Among writers and novels consigned to oblivion as well as to derision, disdain, contempt or condemnation for various sins (imagined or real) there remain many mysteriously precious stones that should never have been cast out. For me the nearly absolute lack of translations still in print of Ilya Ehrenburg’s novels, especially those novels from the 1920s, although one may also include one of the great novels on Stalin’s Five-year plan(The Second Day) superseded, of course, by Andrei Platonov’s great novel(The Foundation Pit) but certainly not as some seem to think, useless dull propaganda. A few years ago when a Gallegan writer mentioned the name of Ehrenburg at Moscow’s Cervantes Institute, a Russian was quick to argue that he was a servile writer of the Soviet regime. Well, if indeed Ehrenburg can’t be idolised in the West as proto dissident unmasking truths about the regime, his story remains much more ambiguous than most people accept. Of course, his biographical trajectory was embarrassing for any who would like to be an apologist for the writer, Ehrenburg was no Soviet enthusiast in the 1920s, but he then became a correspondent for Izvestia in 1932 (just as Stalin’s power was fully consolidated). Ehrenburg has been denounced as the compromised writer by many and yet nonetheless he also became the literary symbol of the Thaw. Whether his silences during the Stalin period were nothing more than the necessary for physical survival, his autobiography People, Years, Life attempted to put the record straight. And it must be said that many biographers (such as Joshua Rubenstein) are rather sympathetic to his defence. At the time of his death some people were speaking of his courage and of his role as the “doubting Thomas of Soviet writers”& the Guardian spoke of him as a “bridge builder between East and West” while others, like Edward Crankshaw were more caustic (this led Ivor Montagu to denounce the likes of Crankshaw as being a “cold warrior of the cheaper sort” who never forgave those who survived for weathering the storm). Ehrenburg himself summed up the complexity of his life in a poem in 1966 (a year before his death) when he wrote:
Time to admit- even to howl or to cry,
I lived my life like a dog,
I cannot say it was bad, only different,
Not like other people or dolls
Or a respectable man…
I guarded the closed chambers
Not for awards but for abuse,
When the moon was angry
I howled and even barked,
Not because I was an animal,
But because I was loyal-
Not to the kennel and not to the stick,
And not to the fighters in the brawl,
Not to scuffles and not to nice lies
And not to nasty watchdogs,
But only to weeping in a darkened house
And to warm straw that smells like sorrow.
Nonetheless, for many the unfair image of Ehrenburg as apologist seems to have stuck and his writings have mainly since been consigned to oblivion. I have found second hand copies turning up in Italy and Spain but it seems that in the UK only his book on the automobile has been reprinted in recent years. In a hopeful sign of the renewal of interest in Ehrenburg, the Spanish translator Marta Rebon has just undertaken the gargantuan task of retranslating his memoirs into Spanish. This lack of Ehrenburg works is a genuine shame because few twentieth century Russian writers knew Europe as well as Ehrenburg (he was an émigréwriter who had lived from the age of 18 to 50 in Western Europe) and many of his novels were set in and were about Europe. The 1920s saw him prolifically writing nine books some of which truly deserve rehabilitation. In the 1920s he displayed true scepticism and was a nay-sayer to both western capitalism and to the oblivious hedonism & indifference of post-war capitalist Europe as well as a critic of the Soviet assault on art (which he had predicted before others). Denounced by fellow émigrés as a Soviet spy, he was equally denounced in the Soviet press as being ultimately a dupe of the West. It was widely rumoured that one of the most unprincipled émigré returnees under Stalin, Alexei Tolstoy, had denounced him to the French police thus earning Ehrenburg’s expulsion from France for many years. Many of his novels from the 1920s were either difficult to find in Stalin’s Russia and one The Stormy Life of Lasik Roitscwantz(Ehrenburg’s only Jewish novel) was not printed in Soviet Russia until 1989.
However, if one were to choose just one book of Ehrenburg’s to be reprinted it should surely be his book whose short title runs The Extraordinary Adventures of Julio Jurenito and his disciples (the full title runs to seventy words). It was, in fact, his first novel and written in just a monthin the Belgian seaside resort of La Panne “surrounded by sand dunes and breezes”.It is strangely similar in some ways to Roberto Arlt’sThe Seven Madmen (which I wrote of in an earlier post) in that it describes an assorted group of seven characters and their master Julio Jurenito intent on destroying European civilization. In some ways it was a roman philosophique similar to classics such as Voltaire’s Candide and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. The novel well represented Ehrenburg’s deep ambivalence to European values and while few of the disciples are represented as positive and some are more decidedly negative such as the American Mr Cool (who believes that any problems can be solved with the help either of the Bible or his cheque books), the German Karl Schmidt (a regimental authoritarian) or the French bourgeois egotist and hedonist, Monsieur Delhaie than the others (Alexei SpiridonovichTishin the confused Russian idealist, Ehrenburg the Jew who appears in his own novel and Aysha the noble and rather innocent African represent the unprivileged nations) while the Italian ErcoleBrambucci, an indolent and rather anarchic tramp represents a kind of middle space between these two groups. Ehrenburg partly expounded on some of his particular experiences in World War One (the mistreatment of Russian soldiers in the French army, and Aysha was also apparently modelled on some of the Senegalese soldiers he’d met during the War on the Western Front) as well as venting his spleen at some of the humiliations that he had experienced at the hands of the civilised nations. Whether it is really a cynical book or as he stated “the only book which I wrote ‘in earnest’”, it is certainly a satirical tour de force. He directs swipes also at Soviet reality (and will continue to do so for a number of years in his other 1920 novels and both Summer, 1925 (1926) and A street in Moscow (1927) are barbed portrayals of Russia during the NEP period). Also many have commented on the prophetic nature of the book – foreseeing the holocaust, describing the Nazi type years before they had really come into existence and even predicting the nuclear weapon attacks on Japan. For a book written in 1921 this was quite extraordinary. It gave Ehrenburg the reputation of being a cynic and he himself said that “neither the critics, nor readers, nor I myself, can precisely determine where the ironic smile ends”. First the book was confiscated in Russia and then was printed with an introduction by Nikolai Bukharin conceding that Ehrenburg had exposed “a number of comic and repulsive sides to life under all regimes”. Although a very thinly exposed Lenin appears in the novel which bears a striking resemblance to Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, Lenin himself was said to remark that “our shaggy-haired Ilya has done a good job”, a view shared by YevgenyZamyatin who admired Ehrenburg’s irony (a “European weapon” that Russian writers seldom employcalling Ehrenburg a “heretic” and stating that “a genuine heretic has the same virtue as dynamite: the explosion (creative) takes the line of most resistance”.
A new translation of Ehrenburg’s book is long overdue (the last translation into English, it seems, was published in 1958) for surely the delirious vision that the book describes is alas, not altogether, out of place today. The scepticism, delirium, irony, prophetic prescience and sheer fantasy of the novel will surely be appreciated by a new generation of readers and a rehabilitation of Ehrenburg is surely long, long overdue whatever the qualms one may have of the prose style of this writer.