Ehrenburg, Ilya 1891–1967
(Also Ehrenbourg or Erenburg) Ehrenburg was a Russian poet, novelist, and journalist. He fought for Soviet artistic freedom and was an official spokesperson for the literary movement. Despite this, Ehrenburg was termed a chameleon for his political attitudes altered with changes in the reigning ideology. Because he lived for many years abroad in Paris, his writing reflects a western-oriented outlook. (See also Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
The Extraordinary Adventures of Julio Jurenito, that highly imaginative brain-child of Ilya Ehrenbourg, and his equally highly imaginative companions, leave one more or less wondering just what the tempest in the teapot is all about. The author meets Julio, the "Master" … in a Paris café. Julio, the author fancies, is the devil and appears greatly disappointed to learn from Julio that the devil is a state of mind and not blood and bone. Ehrenbourg becomes Julio's first disciple and with him starts the story on its weird pilgrimage—philosophical and actual. The others are picked up on the way, each individually fantastic…. Ehrenbourg's fantastic characters live in the days of peace, war, and revolution on the continent—Senegal, Moscow, and many other places. The "Master" dissertates at length on religion, physical love, art, and numerous other topics. The whole is really a brilliantly and powerfully written "satirical delusion," an emulation of the immortal Candide, entirely lacking in Candide's subtlety. The publisher's blurb says, "his fantasy of sensation and satire will shock, violate, and exhilarate the most jaded." Guaranteed to violate but not exhilarate. Continual and inept references to the sexual impulse in the human relationship and the animal kingdom prove so distasteful that it is hard for one to rise above this predomination to the appreciation of a narrative well written. One might feel more kindly toward the arguments...
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Ehrenbourg attempted a man-sized piece of writing in ["The Extraordinary Adventures of Julio Jurenito and His Disciples"]—a broad satire aimed at certain national, or so to speak, official characteristics of European countries and America (including some minor satirical thrusts at the war, politics, propaganda, the Soviet Government, etc.). In fact, it seems that for one book—even so long a book as this one—he attempted too much, more than he could carry out. Parts of his book are excellent satire—biting, fresh, derisive. Other parts, including much of the extravagant nonsense which binds the narratives together, fall pretty flat….
The plan of the tale is roughly that of a picaresque novel. Julio Jurenito, an international rogue, without convictions but with an immense fund of casual commentary, travels through Europe picking up disciples from every nation…. As a whole, his career seems contradictory and meaningless; he stands, perhaps, for the complete modern disbeliever and anarchist.
It is in the characters of his disciples that Ehrenbourg's satire strikes most deeply. Each of these is not only a character, but also a national caricature, symbolizing certain aspects of each country and embodying, in their exaggeration, the author's criticism of each….
The exploits of these strange companions in international politics, in business, and in love are always amusing, sometimes hilariously...
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Ehrenburg's talent and skill are undeniable, but most of his novels are not good literature; the ease and rapidity with which he produces them inevitably affect their quality: they are a mixture of fiction and journalism, and in some of them the element of journalism predominates. Ehrenburg knows how to handle his plot, how to make it thrilling and attractive, he has wit, his satire is often caustic and pointed, he knows how to make shallow thoughts look deep and significant, but the psychology of his characters is usually crude and made to fit in with preconceived abstract schemes. He loves sharp contrasts and ignores all finer shades. His characters are either paragons of abstract virtues …, or embodiments of all that is worst in human nature, like some of his bourgeois and capitalist scoundrels. Some of his novels are more like political pamphlets in the form of thrillers…. Ehrenburg is one of the few Russian writers who knows his Europe well, albeit superficially (he sees it almost entirely from the comfortable vantage-point of an habitué of the Montparnasse cafés), and can write novels about European life and politics, thus supplying a need, which is badly felt in Soviet Russia, for exotic sensationalism…. Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (1932) is a somewhat melodramatic story about the life of the Russian émigrés in Paris. There are no gross distortions in it, but only a small corner of that life is...
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Mr. Erenburg's account of the French defeat ["The Fall of Paris"] is a novel chiefly by virtue of the fact that it is such inaccurate history—another of those literary demonstrations that the Communist Party is the only solution for the ills of the world, and another instance of the vital connection between a writer's prose and his political purpose. For Mr. Erenburg's vague, discontinuous, lifeless, impressionistic prose is the perfect instrument of his political partisanship. It is such a befuddling prose, it so beclouds the sequence of historical facts, that I very much doubt whether any but a reader fairly well acquainted with the complex history of modern Europe would realize that in 530 pages on the history of France between 1935 and 1940 there has been hardly a mention of Russia, except as a flag on the horizon, and except for one oblique reference to a newspaper headline, not a single mention of the Soviet-Nazi pact. It is Mr. Erenburg's one-eyed view of what happened in France in this period that while the French workers under Communist leadership clamored to destroy Nazism and die for France, they were sold out by the league between fascism and democracy. All his characters are puppets…. And what makes confusion twice confounded is that sprinkled among Mr. Erenburg's large cast of fictional characters are several historical figures—Blum, Laval, Daladier—who are intended, I suppose, to give the note of verisimilitudes to Mr. Erenburg's...
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Mr. Ehrenburg is not young, he has no novelty, his style [in "The Fall of Paris"] is patchy, full of borrowed odds and ends, his situations are unconvincing, his interpretations are programmatic and his characters are utterly dead. They are dead because Mr. Ehrenburg seems to have lost or surrendered his originality or the freedom without which it cannot exist. To inject life into his types he makes them "modern." He goes to Malraux, Aragon and Jules Romains for instruction and in the interest of objectivity he sometimes concedes that fascists and reactionaries have, after all, discernibly human motives and that Centrists and Rightists when they betray believe they are acting to save class and country. But this objectivity frequently falls away and we see Mr. Ehrenburg, red and panting, belaboring his enemies with all his might.
Even so, he does them a greater service than his friends, his most unlifelike creations. The (Communist) workers are good, they are pure, they alone in society are innocent….
His characterizations are matched by his politics and history. People belong to political parties, but the Communists are members of a sort of league for the promotion of human happiness. "Big simple happiness. How the people long for it," says Michaud, one of his heroes….
There is a paralysis of feeling in Ehrenburg's tone that persists even when he writes of the final catastrophe. Where events are...
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Whatever success it may have had in Russia, Ilya Ehrenburg's massive war novel [The Storm] will not sweep off his feet any American or Englishman who is not a Communist or a fellow-traveler. It is nevertheless deeply interesting for its insight into the official Russian view of the war and into the minds of individual Russians who had known France and Western Europe before 1939…. But considering its major thesis, that the war was won exclusively by his own country and that Russian Communists formed the solid basis of partisan revolts toward the end, it is a remarkable feat of legerdemain.
Since this long novel covers seven or eight years and has for its background France, Germany, and Russia, the author's task was principally one of selection and arrangement. His attempt to tell a coherent story by the use of scores of characters in scenes alternating from one country to another is almost inevitably bewildering to the reader. Told in this manner the novel could not possibly have the sweep and continued passion of war novels unified in time and space….
Considering all the difficulties in distorting history and writing a novel of vast dimensions that is presumably a record of the greatest war in the history of mankind, Mr. Ehrenburg has nevertheless created a book that should be read for whatever native inspiration it contains, for its contribution to the study of the Russian temperament and credulity, and...
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People with some experience of the Soviet novel, together with those who know Mr. Ehrenburg primarily for his eloquent war despatches in 1941–45, may be surprised at the amiability and dryness of The Thaw: perhaps it was those qualities which affronted some members of the Union of Soviet Writers, rather than its implied criticisms of housing policy, official art and competitive careerism, or its tentative thesis that personal relations provide the warmth which may humanise a society icebound with government decrees. A prime interest of the book to British readers will inevitably be its account of that society. Mr. Ehrenburg is informative and fascinating on prevailing Soviet attitudes to the organisation of industry, to authority, to the October Revolution (still an obsession, apparently), to work in general, but these attitudes are too remote from our own to make the human behaviour which embodies them more than intermittently plausible to us. The same applies, in some measure, to his demonstration of how writers and painters work and are regarded, although artistic chicanery and opportunism seem to show a curious knack of transcending political frontiers.
The plot of the book is nothing very substantial and is rather encumbered with side-issues, but by taking half a dozen love affairs between people of differing ages and social strata Mr. Ehrenburg has got together enough material for his muffled-up satire on the conception...
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Ilya Ehrenburg's [The Thaw] is without doubt the most important literary work published in post-Stalin Russia…. No single document from a Soviet source since the mid-thirties has provided such a revealing image of the Soviet citizen and his life.
Significantly entitled The Thaw, Ehrenburg's book reflects that brief period, now referred to as the "Malenkov era." The significant changes which occurred during this period revealed the extent of the internal dissensions which had arisen under Stalin's rule.
As a novel, The Thaw is good journalese, in the genre of the "slick" magazine story, with a fast-moving, formularized plot. But although its significance as literature is slight, as social commentary it is outstanding.
Unlike most Soviet novelists, Ehrenburg has here broken with official Party demands that Soviet life be shown "as it should be" rather than as it is. Soviet life is shown candidly, with all of its hardship, hypocrisy, doubts and dissatisfaction, and with a constant emphasis upon individuals, whatever their reactions to the social and political system. Love, or, more precisely, frustrated love and frustrated people, is the central theme of The Thaw. His characters, unlike the successful, confident and purposeful "new Soviet men" encountered in most Soviet novels, are confused and unhappy, striving for love and security in a cold and impersonal world…....
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T. R. Fyvel
It is hard to understand how a writer like [Ehrenburg], who in his Russian-Parisian days had been one of the most brilliant satirists of the 'twenties, could ever have turned out the sad propaganda work represented by so many of his later novels. (p. 83)
From the nature of Ehrenburg's stormy career, it can be no simple [task to judge this writer]…. It is not too much to say that his latest writings and utterances all suggest an unsurprising desire for expiation and rehabilitation. Perhaps no writer has survived so many friends dead by execution or suicide as Ehrenburg. How should one judge his efforts at rehabilitation? There is not the slightest reason to doubt the genuineness of his newly proclaimed Jewish sentiments, but in this very fact lies pathos. In informed Jewish circles, Ehrenburg's role during Stalin's pogrom has been the subject of bitter attack, but from the outside one need perhaps say only this. If among the survivors or the relatives of those murdered, Ehrenburg is, to say the least, highly unpopular, the reasons are clear. But to critics who sit safely in the West he might well reply: "How can you possibly imagine what life was like under Stalin's totalitarian terror, when the only law for the individual was to survive—and if you cannot imagine, how can you judge?" (p. 89)
Through his past history and the fortune of his survival, Ehrenburg is indeed in a unique position as a Soviet critic. For...
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["The Thaw"] served as the emblem for the period immediately following Stalin's death. Though it was no literary masterpiece, it was avidly read by thousands and thousands because it mirrored their hopes for a milder political climate after a quarter-century of oppression….
"The Spring" [is] a sequel to "The Thaw," and now both novels—actually two parts of one narrative—are presented to American readers in a … volume entitled "A Change of Season."…
What made "The Thaw" so exciting when it first appeared was that it coincided with a new phase in the life of the Soviet people and also with the opening of a new chapter of their literature. A talented journalist with a flair for changing moods and ideas, Ehrenburg registered the psychological and political temperature of his contemporaries at a crucial moment in their history. And he understood that the time had come for a revision of various precepts, moral and artistic, which had been proclaimed sacrosanct under Stalin….
It was in accordance with the spirit of revisionism that Ehrenburg shifted the emphasis in his novels from the social to the individual. Instead of depicting heroes of Russia's industrial and agricultural development and reporting all the details of their public and professional activities—which was the obligatory theme of Soviet prose for two decades after 1932—Ehrenburg unfolded in "The Thaw" and "The Spring" the...
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To call a writer clever at journalism is not to praise him. For Ilya Ehrenburg, until recently, there were few even among his admirers who would have claimed much more than that. Yet at the age of seventy he began to write a most extraordinary book of memoirs, the first two installments of which have recently appeared in English under the title People and Life, 1891–1921. (p. 112)
Ehrenburg is not simple; and his memoirs are not personal. They are not, though in the beginning he claims they are, "a confession," but rather an apology, a plea, and a course of instruction. They are didactic (that, too, is a Russian tradition) and they are dramatic….
As a writer, he was always cold and clever. His two cleverest novels were written during his "nihilist" phase, his second stay in France. Julio Jurenito …, compared by some French critics to Candide, is against art, against tradition, against ideologies. It is somewhat in the spirit of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis in their Blast! phase. ("Blast art! blast culture! blast everything!") Jurenito and his disciples romp among the moral ruins. Lenin's Russia is not spared. Nothing is spared. Yet the situations are more fanciful than imaginative, the characters are stereotypes, and the irony is gross. As a period-piece it is interesting; as a novel, dull.
The Stormy Life of Lasik Roytschwantz takes the same gallows-humor...
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Throughout this long and informative book [Memoirs: 1921–1941], Ilya Ehrenburg remains, for the most part, a writer of memoirs rather than of autobiography; he busily records the events in a crowded twenty-year stretch in his public life as novelist, poet and journalist, at home in literary circles in half a dozen western capitals as well as in Russia, and rather rarely attempts to examine his experiences in depth or to trace the larger dominant patterns in his life, in the way that characterizes the writer of the full-scale autobiography. (p. 492)
In the earlier parts of his book Ehrenburg's assiduous and unselective recording of his professional and social life produces a certain intermittent tedium: the pages are dense with the names of the innumerable Russian writers with whom Ehrenburg was friendly, and the uninstructed Western reader has to grasp thankfully at those few recurring names that became internationally famous: Babel, Yesenin, Pasternak.
Ehrenburg's narrative of the 1930's is substantially more absorbing: the pattern he is reluctant to discover in his life is here imposed from the outside, by History; at times, Ehrenburg's career as a busy journalist, hastening from one trouble-spot to another … makes him faintly like the hero of some pretentious novel dealing with the Agony of Europe in the thirties.
Undoubtedly, the climax of Ehrenburg's book comes with his account of the...
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Edward J. Brown
The novelette which gave a name to the post-Stalin period was Ilya Ehrenburg's The Thaw…. Ehrenburg in this work provided a concise guide to the themes and theses of post-Stalin literature; as a matter of fact his work sums up so neatly in credible artistic form the main points of "de-Stalinization" that one is obliged to assume a degree of political guidance, direct or indirect, in its writing. The argument of The Thaw … runs as follows: 1) Soviet life has become cold and rigid; let us warm up toward one another. 2) Soviet political and industrial heroes are often tyrants indifferent to the popular weal; let us expose them. 3) People are important, and they exist as individuals; let us cherish each one. 4) Emotions are real and cannot always be neatly catalogued and contained in rational categories; let us feel them: love, pity, fear, envy. It is a fine argument, indeed, but it is so well organized that one can sense in it a remnant of ice under the "thaw." (p. 247)
[The] points he laboriously hammers on the nature of artistic "creation" and the needs of literature are generally so obvious as to induce either laughter or tears. But in Soviet literature someone is always obliged to stress truisms. (pp. 247-48)
[Ehrenburg's] voice since 1954 has consistently championed individualism and artistic integrity, and in his reminiscences, People, Years, Life, published in 1960 and 1961 in the magazine...
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The title of Ehrenburg's [Memoirs: 1921–1941] in the original Russian is People, Years, Life, a title intentionally disjointed to serve notice that his work is not to be taken as history, but only as a collection of memories, unsystematically recorded by a private individual. Implicitly, it is the first of many disclaimers interspersed throughout his narrative…. (p. 343)
[Therefore, let Ehrenburg's] book be judged, as he requests, not as history but as confession. But what is meant by "confession"? Confession presupposes a confrontation of a man with his conscience, an acknowledgment of error, accompanied by a sense of guilt. And where in Mr. Ehrenburg's memoirs is there either guilt or conscience? Self-exculpations there are in plenty, but these are attempts to justify himself in the eyes of others, not in his own eyes…. Unfortunate though it is that Mr. Ehrenburg must defend himself against narrow partisanship and violent abuse, he would be more believable, and less pathetic, did he not protest so much, did he not want so much to ingratiate himself …; and he would be more convincing were he dealing with lesser themes.
But Ehrenburg has been involved in the most tragic events of our time…. He gives eyewitness reports of historic events; and the names of his friends and acquaintances add up to a small encyclopedia of twentieth-century intellectual history…. [Yet] Western critics are unkind...
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Ilya Ehrenburg's The Life of the Automobile is a voice from the past (1929), animating with the startling vivacity of Expressionist detail the then recent history of the motorcar. 'This is not a novel. This is a stock-market bulletin and this is political history,' the narrative insists, racily encompassing, with the zippiness of the horseless phaeton whose resistible rise it charts, the human vistas opening up its connected chapters on the conveyor belt, tires (the translation is American), gasoline, the stock exchange, and roads. We watch the rampageous colonialism of American and European business, the dehumanisation of every link in the auto chain from André Citroën to the Javanese coolie tapping rubber. The car, anti-man, anti-democracy, enacts its destiny of wiping out the world. All in all, a compelling tract for all our times.
Valentine Cunningham, "Naming Names," in New Statesman (© 1977 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 93, No. 2399, March 11, 1977, p. 329.∗
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[The Life of the Automobile] is undoubtedly one of Ehrenburg's best things. It is both a period piece, and yet amazingly fresh and relevant…. During the 1920s Ehrenburg brought out a number of very imaginative fictions…. The Life of the Automobile belongs to this group, and might be described as a semi-documentary fantasy on the origins, development, philosophy, social impact, and future of the car. Although the satirical and didactic thrust of the book is strong and perhaps over-strong—the car is seen as a focal area of ruthless capitalistic enterprise—there are also some of the expected Ehrenburgian ambiguities, both in his extension of the satire to include Soviet society in the New Economic Policy period of the 1920s, and in his infectious evoking of the new world of speed and adventure (to say nothing of convenience) that the car, however much we may want to deplore it, dangles and flashes before us. Industrial dehumanization, consumerist fetishism, even an image of the car as the shark of terra firma ("the car wanted to gulp something"; "Grinning, the car whizzed off"; "The cars waited for prey"): it is all here, and yet passages of attack are frequently double-edged, the early twentieth-century romance of the machine uncertainly held down by admonition or mockery….
Ehrenburg's interest in Constructivism as a movement in the arts … [was] a part of what he called the "genuine romanticism of the period",...
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The recent republication of an early novel, The Life of the Automobile, reminds us that Ehrenburg, at his best, was a surprisingly good writer. (p. 302)
What is remarkable is that Ehrenburg—in 1929—wanted to show the similarity between Communist Russia and the capitalist West. He realized that cars, oil, rubber were the real forces to be reckoned with in a machine-dominated world, whatever the ideology of a particular country.
At first glance, The Life of the Automobile might seem to resemble Futurist fiction, but … Ehrenburg's novel mocks the machine age and pictures the car as a scourge. But although Ehrenburg sets out to denounce technological progress, he revels in the demonic beauty of cars. Indeed, the rhythms of The Life of the Automobile are that of a car on a highway or of a teletype machine. It is a montage novel, a production in the industrial mode…. The Life of the Automobile is, in fact, supposed to be a documentary…. The modernist speciality is finding poetry in what had been perceived as nonpoetic, and The Life of the Automobile is suffused with the poetry of the car and of industrial civilization—a poetry that both seduces Ehrenburg and appalls him. (p. 304)
For all his distance from Marxist ideology at the time he wrote The Life of the Automobile, what Ehrenburg attempted there was to write not a Futurist but a materialist novel:...
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