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 Spanish War: those years have often been described, but Ehrenburg manages to give a fresh impression of things that have already passed into the mythology of recent history….
It is in his account of the years from 1936 to 1938 that Ehrenburg is most personal, and comes closest to a degree of poignancy; coupled with the increasing realization that the Republican (and Communist) cause in Spain was not going to win, there came Ehrenburg's shocked awareness, on a visit back to Moscow in 1937, of what Stalin's terror had been doing to his friends….
Beyond this sense of shock, Ehrenburg is muted in his comments on a period that must have been unspeakably painful for him. He refers to the terror as the "abuse of power," and says that he will save his comments on Stalin for a subsequent volume….
Ehrenburg, far more than most Western writers, has been conscious of the direct and violent impact of History. Unlike many of the conditioned hacks of the Soviet literary bureaucracy, he possesses what a Western reader would recognize as a genuine literary sensibility: at the Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934, Ehrenburg made an impassioned speech in favor of intellectual freedom and the integrity of the artist, as against the demands of a mechanical, propagandist "socialist realism," and he states that although his views on other topics may have changed, that speech still represents his opinions about literature. (p. 493)
And yet at the moments of greatest tension that he records in his book, he seems to have deliberately declined to make an authentic literary response. There is a certain evasiveness in his comments on his sufferings, both private and public, of the late thirties that is disappointing, and makes these memoirs less penetrating than one would expect or hope from such a packed life and such an interesting intelligence. Granted, present-day Soviet society is still of a kind that may enforce certain reticences on Ehrenburg, and he acknowledges that, whatever principles he may have asserted at the 1934 Congress, in practice he over-emphasized the ideological content of much of his fiction.
Many of Ehrenburg's fundamental attitudes are, as I have suggested, only ambiguously indicated by this book: possibly they will become clearer in...
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its successor. But it shows clearly how Ehrenburg, a loyal Soviet citizen and a believer in the Communist ideal—with a belief that did not falter under the worse excesses of the "abuse of power,"—was at the same time an instinctive European, who could speak to the West in its own language and did not try to conceal his debt to Western literature. This much is very apparent from Ehrenburg's memoirs, and it underlines the simplest and yet the most remarkable of all his achievements: the mere fact of his survival. (p. 494)
Bernard Bergonzi, "Books: 'Memoirs: 1921–1941'," in Commonweal (copyright © 1965 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LXXXI, No. 15, January 8, 1965, pp. 492-94.