Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Paris Peasant - Louis Aragon wanders around - A laudable error. But a delectable folly.

Paris Peasant, Louis Aragon, 1926, translated by Simon Watson Taylor.  A Surrealist novel, in some sense, although I do not understand what use there might be in calling this a novel.  The book contains a short preface that I did not understand; a hundred-page tour of the shops in a covered passage, destroyed just after Aragon wrote the piece, that is a classic of Paris flaneuring; another bit of wandering in the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, this time at night, and accompanied by André Breton; and a final manifesto-like piece that I did not understand.

The root of Surrealism (“offspring of frenzy and darkness,” p. 65 of the 1994 Exact Change edition) is realism, right?  Aragon is at one of the hairdressers in the Passage de l’Opera.  He is rhapsodizing on the subject of blond hair:

What is blonder than the froth of moss?  I have often though I saw champagne on the floor of forests.  And chanterelles!  And agaric!  Darting hares!  The moons of fingernails!  The colour pink!  The blood of plants!  The eyes of bitches!  Memory: memory is truly blond.  (p. 40)

Twaddle, perhaps, but glorious twaddle, imaginatively free twaddle.  Aragon has provided himself with a form that is both rigid – a passage, a straight line – and endlessly free and digressive, with room for poems and a little play (“Man Converses with His Faculties”) and essays on anything.  Plus lots of signage and typography, which I suppose I could scan.  Maybe it’s on the internet somewhere.  The drink menu of the Certa café is reproduced.  There is a Dada Cocktail for four francs.  Aragon did not pick the Passage de l’Opera at random – it is packed with Surreal history, “the last traces of the Dada movement” (92):

What memories, what revulsions linger around these hash houses: the man eating in this one has the impression he is chewing the table rather than a steak, and becomes irritated by his common, noisy table companions, ugly, stupid girls, and a gentleman flaunting his second-rate subconscious and the whole unedifying mess of his lamentable existence; while, in another one, a man wobbles on his chair’s badly squared legs, and concentrates his impatience and his rancours upon the broken clock…  The whole scene – sweaty walls, people, stodgy food – is like a smear of candle grease.  (92-3)

The book is well written and well observed when Aragon wants it to be.  A classic of urban writing.  A classic of looking around.

What was I up to?  Let me put it like this: I thought I was prodding metaphysics forward an inch or two.  A laudable error.  But a delectable folly.  (184-5)

Not so far, really, from how I think about art.


  1. I remember enjoyed the first 100 pages of this, about wandering down a Parisian street, and then giving up when it entered the realms of "philosophy".

  2. I'm rather fond of Aragon's resistance poetry, particularly "The Rose and the Mignonette". The alliteration of the refrain "Celui qui croyait au ciel"/"He who believed in heaven" gets me every time. Never tried his prose though, and I gather some of his Communist propaganda poetry is quite awful (I mean, the resistance stuff is propaganda too, but it's propaganda I agree with at least). His wife, Elsa Triolet, was the sister of Mayakovsky's muse Lily Brik, and a prize-winning writer in her own right.

  3. I have this lurking somewhere but have never managed to get to it - but it sounds as if the language is rather lovely even if it doesn't necessarily add up to much! :)


  4. I see that obooki and I came to similar points, with the difference that I neurotically turned all the pages.

    To the extent the book adds up to something, it is not a story, but a perspective, and perhaps a method.

    Aragon's poetry from the war is what is in every bookstore in Lyon. I understand that he wrote Communist propaganda novels, too, which sound unreadable, "unreadable" being a metaphor.

  5. Maybe it's only because I had a very nice day in that park (though the temple was closed for repairs), but this looks pretty tempting. Also, yes, attractive prose, the "laudable error" passage, etc.

  6. Now that's the right spirit for this book. Next time I'm in Paris I should see Buttes-Chaumont for myself.

  7. His wife, Elsa Triolet, was the sister of Mayakovsky's muse Lily Brik, and a prize-winning writer in her own right.

    She was the one who found and fell in love with Mayakovsky, and then she took him to the Briks' to show him off and her big sister Lily stole him right away from her. Thanks, sis! Later on, in exile, Victor Shklovsky and Roman Jakobson both fell madly in love with Elsa, but she was irritated by their attentions and still pined for Mayakovsky. Dear Abby would have had a blast with this crew.

    Elsa's first couple of novels were in Russian (her first, Tahiti, was based on letters she wrote to Shklovsky, which he used for his amazing Zoo or Letters Not About Love and which caught the attention of a publisher); I have them and will probably get around to reading them someday.