The Life of the Automobile, by Ilya Ehrenburg

I really had to fight with myself to finish this book, and possibly it wasn’t worth the effort – but you get so far, it seems a waste to give up (especially since it then won’t count towards your yearly target).

A long time ago now it seems to me I started this novel and for a while, maybe 40 pages, I believe I even enjoyed it. This possibly coincided with the time when I imagined that it was some sort of fast-paced Futurist-Expressionist paean to capitalism. Gradually, however, Ehrenburg’s politics began to intrude their ugly features; gradually this capitalist dream was turning sour – and not just for one person (me, the reader): no, it seemed this growing fashion for buying and selling – for unrestrained competition – was going to redound to everyone’s misery.

Ehrenburg’s work is the type that seeks to transform a slice of history into a narrative, leaning in this case more heavily on the history and interspersing it with little exemplary stories of men’s lives and how they are affected by these momentous changes. (The blurb on the back bizarrely compares it to In Cold Blood and Schindler’s Ark: though I’m sure you can see the critic’s train of thought). In Ehrenberg’s world, capitalism makes everyone miserable – workers and producers alike: they are all caught up in its vast mechanism, apparently without time to think or to fall in love. These points are made relentlessly throughout its 157 pages, and despite the occasional set-piece, the book has a tendency to descend into simplistic propaganda. At times it even seems entirely to oppose the world of modernity and hark back to a simpler world where people had simple, understandable occupations like farmer or fisherman.

Here’s his views on motorcars:

“The automobile works honestly. Long before its birth, when it is still just layers of metal and piles of drawings, it diligently murders Malayan coolies and Mexican laborers…It shreds flesh, blinds eyes, eats lungs, destroys minds. At last, it rolls out of the gates into the world which, before its existence, was known as ‘bright’. Instantly, it deprives its supposed owner of his old-fashioned piece of mind… The automobile laconically runs down pedestrians. It gnaws into the side of a barn or else, grinning, it flies down a slope. It can’t be blamed for anything. Its conscience is as clear as Monsieur Citroen’s conscience. It only fulfills its destiny: It is destined to wipe out the world.”

Yes, he can be amusing at times in this way, but – as I say – it becomes relentless.

At some point, I happened to read a comment of Nabokov’s: “As a writer he doesn’t exist, Ehrenburg. He is a journalist. He was always corrupt.” Of course, Nabokov is never too happy when politics obtrudes its way into a work of literature, even if it happens to be wearing a disguise (as is hardly the case here) – yes, our fabled writer had a bit of chip on his shoulder over something; but I can’t help feeling he’s got a point about Ehrenburg. There’s far more propaganda here than art. And as I may have implied in a previous post, we’ve got used to history being presented in a little less prejudiced way than this.

If you want to read a potted biography, you can find one at Sovlit, with its pleasing tagline: “Works of Soviet Literature summarized for those unable or too lazy to read them in the original.”


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