by MONICA STIRLING
ON ONE side of Paris are the soap-bubble cupolas of Sacré-Cœur, crowning the hill of Montmartre where once St. Denis walked with his severed head in his hands—as Ninon de Lenclos said, “it’s the first step that counts”; on the other is Montparnasse with the Panthéon where dead great men sleep, and the Sorbonne where some of the future great men study. In the valley between lie the opera, the stock exchange, department stores, and the Place Vendôme enisled in a sea of elegant shops from whose doors come gusts of perfume.
In this latter district is the house where Corneille died (it is marked with a plaque bearing the quotation from Le Cid “Je ne dois qu’à moi seul toute ma renommée”) and the church of St. Koch, a seventeenth-century edifice where once the mob crowded to see Marie Antoinette go to her death. Near here is a narrow street of a kind that delights tourists. There, in a second-floor, walk-up apartment overlooking a pale gray courtyard, live Louis Aragon and his wife Elsa Triolet.
Their living room is lined with books in several languages and bindings that range from cheap paper to tooled leather. Their long gray wooden table is scattered with papers and reviews. Tapestry upholstered chairs — bright reds and greens — flank a fireplace presided over by a bright wooden figure brought back from the Marquesas and a dark carved boat from New Guinea. It is a room designed for the use and pleasure of those who live in it, with none of the neo-museum elegance that would be affronted by the intrusion of a camp bed for a friend.
Being ushered into this room set me remembering a wartime moment long past. It was a pale gold summer evening; and the day’s work done, I was wheeling my bicycle — an unwieldy secondhand terror known to my friends as “one of the original taxis that fought the battle of the Marne" — up a steep English country lane. The hedgerows smelled good and I was very tired. I hadn’t yet had time to look at the book which had come by the morning mail: poems by Louis Aragon, smuggled out of France. Now I opened it, propped it on the handlebars, and began to read the famous lines
Mai qui fut sans image et Juin poignardé.
Shaken out of all sense of where I was I went on to the “Tapisserie de la Grande Peur,” with its immaculately accurate picture of the French exodus of 1940, and the lovely “Zone Libre.” Grief, patriotism, resolution — most of the emotions war can produce, with the exception of despair, were marching through these poems not with the didactic and minatory step of pompous schoolmasters, but with intelligence, passion, verve, even elegance. Like Winston Churchill, the French poet exposed blood and sweat and tears for what they are — neither minimizing their intrinsic horribleness because they had to be shed, nor denying the necessity for shedding them because they were horrible.
I felt the relief one feels when, very sick, one recognizes one’s doctor as an expert. And then I came on the poem called “ Elsa je t’aime": —
quand nous habitions tons deux à Montparnasse.
Elsa, Aragon’s wife. There was a lot of Elsa in this book. “L’Amour survit aux rovers de nos urines . . . je te touche et je vois ton corps et tu respires . . . l’ombre de Bérénice est plus que Rome grande . . . tes merveilleuses mains à qui d’autres revèrent . . . mon amour n’a qu’un nom mon cantique est fini.”
It was ravishing — and I use this violent adjective with intent — to realize, at a time when duty and austerity were like DDT powder in the air we breathed, that a man doing his duty to society, in the greatest danger, fell no puritanical impulse to deny the importance of love in its most individualistic form. I could not realize then, as I was to do later, that few of the conscious services Louis Aragon and Elsa Triolet performed for the Resistance were more useful than their unconscious service of providing it with a legend: the legend of a long-married couple whose love was wilder than had it been illicit and who had shared their public as well as their private lives.
When I came home to Paris I was eager to find out what manner of woman was this Elsa who sat like a Byzantine Madonna framed in her husband’s poems. Before long a novel of tiers won the Goncourt, one of France’s most coveted literary prizes, and I discovered she was no one’s image but very much a literary personality in her own right. What is she like?
A blonde, blue-eyed woman who despite the smallness of her body and the delicacy of her features gives an impression of solidity and strength. Elsa Triolet has thick, but fine, wheat-colored hair, a delicate little nose that a Hollywood talent, scout wouldn’t spurn, a prettily obstinate mouth and chin, beautiful long hands, and a light voice to which long-lost foreignness gives an exotic element. For Elsa Triolet is not French by birth. She was born in Moscow, her father a lawyer, her mother a composer, a pupil of Gretchnenov.
Music dominated Elsa Triolet’s childhood as the sky dominates the earth. In her biography of her brother-in-law she writes: “Our house was a house of music. The walls, the window panes, the furniture, were saturated with sound . . . the two grand pianos stood among our middle-class furniture like thoroughbreds among cart horses. There were no family portraits on our walls. In their place were life-sized Tchaikovskis and Wagners, Mendelssohns and Meyerbeers. My mother went to Bayreuth as the faithful make pilgrimages . . . all my childhood I went to sleep to music. My mother waited till the household was in bed to play and compose — very quietly. She provided me with a radio before radios existed. Music was as necessary to me as running water, which one takes for granted until it’s lacking.”
But music was not her only interest. There were books: Tolstoy, Chekov, Gogol, Pushkin, Victor Hugo, Stendhal, Balzac, Colette, Melville, George du Maurier; and one of the great events of her adolescence was her friendship with the great poet Maiakovski, who later married her only sister, Lili.
At this period Maiakovski was an outsize stormy boy whose great talent affected him much as contraband goods affect travelers who have neither the means nor the inclination to pay the duty on them. Spurning Rachmaninov and Boeklin he struggled to persuade young Lili and Elsa to appreciate the new technique of songs such as the American
The vamp of Savannah . . .”
Excellent family relations and friendships, exorbitant quantities of good-quality music and poetry, gave the adolescent Elsa an unusually perceptive attitude towards ways of life different from her own. Less primitive than a Tolstoy heroine, less refined than a Turgenev one, she approached life as if she’d been a Daisy Miller with talent added.
Having trained as an architect, she left home and country to marry a French army officer. The change was immense, but the little girl from Moscow was equal to it. Having got acquainted with the West, she accompanied her husband to Tahiti. She enjoyed this immensely, but, since her marriage wasn’t successful and she had little money, in 1923 she joined her sister and brother-in-law who were visiting Berlin. Living was cheap there, for foreigners, and she got a job. Around this time she happened to write a letter to the Russian writer Schklovsky about her trip to Tahiti. Much impressed, Schklovsky showed it to Maxim Gorki, then living in Berlin. The great writer invited the voting girl to come and see him, and told her she was a born writer and must do a book on Tahiti.
With the facility of a very young person who had never thought of writing, and consequently had no qualms about it, Elsa wrote At Tahiti in Russian, and sent it to Moscow, where it was published — and became a best-seller. Delighted, she wrote Wood Strawberries, which was equally successful.
Then during a visit lo Paris she read in The European a serial entitled Le Paysan de Paris by Louis Aragon. It interested her so much she asked to meet him. He was a slight, dark, handsome man, full of violence and talent, and concurrently leading the surrealists. He and Elsa Triolet subsequently fell in love with the utmost profundity.
Still happily inconsequent about her writing, Elsa Triolet wrote a third book, Camouflage. This failed badly and she realized she would have cither to live in Russia and write in Russian or, if she meant to live in France, learn to write in French. She stayed with her husband and gave up writing, save for occasional bits of journalism.
AT LAST in 1937, Elsa Triolet wrote her first, book in French: Bousoir Thérèse. Her command of the language was charming, colloquial, original; the pleasure in life that is her distinctive quality was particularly vivid and clear in a period when Mr. Chamberlain’s umbrella prophesied dull and murky rain. A little book about Maiakovski followed — a liltle book so lively as to blind unsophisticated readers to its value. Then came Le Cheval Blanc, a bulky exercise in the picaresque, and Mille Regrets, the first short story of which is as fine as the finest Maupassant.
The war stretched out of the occupied into the unoccupied (sic) zone and Elsa Triolet began signing her work Laurent Daniel — a name confected out of the names of two of her arrested friends. Over this signature she wrote Les Amants d’Avignon, a moving and romantic love story of the Resist a nee published in 1943 by the Editions de Minuit, the little white-pa per-jacketed collection that included John Steinbeck’s The Moon Is Down.
The war over, this story was included in the book Le Premier Accroc coûte deux cents francs, which in 1944 won Elsa Triolet the Goneourt. Among those who voted for her was Colette, a shrewd judge and a great admirer of this rich-in-lanlasy hranco-Slav talent. The last story in the book contained these lines: “The Germans have spared us nothing, not even the horrible duty of having to humiliate men by means of men, of having to trample on the very thing for which we’ve fought: human dignity. Oh, if only they could get themselves hanged some place else.”
After this came Personne ne m’aime, the story of a film star, Jenny Borghese. who despite her beauty and success can’t get the love for which she longs emdash; and so kills herself. This lightly told story is particularly interesting because in the figure of the sad young actress are incorporated many of the characteristics of Maiakovski who, like Jenny Borghese, killed himself young.
Next came Les Fantômes Armés, an interesting, and curiously appetizing, attempt to evoke the lunar landscape of Germany (that the Italian director Rossellini was later to use in his prize-winning film “Berlin Anno Zero”) with its atmosphere of floating corruption so propitious to denigration of all the Resistance had stood for. In this as in her earlier books she showed a remarkable capacity for integrating an individual’s romantic story with the sociological background of which it is a part, the whole expressed in a skillfully unliterary manner — achieving the effect of a kind of bright volubility — that makes every type of reader turn the pages greedily to see what is going to happen next. Elsa Triolet has many deficiencies but they are unimportant in comparison with the fact that she possesses the writer’s greatest virtue — readability. She is never a bore.
Her most recent book, L’Inspecteur des mines, is by far her best, and should be read by everyone anxious to grasp the main threads of present European thought, Colloquial in phrase, enlerlaining in atmosphere, and lit with humor the way the ground beneath a tree’s leafy branches is lit with sunlight, it contains profound tragedy in easily digestible form.
The plot concerns Antonin Blond, an ordinary little man — a little man so genuinely ordinary that he feels himself unique, exceptional, and babbles not at all of the Common Man — who returns from deportation to a post-war world only to find his beloved wife dead beneath his bombed home. All at once it seems to him that he has no past — and, having lost all sense of possessing a past, he cannot believe he will achieve a future. His mood is conveyed with great subtlety and — strange as the word may seem in this connection — charm. There is no black despair, no gray nausea — we are far here from the world of the existentialists — only Antonin seems to shake from him the weight that keeps normal people with their feet on the ground, their bodies and thoughts jostled by those of their fellows.
Lightly as the leaf floats earthwards on a windless summer evening, Antonin drifts ihrough a series of fantastic adventures all of which he encounters by accident and recounts with an odd good humor, a comic sense of poetry that makes one sympathize with this almost-a-ghost on account of the man he obviously might have been. Most remarkable is the tale-of-Hoffmann section of the book, which takes place in Germany and is romantic and unreal and wholly convincing as a dream, from the ruined German landscape to the blooming Italian actress Bianca, whose white crinoline darts in and out the partially wrecked theater like a lovely will-o’-the-wisp.
Like all Elsa Triolet’s books, but more so, this one is essentially a study of solitude, a subject that obsesses her. Her point of view is the opposite of that expressed by one of Sartre’s characters in the words “hell is other people.’ For Elsa Triolet hell is the inability to communicate with other people.
Easily read: full of color, movement, and humor; unusually supplied with a feeling for fantasy that has nothing to do with whimsy, Elsa Triolet’s novels are among the most interesting in post-war France.
Unlike her husband, Elsa Triolet is not. a member of the Communist Party. But her point of view is definitely the point of view of the European Left — and as such should be thoroughly studied by those who disagree with It. Her books should be of particular interest to Americans since in many respects — such as the breadth of her canvas, the variety of experiences with which she deals, and above all her good humor — she is nearer to the unaffiliated American leftist writer than to the more sectarian European socialist. Her stories — and unlike many contemporary novels, hers are stories in the old-fashioned sense — contain no propaganda; but between the lines of the entertainment they offer is a point of view that, although definite, is so assimilated, so much a part of her emotional as well as her intellectual nature, that she is probably unaware of expressing it.
The eyes of Elsa, in honor of which Aragon has written so many glowingly non-political poems, are clear, shrewd eyes and none of us, whatever our views, are likely to lose by casting a glance at what, they have seen.