29 October 2006

Two sisters' eyes

The most earnest love poems in French allowed in a respectable Latin Quarter book store are Louis Aragon’s ‘Elsa’s Eyes.’ Their reputation is a result of the technical brilliance of a genius devoting himself to traditional form and their being at the center of the poetry of the French Resistence. Some of the most earnest love poems in Russian, Mayakovsky’s ‘I Love’ and ‘About This,’ were written to Elsa’s little sister.

Aragon and Mayakovsky also wrote the most prominent propagandist poetry in their respective languages while in love with the two Kagan sisters, both of which are known by their first husbands’ surname. Not only did Aragon’s poetry and prose of the 40s define the Liberation but in 1932 he was originally given a five-year sentence in France for the propagandist poem Red Front. Mayakovsky is known for both Party poems imploring the masses to drink boiled water and some of the most affecting political poetry of the century. Thus these two sisters serve as an empirical thread sewn through these issues of a poets’ love, literary style, and the politics of art in an era when all this came to a head.

Elsa was Elsa Triolet who while a slightly plump, indiscrete woman in her mid-20s had been following Aragon around Paris literary circles and threw herself at him in an attic during a party she was invited to because the Surrealists wanted to meet her brother-in-law Vladimir. Aragon was not for want of young female socialites that wanted to sleep and be seen with him, none of whom figured out or wanted to know that this iconoclast really wanted a mother figure. His was the young mistress of an deadbeat officer, charged with the duties of persecuting the Paris Commune, a woman who told Louis all his life that she was his older sister and his parents were dead.

Aragon’s submissiveness to Elsa began when she had arranged to appear in a club that she heard Aragon, who was actively avoiding her, would visit. Aragon arrived with his girlfriend, and when he saw Elsa he was so rattled that he left alone. Elsa then proceeded to talk his girlfriend into dropping him, which they arrived at his apartment to announce together, to Aragon’s silence.

Elsa preferred Monte Carlo fashion to peasant revolts and turned to Bolshevism only when the party became a world power. This became Aragon’s ideology, causing his split with Surrealism and giving him institutional contacts to become so helpful to the resistence. He renounced his old poetry in favor of the novel and wrote his major realist novels during the early 40s, which were skillful works of Naturalism with a touch of Surrealist techniques that could have been masterpieces if only they could escape the clutches of propagandist illustration.

Mayakovsky was an at times cruel megalomaniac who melodramatically obsessed over the unattainable, a characteristic that Lilya adroitly manipulated. In The Backbone Flute he blamed God for his love for her which only “tortured my soul in delirium.” The poem was published by Osip Brik, her Russian Formalist husband.

Lilya was pictured here on the cover of his 1923 book “About This” which describes his torment over her infidelity. It would be interesting to know if Aragon had seen this cover when he wrote “Elsa’s Eyes.”

The romantic components of his suicidal depression could more convincingly consist of his inability to coax the young Tatiana Yakovlev to move to Russia with him from Paris. His “Letter From Paris to Comrade Kostrov on the Nature of Love,” written a year and a half before his death exalts his love for her as “human and simple” in contrast to the doctrinaire requirements the poetry commission he was supposed to be fulfilling. His suicide note, though, includes “to Lilya – love me.” She maintains that she twice saved him from killing himself before he finally did so in her absence.

Somewhere in the spell of the Kagan sisters is the longing for the poet to be loved, to be understood, to be useful to progress. In the case of Aragon, the spell is only tragic in purely artistic terms – his life with her (pictured together in old age) was happy. In Mayakovsky’s case the tragic obsession made his poetry both at times banal and at other times self-revelatory in a way a more seamless romance wouldn’t. The tragic longing to be understood brought out by the sisters in both men had an intrinsic relation to a devotion to progress which was both elusive and unavoidable in the part the two men played in history and how many there were that looked to them for clarity and guidance.

André Thirion, who was Aragon’s younger confidant and Elsa’s go-between to Aragon, said this of Elsa:

“A woman who would look men straight in the eye but didn’t seem to pay them any particular attention, that was how Elsa Triolet appeared to me in the fall of 1928”....

“I wish that my granddaughter Marianne had as much skill, self-awareness, and sensitivity to others. To get what she was after, Elsa never took anything from anyone or hurt another person... She helped Aragon fulfill his destiny, and if he failed in any way to become the major figure that we could discern on Rue du Château, that was his own fault, not Elsa’s.”


Jessica Smith said...

this is really fascinating, but i have to disagree with you about the "most earnest love poems in French." that sounds like a Ron-ism. French has many good love poems to offer (and not just from modernist France) and we are perhaps ill-equipt to judge their "earnestness."

Ian Keenan said...

Well I’m talking about earnestness in a bookstore that mostly stocks the Gallimard editions and classics. As usual, I stand by my statement: find more earnest French love poems therein.