Louis Aragon

Louis Aragon (1897-1982) was a surrealist author, poet of the French Resistance during World War II, and the leading Communist writer in France.

Louis Aragon was born in Neuilly on Oct. 3, 1897. He was educated to be a physician. In 1917, while in the army medical corps, he met André Breton, who enlisted his support in the "surrealist revolution," a literary and art movement that emphasized the irrational and the unconscious. Aragon's poems and prose pieces of the 1920s are all strongly surrealist. The collections Feu de joie (Bonfire) and Mouvement perpétuel (Perpetual Motion) show not only the verbal gratuity that surrealism advocated but the lyrical transformation of humdrum reality as well. In prose, too, Aragon demonstrated the "daily marvelous" by drawing a veil of enchantment over a modern city, as in Le Paysan de Paris (1926; Parisian Peasant). In his essays he lambasted everything and everybody representing established values.

When Aragon became a Communist in 1927, the boisterous and brawling surrealist broke with his companions to dedicate himself to a revolution that he considered more viable than Breton's. He married Elsa Triolet, the sister-in-law of the Russian poet V. V. Mayakovsky and an author in her own right.

Aragon radically shifted the basis of his art and wrote a series of four novels during 1933-1944 in a style that harkened back to 19th-century realism. The novels paint a panorama of French life before World War I. Although intended to be an indictment of the bourgeoisie, they do not show Aragon's political views so obviously as the next series, Les Communistes (1949-1951; The Communists), which deals with France of 1939-1940. For his next novel he went back a century; La Semaine sainte (1958; Holy Week) is about the painter Théodore Géricault and his times. With La Mise à mort (1965; Death Blow) Aragon returned to his own times and his own story. His interest in the work of painter Henri Matisse, whose work Aragon collected, led him to write the novel Henri Matisse (1971).

Aragon's personal story has been the subject of his poetry for, other than his surrealist "exercises," it is essentially a poetry of self-expression. Its first great theme is patriotism, the sentiment which promoted a remarkable flowering of poetry in France during the Occupation. Among Resistance poetry, Aragon's volumes entitled Le Crévecoeur (1941; The Broken Heart), Le Musée Grévin (1943; The Grévin Museum), and La Diane française (1944; The French Diana) stand with the finest. The second great theme of Aragon's poetry is love, which surrealism exalted in particular. In volume after volume Aragon sang of his love for his wife, Elsa. Just as he rejoined, in the novel, the older tradition of didactic realism, in poetry he pushed back to romanticism for theme and form. With verses as regular as Victor Hugo's, his poetry is eminently accessible and direct in its appeal.

Aragon published numerous essays on art and literature and particularly in support of the political cause to which he devoted all his mature years. In 1937 he became editor of the newspaper Le Soir. During the war he helped found the Communist weekly Les Lettres françaises. Speaking at Communist meetings and serving in organizations of writers, Aragon gave unstintingly of his time to causes he thought worthy, defending and attacking with the same spirit that had made him the fire-brand of the twenties.

In 1981, French president François Mitterand made Aragon a member of the Legion of Honor. He died in Paris on December 24, 1982.

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Further Reading on Louis Aragon

Hannah Josephson and Malcolm Cowley, eds., Aragon: Poet of the French Resistance (1945), contains useful introductions to both the poetry and prose. Catharine Savage, Malraux, Sartre, and Aragon as Political Novelists (1964), illuminates the conflict between art and politics for these Marxist writers. Maxwell Adereth, Commitment in Modern French Literature (1967), places Aragon in the context of littérature engagée Background material is provided by Henri Peyre, The Contemporary French Novel (1955), and Germaine Brée and Margaret Guiton, An Age of Fiction: The French Novel from Gide to Camus (1957; rev. ed. published as The French Novel from Gide to Camus, 1962). See also Adareth, Max. Elsa Triolet and Louis Aragon: An Introduction to Their Interwoven Lives and Works (Edwin Mellen Press, 1994); Aragon, Louis, translated by Alyson Waters, Treatise on Style (Traite du Style) (University of Nebraska Press, 1991); Becker, Lucille F., Louis Aragon (Irvington Publishers, 1971); and the New York Times (December 25, 1982).