Louis Aragon is one of the rare French leftists for whom plaques have been erected in Paris.
One recalls the time he and the Russian-born Elsa Triolet, who was awarded the first ever Goncourt prize for her wartime novels in 1945, first lived together in the Rue Campagne-Première. Another plaque marks their later years together in an old palace in the Rue de Varenne.
Poet, rebel and surrealist in the early 1920s, Aragon was first tempted to join the Communist Party 1921 and then did so in 1927 with four other surrealists, in his case only beginning a life-time’s membership. While increasingly dissident from the 1950s, Aragon remained a PCF member until his death.
Aragon was illegitimate. He was born in the Avenue de Villars in 1898, close to the Eiffel Tower, the subject of one of his last poems. His name was chosen by his quite wealthy 57 year-old father, Louis Andrieux, whose senior administrative position and family meant he was never going to marry his young mistress. Andrieux had fond memories of six months he had been ambassador to Spain in 1882, hence the young boy was named ‘Aragon’.
Shortly after the 1900 International Exhibition Marguerite Toucas, his 27-year-old mother with his grandmother moved to the Avenue Carnot, where she took in boarders for four years before moving to Neuilly where she lived from translating novels. Throughout his youth his mother pretended to be his sister, and his grandmother, his mother.
Aragon first met André Breton at the Maison des Amis des Livres, a bookshop on the Rue de l’Odéon in 1917. On March 19 1919 this was where they started to store copies of their own new review, Littérature.
Towards the end of the First World War both Aragon and Breton were stationed at the Military Hospital at the Val du Grace in the Rue St Jacques. Appolinaire was also a patient there at the time. In 1918 Aragon was sent to the front as a medical auxiliary and on three occasions was buried by shell fire.
On leave and while in Paris they also both visited the office of the Nord-Sud literary review at 12 Rue Cadet that produced 16 editions between March 1917 and October 1918 and also carried illustrations by Georges Braque and Fernand Léger. The review was named North-South to indicate the connection between Montparnasse and Montmartre.
Several editorial meetings of the future surrealists used to take place at the bar round the corner at 79 Rue du Mont Cenis.
Immediately after the December 1920 split between the Communists and the Socialist minority at the Congress of Tours, Aragon and Breton went together to the offices of the Paris Socialist Federation at 49 Rue de Bretagne that were part of the majority that backed affiliation to the Communist International. They offered to support the party, but decided not to join.
As the tensions between the Dadaists following Tzara and the proto-surrealists around Breton intensified a physical fight took place at the Theatre Michel on the Rue des Mathurins between the two leading protagonists, witnessed by Aragon and Eluard. Pierre de Massot had his arm broken by Breton’s walking stick.
On July 13 1923 Aragon denounced the owner of Le Rotonde on the Boulevard du Montparnasse for having spied for the police on Lenin before the First World War.
In 1925 Aragon lived at 1 Rue Le Regrattier, with his then mistress, Nancy Cunard. This was where he wrote his novel, Aurélien, first published in 1944. It tells the story of a young soldier, back from the trenches, who enters the world of Paris’ decadent artistic groups.
Aragon and other surrealists were moving towards liberation and revolution but Aragon went on to embrace Marxism and then the Communist Party as the next step.
On 21 September 1925 the Manifesto drafted by Breton that Aragon signed ‘The Revolution First and Always‘ appeared in the Communist daily, L’Humanité, and then simultaneously on October 15 in Clarté and La Révolution surréaliste.
Aragon met Vladimir Mayakovsky on November 5 1928 round the corner at the Coupole bar on Boulevard Montparnasse. One account suggests that Aragon first met Elsa Triolet there on November 6 1928 in the company of Mayakovsky, the partner of Elsa’s sister, as well as Ilya Ehrenburg and Sergei Eisenstein.
Aragon subsequently said that it was this meeting with Mayakovsky that persuaded him that poets can serve a revolutionary cause. Mayakovsky told Aragon that ‘The poet who knew how to turn poetry into a weapon, the poet who knew they were not below the Revolution should be the link between the world and me‘.
Subsequently, over the next three winter months of 1928/29 Aragon often visited 29 Rue Campagne Première where Elsa lived in room 12 and people like Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray were among several other artists who came and went.
With other surrealists, including Breton and Pierre Naville, Aragon opened the Surrealist Gallery in the former offices of the review Clarté at 16 Rue Jacques Callot in the spring of 1926. Clarté was inspired by Raymond Lefebvre in 1919 and appeared as the journal of French communist intellectuals from 1921 to 1928 being edited by Henri Barbusse.
In the autumn of 1928 Aragon had bought an apartment at 54 Rue du Chateau from Marcel Duchamp. Elsa then moved in with him on January 29 1929. The Bar du Chateau, opposite at No. 53, was where the surrealists, including Breton, Raymond Queneau, Raymond Péret and others used to meet.
On March 11 1929 the surrealists’ meeting held a ‘critical discussion of the fate of Leon Trotsky‘. It resulted in the exclusion of Roger Vailland, Roger Gilbert-Lecomte and René Daumal, who would not go along with the ‘line’ that it was necessary to send Trotsky into exile.
Breton and Aragon then pushed the need for the surrealists to support the Communist Party still further. On December 15 1929, supported by Aragon, Breton wrote the ‘Second Surrealist Manifesto’. In 1930 Aragon followed this with an article in La Révolution Surréaliste called ‘Surréalisme au Service de la Révolution‘. In November 1930 he amd Elsa Triolet then went on a trip to Russia, partly to visit Elsa’s sister, Mayakovski’s lover, since Mayakovski had just committed suicide.
In July 1931 a poem, ‘Red Front’ Aragon had writtenin Moscow the previous year was published in France. As a result he was prosecuted for calling on soldiers to disobey orders and for writing ‘Kill the cops’ and ‘Shoot Léon Blum’.
In 1932 Breton, who had not renewed his membership of the PCF in 1930, and the other surrealists published a pamphlet defending Aragon. L’Humanité, the Communist Party’s daily, then issued a statement claiming that Aragon entirely disapproved of Breton’s pamphlet and that its authors were objectively counter-revolutionary. This ‘Aragon affair’ cemented the breach between Aragon and the surrealists.
In the early 1930s, as the Communist Party began tentatively to try to break its own isolation in the ‘Class against Class’ period, Aragon joined the Association des Écrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires (AEAR -Revolutionary Writers and Artists Association). Founded in March 1932 by the communist writer, Paul Vaillant-Couturier.
In April 1932, however, Aragon and Triolet left again for Moscow, where they then stayed for nearly a year. Aragon worked there on the French edition of the review ‘Writings from the World Revolution’ (Littérature de la révolution mondiale) linked to the AEAR that was principally a way of getting Russian Communist authors better known globally. In July 1933 he became the editor of the AEAR’s French review, Commune.
When Aragon finally returned in April 1933 he worked for a year as a general affairs journalist for L’Humanité. In April 1934 he became the AEAR’s General Secretary, based initially at the Cultural House established by the Communist Party at 12 Rue de Navarin.
1934 was also the year Aragon published his first novel in a series called ‘The real world’, Les Cloches de Bâle (The Bells of Basel). This marked his conversion to ‘socialist realism’ in writing. In 1935 he described what he meant by this as ‘Socialist realism or revolutionary romanticism: two names for the same thing where Zola’s Germinal meets Hugo’s Punishments‘.
The office of the AÉAR moved to 13 Rue du Faubourg Montmartre that also housed the office of the Federation of French Working Class Theatre. Aragon, Vaillant-Couturier and Léon Moussinac regularly met there.
As the PCF moved away from the sectarian ‘Third Period‘, following the Nazi election victory in 1933 and the mobilisation against French fascists in February 1934, Aragon became a leading figure in the intellectual anti-fascist movement.
Aragon moved house in February 1935 to 18 Rue de la Sourdière. A special meeting took place there on June 14 1935 that decided to exclude Breton as a speaker at the Writers’ Congress that was taking place a week later. Breton had slapped Ehrenburg several times on the Boulevard du Montparnasse after Ehrenburg had described all surrealists as ‘pederasts’.
Breton’s exclusion led the surrealist writer René Crevel to organise a reconciliation evening meal at the La Closerie des Lilas restaurant on June 17 attended by Aragon, Ehrenburg, Breton and Tzara. Failing to resolve the conflict, Crevel committed suicide that night.
The First International Congress of Writers for the Defence of Culture took place in the Salle de la Mutualité at 24 Rue Saint-Victor, from June 21 to 25 1935. It brought together 230 participants from 38 different countries, including its presidents, Malraux and Gide, and Brecht. It was largely initiated by Henri Barbousse, under direct instructions from Stalin.
It is quite probable that Aragon invited some of the writers present to eat with him at what has been described as one of his favourite restaurants in the inter-war years at 1 Place de l’Odéon. Initially called the Café Voltaire it became La Méditerranée which then, like today, was known for its fish soup, bouillabaisse. I was really pleased to find around 2015 that it had started to offer a ‘cheap’ (for central Paris) three course menu that includes its bouillabaisse (it’s only one minute from my dad’s flat!).
On March 1 1937 Aragon became Editor of the second Communist daily newspaper, the evening paper, Ce Soir, based at 31 rue du Quatre Septembre. Launched by Maurice Thorez at the height of the Popluar Front as a competitor to Paris-Soir, it was extremely successful with circulation rising from 120,000 in late 1937 to 250,000 in March 1939. It denounced the Munich Agreement of September 29 1938 in the strongest terms.
Aragon worked with Jean-Richard Bloch and Paul Nizan. Nizan was killed in the French rearguard action defending the retreating British at the battle of Dunkirk in May 1940. Aged 34 he had enlisted after resigning from the Communist Party (PCF) in August 1939 in protest at the Hitler-Stalin Pact. As a result Nizan was vilified by Thorez as a police spy, and only ‘rehabilitated’ in the late 1970s.
Aragon’s belief in Stalin and Russian Communism remained strong, despite the evidence presented by writers like Gide and Victor Serge, and despite his expressing privately a little disquiet at the execution in Russia in June 1937 of the partner of Elsa’s sister.
The Ribbentrop-Molotov pact led Ce Soir with the rest of the PCF press and the party itself to be banned by the Daladier government on August 25 1939. This was two days after the ‘non-aggression’ pact was signed. Aragon’s editorial on August 23 was titled ‘Long live Peace’ and ‘All against aggression’. He argued the then Party line… the Pact was not incompatible with a three-side agreement between France, Britain and the Soviet Union; it was vital to fight Fascism and to carry out your patriotic duty in the face of aggression against France.
On August 27 1939 Aragon was physically attacked by far right demonstrators in the street after the PCF was banned. So he briefly took refuge in the Chilean Embassy at 2 Avenue de La Motte Picquet. This was at the invitation of the Communist poet and diplomat posted there at the time, Pablo Neruda, Chile’s most famous national poet who died (probably poisoned) immediately after Pinochet’s coup of September 1973.
On September 2 1939 Aragon was mobilised as a medical auxiliary and sent to the Belgian frontier, where he resumed writing poetry, some of which was published in December 1939’s issue of Nouvelle Revue Française, probably at the suggestion of Elsa Triolet, when the review was still being edited by his friend Jean Paulhan.
He experienced the May-June fighting at the front, with his courage earning him two citations, a military medal and the Military Cross with one palm. He was taken prisoner at Angoulême and then escaped.
Demobilised in July 1940 in the Dordogne, he met Elsa again and they went to Nice. Aragon then attempted to publish with a ‘legal literary resistance’ strategy at odds with the PCF doctrine in Occupied France.
The clandestine PCF leadership then sent Georges Dudach to find Aragon in Nice and to bring him back to Paris to work there with other intellectuals. The pair were arrested by the Germans on June 25 1941 – three days after Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa – trying to cross the demarcation line between the Occupied and Non-Occupied zones. They were released after spending three weeks jailed at Tours, without having been recognised.
Aragon met Paulhan in late July 1941 in the gardens of the Roman ampitheatre of Lutèce, since Paulhan’s flat was being watched. They discussed setting up a new review designed politically to encourage ideological resistance called Lettres françaises focusing on ‘historical precision in poetry’.
Aragon returned shortly afterwards to the Southern Zone and Nice. He continued to publish ‘legal’ poems that aimed to raise political consciousness. When Nice was occupied by the Italian army in November 1942 he and Elsa moved to Lyon, where they lived under false papers.
The last poem under his own name published legally in France during the war appeared on March 11 1943 on the literary pages of a Lyon review. It was called The Rose and the Reseda. In the summer they moved again, to Saint-Donat in the Drôme. He continued to write poetry and to publish under pseudonyms.
Aragon and Elsa Triolet returned to Paris in late September 1944, shortly after it was liberated. Aragon then resumed publishing Ce Soi after Liberation in late 1944. The paper was based at the former offices of Paris-Soir at 37 Rue du Louvre, that had been taken over on August 25 1944 by the Communist daily, l’Humanité. This address was also where Aragon edited Les Lettres françaises.
During the Cold War after 1947 Aragon continued to publicly support the Moscow line, supporting socialist realism in painting and writing, while in private defending Picasso and Matisse when they were criticised in Pravda.
Aragon participated in the Communist cult of personality that all Communist Parties emulated as reflections of what was happening in Russia around Stalin. He was a speaker at the celebration of Maurice Thorez‘ 50th birthday on April 28 1950 at the Gymnasium Huyghens at 10 Rue Huyghens.
In the early 1950s Aragon was still publicising Fougeron‘s paintings as the politically correct kind of ‘social art’ painting in the service of the working class. Ce Soir closed in 1953, with Aragon then working primarily on Les Lettres françaises.
After the 1956 Khrushchev revelations about Stalin and the Hungarian Revolution Aragon moved away from ‘socialist realism’. In 1966 he drafted a resolution calling for the PCF not to intervene on cultural issues and to recognise the importance and right of free creativity.
In 1960 Aragon and Triolet moved to a flat in the state-owned 18th century mansion the Hôtel Gouffier de Thoix at No. 56 Rue de Varenne. It was located opposite the French Prime Minister’s official office and home in the Hôtel Matignon.
In 1968 Aragon broke openly with the PCF line. First he supported the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, and then from the start he sided with the student revolt in Paris. As a result on January 7 1969 he learned at 5 Rue du Faubourg Poissonnière that all the Soviet and their satellite magazine subscriptions had been cancelled. The office of the Les Lettres françaises was next to the printing works of the Communist daily, L’Humanité, at No. 7.
Elsa Triolet, Aragon’s partner since 1929, and wife since 1939, died of a heart attack in the garden of the Villeneuve Mill in Saint-Arnoult-en-Yvelines they had jointly owned since 1951 on June 16 1970. Aragon secured a special presidential dispensation to allow her to be buried there.
The final issue of Lettres françaises that appeared was dated October 11-17 1972. In his editorial he wrote of his life as being ‘like a painful game in which I lost’.
Aragon continued to appear occasionally at Communist Party events, but played no further active part. From 1974 he began bringing together and organising the publication of his complete poetic works. He died on December 24 1982 and was buried with Elsa in the grounds of the old mill at Villeneuve, where at the time of writing (April 2020) there still exists an Aragon-Triolet Museum.