Times Literary SupplementFriday, May 19, 1950
Louis Aragon: Les Communistes. (Fevrier-Septembre, 1939) Paris VIe: La Bibliotèchnique Français (33, rue Saint-Andre-des-Arts).
M. Louis Aragon, once a surrealist and now the high priest of French Communist literature, could have avoided many pitfalls had he set the beginning of his long fiction-cum-propaganda war history of Communism in France a couple of years later -- at any rate after 1941. But he apparently intended to take the bull by the horns and to face squarely as a French Communist the problem of the Russo-German pact. His book is the first instalment of what is likely to be a long series of novels; it covers the period between the fall of Republican Spain in February, 1939, and the outbreak of the Second World War.
It might be argued that, whatever the propagandist drawbacks of M. Aragon's decision to begin his story so early, it might have been of considerable literary advantage. The conflict between the Communist's conscience and the new party line was fact more dramatic than his latter struggle within the resistance movement. The Communist erring in the wilderness is more interesting than a right-thinking determinist. Such an argument, however would imply that the Communist writer should place his artistic integrity above the party line; in other words that M. Aragon should claim for himself the same freedom enjoyed by M. Picasso and M. Eluard.
All the ingredients of a drama are present. The problem of Felzer, for instance, the Communist teacher in a secondary school and a Jew, faced with the party's new attitude towards Hitler, was implicitly tragic. M. Aragon succeeds in transforming it into farce. When the "renegade" Humanité journalist Orillat expresses the fear that the party will find itself in the position of an isolated minority like the Trotskyists, Felzer replies, unperturbed: "We are not becoming Trotskyists. Trotskyists are cops, that's all. They do not present a philosophical problem." This is not an unfair sample of the philosophical and psychological profundity of the book.
There is a famous tale about Dumas's two drawers; in one he kept the living characters of his novels, in the other those who had already died. His chambermaid, while cleaning the desk, unwittingly resurrected some of the corpses; and soon ghosts began to appear in the serial. M. Aragon is suffering from the opposite trouble. Some efficient and orthodox party maid seems to be watching to see that nonce of his puppets escape from the respective black and white pigeon-holes. The result is that Les Communistes, instead of providing vivid drama, is empty and stereotyped histoire de pantins. The puppets come on and off the stage, but never attain to life. Mayakovsky wrote in 1925: "I want...Stalin, on behalf of the Politbureau, while reporting on iron and steel production, to also give a report on the output of verses," and it appears likely that M.Aragon's future output, for all the talent he has shown in the past, must be measured exclusively in quantitative terms. This story, for which he has mobilized some of the characters from Aurélien, Les Cloches de Bâle and Les voyageurs de l'impériale, is not even good propaganda.