Louis Aragon (French IPA: [lwi aʁa'gɔ̃]) (October 3, 1897 – December 24, 1982), was a French poet and novelist, a long-time political supporter of the communist party and a member of the Académie Goncourt He was also a member of the French Resistance, as the Communist Party played an important role in the defeat of Nazi Germany. However, after the war Aragon was critical of the de-Stalinization of the Soviet Union, Nikita Krushchev's so-called "Secret Speech" at the 20th Party Congress in 1956. The French Communist Party remained Stalinist longer than the rest of Europe, until the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in 1962 demonstrated the horrors of the Gulag system. Later, though, he would criticize the imprisonment of Soviet filmmaker, Sergey Paradzhanov, helping to lead to his release.
|French literary history|
Aragon was born and died in Paris. He was raised by his mother, Marguerite, and maternal grandmother, who he grew up believing to be his sister and foster mother respectively. His biological father, Louis Andrieux, former senator of Forcalquier, was married and forty years older than Marguerite, who he had seduced when she was seventeen. Her mother passed him off as his godfather, and Aragon was only told the truth at the age of 19, as he was leaving to serve in the First World War, from which neither he nor his parents believed he would return. Andrieux's refusal to recognize his son would influence Aragon's poetry later on.
Having been involved in Dada from 1919 to 1924, he became a founding member of Surrealism in 1924 with André Breton and Philippe Soupault. In the 1920s, Aragon became a fellow traveler of the French Communist Party (PCF) with several other surrealists, and took his card in January 1927. In 1933, he began to write for the party's newspaper, L'Humanité, in the "news in brief" section. He would remain a member for the rest of his life, writing several political poems including one to Maurice Thorez, the general secretary of the PCF. During the World Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture (1935), Aragon found himself opposed his former friend André Breton, who wanted to seize the opportunity as a tribune to defend the writer Victor Serge, associated with Leon Trotsky's Left Opposition.
Nevertheless Aragon was also critical of the USSR, particularly after the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1956) during which Stalin's personality cult was denounced by Nikita Khrushchev.
The French surrealists had long claimed Lewis Carroll as one of their own, so it came as no surprise when Aragon tackled The Hunting of the Snark in 1929, "shortly before he completed his transition from Snarxism to Marxism," as Martin Gardner puts it. Witness the key stanza of the poem in Aragon's translation:
Ils le traquèrent avec des gobelets ils le traquèrent avec soin
Ils le poursuivirent avec des fourches et de l'espoir
Ils menacèrent sa vie avec une action de chemin de fer
Ils le charmèrent avec des sourires et du savon
Gardner calls the translation "pedestrian," and reminds the reader of Carroll's Rhyme? And Reason? (also published as "Phantasmagoria"). Gardner finds also the rest of Aragon's writings on Carroll's nonsense poetry full of factual errors, and cautions the reader that there is no evidence that Aragon intended any of it as a joke.
Apart of working as a journalist for L'Humanité, Louis Aragon also became, along with Paul Nizan, editor secretary of the journal Commune, published by the Association des écrivains et artistes révolutionnaires (Association of Revolutionary Writers and Artists), which aimed at gathering intellectuals and artists in a common front against fascism. Aragon became member of the directing committee of the Commune journal in January 1937, along with André Gide, Romain Rolland and Paul Vaillant-Couturier. The journal then took the name of "French literary review for defense of culture" (revue littéraire française pour la défense de la culture). With Gide's withdrawal in August 1937, Vaillant-Couturier's death in autumn 1937 and Romain Rolland's old age, Aragon became its effective director. In December 1938, he called as chief editor the young writer Jacques Decour. The Commune journal was strongly involved in the mobilization of French intellectuals in favor of the Spanish Republic.
Aragon was called on by the PCF, in March 1937, to head the new evening daily, Ce soir, which he was charged of launching along with the writer Jean-Richard Bloch. Ce soir attempted to compete with Paris-Soir. Outlawed in August 1939, Ce soir was re-created after the Liberation, and Aragon again took its lead, first with Bloch then alone after Bloch's death in 1947. The newspaper, which counted Emile Danoën as a collaborator, disappeared in March 1953.
In 1939 he married Russian-born author Elsa Triolet, the sister of Lilya Brik, a mistress and common-law wife of Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. He had met her in 1928, and she became his muse starting in the 1940s. Aragon and Triolet collaborated in the left-wing French media before and during World War II, going underground for most of the Nazi occupation.
Aragon was mobilized in the army in 1939, and awarded the Croix de guerre (War Cross) and the military medal for his acts of bravery. After the May 1940 defeat, he took refuge in the Southern Zone. He was one of the several poets, along with Robert Desnos, Paul Eluard, Jean Prévost, Jean-Pierre Rosnay to engage themselves in the Resistance, both by literary activities and as an organizer of Resistant movements.
During the war, Aragon wrote for the underground press Les Éditions de Minuit and was a member of the National Front Resistant movement. He participated with his wife Elsa Triolet to the setting up of the National Front of Writers in the Southern Zone. His activism led him to break his friendly relationship with Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, who had chosen instead the path of collaboration.
Along with Paul Eluard, Pierre Seghers or René Char, Aragon would maintain the memory of the Resistance in his post-war poems. He thus wrote, in 1954, Strophes pour se souvenir in commemoration of the role of foreigners in the Resistance, which celebrated the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans de la Main d'Oeuvre Immigrée (FTP-MOI).
The theme of the poem was the Red Poster affair, mainly the last letter that Missak Manouchian, an Armenian-French poet and Resistant, wrote to his wife Mélinée before his execution on February 21, 1944. This poem was then sung by Léo Ferré.
At the Liberation, Aragon became one of the leading Communist intellectuals, assuming political responsibilities in the Comité national des écrivains (National Committee of Writers). He celebrated the role of the general secretary of the PCF, Maurice Thorez, and defended the Kominform's condemnation of the regime of Josip Broz Tito in Yugoslavia.
To the request of Thorez, Aragon was elected in 1950 in the central committee of the PCF. His office, however, did not protect him from all forms of criticisms. Thus, when his journal, Les Lettres françaises, published a drawing by Pablo Picasso at the occasion of Stalin's death in March 1953, Aragon was forced to make an honorable amend to his critics, who judged the drawing iconoclastic. Through-out the years, he became informed of the Stalinist repression by his wife Elsa, and thereafter changed his political line.
In the days following the disappearance of Ce soir, in March 1953, Aragon became the director of Les Lettres françaises, which was L'Humanité 's literary supplement. Assisted by its chief editor, Pierre Daix, Aragon started in the 1960s a struggle against Stalinism and its consequences in Eastern Europe. He published writings of dissidents such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn or Milan Kundera. The financial losses of Les Lettres françaises led to the ceasing of activities in 1972—although it was later re-created.
Henceforth, Aragon supported in 1956 the Budapest insurrection, provoking the dissolving of the Comité national des écrivains, which Vercors quit. The same year, he was however granted the Lenine Award for Peace. He then harshly condemned Soviet authoritarianism, opened his journals to dissidents, condemned trials against intellectuals (in particular the 1966 Sinyavsky-Daniel trial). He strongly supported the student movement of May 1968, although the PCF was more than skeptic about it. The crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968 led him to a critical preface published in a translation of one of Milan Kundera's book (La Plaisanterie). Despite his criticisms, Aragon remained an official member of the PCF's central committee until his death.
Beside his journalist activities, Louis Aragon was also CEO of the Editeurs français réunis (EFR) publishing house, heir of two publishing houses founded by the Resistance, La Bibliothèque française and Hier et Aujourd'hui. He directed the EFR along with Madeleine Braun, and published in the 1950s French and Soviet writers commonly related to the Socialist realism current. Among other works, the EFR published André Stil's Premier choc, which owed to the future Goncourt Academician the Stalin Award in 1953. But they also published other writers, such as Julius Fučík, Vítězslav Nezval, Rafael Alberti, Yánnis Rítsos or Vladimir Mayakovsky. In the beginning of the 1960s, the EFR brought to public knowledge the works of non-Russian Soviet writers, such as Tchinguiz Aïtmatov, or Russian writers belong to the Khrushchev Thaw, such as Galina Nicolaëva, Anatoli Kouznetsov's Babi Yar in 1967, etc. The EFR also published the first novel of Christa Wolf in 1964, and launched the poetic collection Petite sirène, which collected works by Pablo Neruda, Eugène Guillevic, Nicolas Guillen, but also less known poets such as Dominique Grandmont, Alain Lance or Jean Ristat.
After the death of his wife on June 16, 1970, Aragon came out as bisexual, appearing at gay pride parades in a pink convertible Drieu La Rochelle had evoked Aragon's homosexuality in Gilles, written in the 1930s.
Free from both his marital and editorial responsibilities (having ended publication of Les Lettres Françaises—L'Humanité 's literary supplement—in 1972), Aragon was free to return to his surrealist roots. During the last ten years of his life, he published at least two further novels: Henri Matisse Roman and Les Adieux.
Louis Aragon died on December 24, 1982, his friend Jean Ristat sitting up with him. He was buried in the park of Moulins de Villeneuve, in his property of Saint-Arnoult-en-Yvelines, along his wife Elsa Triolet.
After his initial period marked by his interest in Surrealism and the playful use of language, Aragon returned to a more classical form (using rhyme and meter), inspired by Guillaume Apollinaire, and his desire to give an account of the French resistance during the Second World War. After the war, the political aspect of his poetry receded into the background as he emphasized its lyrical quality. Although he never fully rejected this embrace of the classical style, his later poetry returned to his interest in more modern styles.
Various poems by Aragon have been sung by Lino Léonardi, Hélène Martin, Léo Ferré, Jean Ferrat, Georges Brassens, Alain Barrière, Isabelle Aubret, Nicole Rieu, Monique Morelli, Marc Ogeret, among others.
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