Ilya Ehrenburg’s Story

Memoirs: 1921-1941

by Ilya Ehrenburg
World, 543 pp., $6.95

Ilya Ehrenburg
Ilya Ehrenburg; drawing by David Levine

The title of Ehrenburg’s memoirs 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, from one at its very beginning—“I suppose it will be a book about myself rather than about my epoch…I am not an impartial chronicler”—to that toward the end of this second volume (the first came out in 1962), in which Ehrenburg attempts to explain his silence during the purge trials in Moscow: “Even now I can write only what I have seen for myself…I cannot analyze the epoch nor present a large historical canvas.” The Russian edition of this book contains a brief preface, which does not appear in the English translation, where Ehrenburg once again underscores the “extreme subjectivity” of his work: “I want to emphasize once more that this book is the story of my life, of the search, the errors and the discoveries of a single individual” that makes “no pretense whatever to giving the history of an epoch.” “All books,” he had already said, “are confessions, and a book of memoirs is a confession without any attempt to cloak oneself in the shadow of an invented hero”; and this too he now repeats: his book is not a chronicle, but a confession.

In fairness to the author, these reiterations, however annoying they may be—and they have the effect of a false note struck with jarring insistence—must be taken seriously. Let his 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 acknowledgement 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. He has been hurt, as he admits ruefully, by unjust accusations, sometimes he has been made “furious” by them; but he is sure of his righteousness, of his place as an artist “not in the rear but in the van,” of his stand “on the battlefield” in “the struggle with fascism.” 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: “I should like to bring to life, with loving eyes, some petrifications of the past—and also to come closer to the reader”; 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 witnessed Hitler’s…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.