Ilya Ehrenburg Essay - Critical Essays

Ehrenburg, Ilya


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.)

Bernice Whittemore

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 presented if they weren't so lewdly and salaciously thrust down one's throat. It is to be regretted that one who wields such a facile pen could not have utilized his capabilities in a more constructive, or entertaining, manner.

Bernice Whittemore, "The Leisure Arts: 'The Extraordinary Adventures of Julio Jurenito'," in Outlook and Independent (copyright 1930, by the Outlook Company), Vol. 155, No. 12, July 23, 1930, p. 470.

Clinton Simpson

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 so, in spite of the bitter reflections that are constantly just beneath the surface. Ehrenbourg has courage; in Mr. Cool and M. Delhaie he has produced two figures of Gargantuan proportions and great satiric strength. It is unfortunate for the effectiveness of his book that it is so loosely knit.

Clinton Simpson, "Picaresque Adventures," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1930 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. VII, No. 1, July 26, 1930, p. 7.

Gleb Struve

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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Diana Trilling

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 creations….

"The Fall of Paris" is full of political hope. Also it is pro-Soviet. But it is one of the deadest books I have ever read. (p. 900)

Diana Trilling, "Fiction in Review: 'The Fall of Paris'," in The Nation (copyright 1943 The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 156, No. 26, June 26, 1943, pp. 899-900.

[The Fall of Paris] makes great demands on one's knowledge of recent French political history, for it is a story of warring political ideas, a story in which the heroes are young Communists fighting for lost causes after having been betrayed by their leaders. The total picture created here of deception, mistrust, and intrigue is unforgettable. This analytical and exciting story is a distinguished addition to the literature of the fall of France.

"The Atlantic Bookshelf: 'The Fall of Paris'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1943, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 172, No. 1, July, 1943, p. 127.

Saul Bellow

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 most exciting he is still dull and repetitious. "The Fall of Paris" drags on to its gloomy end, disappointing to the last, and as doggedly counterfeit in Chapter 44 as in Chapter 1.

Saul Bellow, "Paris Falling," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1943 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 109, No. 11, September 13, 1943, p. 367.

[The Storm] is a political justification of Russian activities and attitudes in the Second World War. Characterization must therefore be limited to heroes (all the important Russian figures), villains (all the important Germans) and vacillators (most of the French). This kind of propaganda cannot easily be commented on as literature; it is possible, nevertheless, to admire the dexterity with which Mr. Ehrenburg parades his puppets, and his desperate attempts to twitch them into the semblance of life.

"Heroes and Dreams," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1949; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 2480, August 12, 1949, p. 517.∗

Harrison Smith

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...

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Kingsley Amis

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...

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Jeri Laber

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...

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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...

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Marc Slonim

["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...

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Sidney Monas

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...

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Bernard Bergonzi

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...

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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...

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Helen Muchnic

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...

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Valentine Cunningham

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....

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Edwin Morgan

[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...

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David Rieff

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...

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