 237-47.


Aragon, Louis


Aragon, Louis (Vol. 3)