Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
John McAuliffeBill Manhire in Conversation with John McAuliffe
(PN Review 259)
Patricia CraigVal Warner: A Reminiscence
(PN Review 259)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Tim Parksin conversation with Natalia Ginzburg
(PN Review 49)
Next Issue Gwyneth Lewis ‘Spiderings’ Ian Thomson ‘Fires were started: Tallinn, 1944’ Adrian May ‘Traditionalism and Tradition’ Judith Herzberg ‘Poems’ translated by Margitt Helbert Horatio Morpurgo ‘What is a Book?’
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
Reader Survey
PN Review Substack

This report is taken from PN Review 31, Volume 9 Number 5, May - June 1983.

Letter from Paris: the death of Louis Aragon Stephen Romer
January 1983

ARAGON is dead. And once more we are left to contemplate the Janus face of a great writer and a political animal. Céline, Pound, and recently in these pages Ernst Jünger, to name but three that spring to mind. How often we have seen it! But in this case it is especially difficult to plead for the one and forget the other: the fifty-five years of total submission to the Communist Party- the prolonged compromise with truth- has the terrible effect of merging the faces indissolubly. As early as 1922 André Gide saw only the one face, and understood: 'Louis Aragon a des yeux d'odalisque. Et c'est le diable. Le diable!' In the televised interviews of 1979, held in a Paris café with the young communist and confrère Jean Ristat, Aragon wore what he called his 'young man's mask' to talk about his early days as a surrealist. The inverse is true; it was in 1927 that he donned that mask, the date when he left the surrealist movement to embrace its contrary- the P.C.F. and Jdanovian socialist-realism. Soon afterwards he was praising the Russian G.P.U.: 'Je chante le Guépéou nécessaire de France . . .' in the same flowing lines that celebrate the Eyes of Elsa. No, the mask that he then put on was the bland mask of orthodoxy. And with rare exceptions, he never until his death let it slip.

He died on Christmas Eve, at his home in the rue de Varenne, at the age of 86. His last months were spent in solitude, and when not physically alone he was nevertheless often incomprehensible to others, sealed off in an internal monologue of his own. 'Cette vie comme un jeu terrible où j'ai perdu, que j'ai gâchée de fond en comble' was his rather pathetic confession in 1972 in the last edition of his journal Lettres Françaises. There was no one left to share what must have been the awful weight of knowing what he knew. After such knowledge what forgiveness? Poor Aragon! Instead of being watched over by Elsa's matchless eyes one of his last visions of this world must have been the hideous face of Georges Marchais in dark glasses, the secretary general of the P.C.F. 'Quel cauchemar pour un poète, même communiste' as a journalist from Libération put it. At the request of Ristat, Marchais arrived with several leading communists to salute not so much the great poet as the exemplar of fidelity to the Party. Predictably, Aragon's fidelity was the main theme of Marchais's funeral address, pronounced four days later in a mercifully restrained ceremony at the Party headquarters in the place du Colonel Fabien in the north of Paris. The invitation to attend was less than appetizing. Issued in Humanité Dimanche, it invited all Aragon's friends in Paris and elsewhere, and also 'Tous les communistes, toutes les organisations du Parti et de la jeunesse communiste de Paris et de la région Parisienne, ainsi que des délégations des fédérations de province avec les fleurs et les drapeaux, les élus.' Under a vast portrait of the poet, masked at times by a tricolore blowing in the wind, Marchais gave his address, followed by Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy, who was careful to stress that Aragon's commitment as a writer came before his commitment as a communist- or so he apparently claimed. In a strictly intimate gathering, the poet was buried, not alongside Paul éluard in Père Lachaise, but next to Elsa in his garden at Saint Arnould.

Aragon is one of those very few writers of whom it can be said that their history is the history of their time and who are thus indispensable to a full understanding of that time. Born in Paris in 1897, an illegitimate child, he was adopted by his real father, Louis Andrieux. He lived until 1917 believing that his mother was in fact his sister- for that is how she passed herself off- until she told him the truth just before he left for the front. A precocious child, he was writing novels at the age of six. Having discovered Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Diaghilev, Stravinsky and Matisse while still at college, he joined forces with André Breton and Philippe Soupault to produce the review Littérature- a title supplied by Valéry, who contributed to the first number. Aragon published a poem- 'Quelle âme divine'- written at the age of seven. After a brief association with the Dada movement, Aragon and Breton founded the surrealist movement with the publication in 1924 of Breton's first surrealist manifesto. By its nature, surrealism led straight into revolutionary politics. After a first attempt to join the Party in 1921 (put off by the branch leaders they met!), Aragon and Breton submitted to Party discipline in 1927. At this time Aragon was a dandified young man and a scintillating companion. Much later Breton described his friend's extraordinary gift for 'defamiliarising' even the most neutral corner of Paris, and endowing it with the riches of his imagination. The Paysan de Paris is a precious memorial to the man he then was, gifted with 'le sentiment du merveilleux' and 'la perception de l'insolite'.

The following year, 1928, was a crucial one. In addition to poems and an erotic novel, he published the scandalous Traité du Style in the face of stiff opposition from Valéry and Gide, both of whom are brilliantly attacked in this devastating tract. A more thoroughgoing and often hilarious hatchet-job on French art, religion, politics and general civilisation could not have been imagined. He was fearless in his naming of names: the major writers of the previous generation became 'little crabs' for Aragon, soon to be swept away. In the light of his later activities and commitments, some passages- such as his attack on journalists or his definition of a Clown as a 'man who wants to be the master of events'- read with sharp irony. It was in this year too that he met Mayakovsky's sister-in-law Elsa Triolet in the Coupole. He married her and remained 'le fou d'Elsa' for the rest of their lives together. Elsa was instrumental in steering Aragon away from his surrealist friends towards Russian writers. In 1932 the rupture with Breton, éluard and the others became final when Aragon embraced the socialist-realism demanded by the Party, and took it upon himself to criticize Breton's second surrealist manifesto from his new point of view. One of them remarked of Aragon, 'il est tombé de chapelle en église'. From then on, as a journalist at Humanité and later at Lettres Françaises Aragon became one of the subtlest and most powerful of the communist apologists, while his attacks on fellow writers deviating from the Party line grew more shrill and rancorous. In 1936, for example, Gide published his shattering Retour de l'URSS, written in the full flush of disillusion with the Stalinist régime. Here, Aragon had perhaps some justification for his vitriolic attack, since the threat posed by Gide's report to Republican solidarity with the communists in Spain was a real one; but even after the Liberation Aragon and his colleagues could not forgive Gide. At the novelist's death in 1950 a journalist from Humanité wrote, 'C'est un cadavre qui vient de mourir', and there is no reason to doubt that Aragon endorsed this view. His betrayal of Paul Nizan, an old friend, is even less forgivable. Nizan left the Party in 1939, unable to square his conscience with the German-Soviet pact. The communists were merciless, and Aragon among others put about rumours that before his death in 1940 he had been employed by the Ministry of the Interior to spy on Party activities. It was a charge they repeated after the war, until Sartre, in the newly founded Les Temps Modernes, challenged Aragon to find definite proof of Nizan's collaboration. No proof was ever forthcoming.

None of this, however, can affect Aragon's record as a poet-hero of the Resistance under the Nazi Occupation. Although he was not active in the fighting, like René Char for example, he managed to publish as much during the war as before or after. The noble Resistance poems, collected under the title Crève-Coeur and published by Jean Paulhan at the N.R.F.- many of which were set to music by Léo Ferré and came to be loved by the French people generally- were followed by a number of novels including Les Voyageurs de l'Impériale and Musée Grévin- which was published by the then-clandestine Editions de Minuit, under the pseudonym Francois la Colère. (Aragon has the honour of being one of the few eminent writers of the time not to appear in the collaborator Drieu la Rochelle's version of the Nouvelle Revue Française. One of his novels, however, got into Drieu's hands and was in part modified to appear anti-Dreyfus - a distortion which Aragon swiftly corrected at the Liberation.) In addition to his literary production, Aragon also helped found the clandestine Comité Nationale des écrivains (C.N.E.) and, with Paulhan, the journal Lettres Françaises, both of which were to remain influential after the war. As far as action was concerned, his great contribution was to persuade the communists that the best way to restist the Germans and their collaborators was to unite with other non-communist movements with the same goal. As the organiser of the southern zone of the C.N.E., Aragon and Elsa finally settled in a deserted farmhouse near Lyon where they spent an apparently idyllic year in the middle of the war, and where Aragon wrote yet another novel, Aurélien, based in part on Drieu la Rochelle. The couple also made secret visits to Paris where they met up with, among others, éluard and his magnificent wife Nusch.

After his war performance, Aragon had no trouble in becoming the star of the C.N.E., now transferred to Paris. Weekly meetings were held in elegant rooms overlooking the Elysée Palace. At the same time he was editor of Lettres Françaises, which was at that time the indispensable journal for a young writer to appear in. The C.N.E. remained active until the beginning of the Cold War, when François Mauriac could finally accuse the organisation of being manipulated by the communists. Undeterred, Aragon published his vast account of the war from 1939-40 under the regrettable title Les Communistes. It contained a peculiarly spiteful portrait of Paul Nizan. In 1950 Aragon was elected to the Party central committee in France, where he remained until his death; and in 1952 he visited Russia where he was appalled at what he saw but laid the blame at the door of Stalin's inferiors, rather than question 'le Père des Peuples' himself. Even that fateful year, 1956, when Khruschev revealed the crimes of Stalin at the Twentieth Party Congress, did not shake Aragon's faith- in public at least. And he remained dead quiet about Hungary. His famous protestation about the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia- 'un Biafra de l'esprit'- did get published in Humanité. But he never followed it up, either after the invasion of Afghanistan or over the recent events in Poland.

Towards the end of his life Aragon developed his idea of the Mentir-Vrai, which recalls Cocteau's remark, 'I am a lie which tells the truth'. As an idea it is slippery and unhelpful; it is, in fact, a statement of faith. A faith in which the end (presumably the dialectical End of History) excuses all the means. The tragedy of Aragon is that having started out as a forceful supporter of 'l'esprit contre la raison' against the intellectualism say of Valéry which he attacked way back in Traité du Style, he became perforce and despite himself an intellectual of Stalinist orthodoxy. Again, Gide cut through to the truth of the matter when in 1936 he answered Nizan's charge that sometimes it was a greater thing for an intellectual to remain committed to a cause rather than take refuge in a personal negation. Gide replied, 'Au P.C. vous êtes, à tous les sens de mot, dans les ordres. Et sans doute puis-je respecter cet état; mais alors dites-le!' One of the most lamentable and inevitable results of orthodoxy- be it Catholic or communist- resides in that little phrase 'anathemata sit'. For the communists, for Aragon, Gide was anathema and when he died they could find for him no measure of forgiveness. Perhaps that is why, now Aragon is dead, so many find themselves unable to forgive his errors. The miracle of Aragon is a lyric and stylistic one. As a poet he has been compared with Victor Hugo, and as the author of La Semaine Sainte, with Stendhal. In the end it is right that his barrage of empty words should die and right, too, that his just and good ones should survive.

Ma patrie est comme une barque
Qu'abandonnèrent ses haleurs
Et je ressemble à ce monarque
Plus malheureux que le malheur
Qui restait roi de mes douleurs

Vivre n'est plus qu'un stratagème
Le vent sait mal sécher les pleurs
Il faut hair tout ce que j'aime
Ce que je n'ai plus donnez-leur
Je reste roi de mes douleurs

(from 'Richard II Quarante', Crève-Coeur, 1942)

This report is taken from PN Review 31, Volume 9 Number 5, May - June 1983.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this report to
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image