Literature in the Age of the Sputniks

A Russian press correspondent in the Paris of 1912, who was an early friend and collector of Picasso’s and came to know Hemingway well at the time of the Spanish Civil War, ILYA EHRENBURG is today a novelist noted for his satire and for his discerning criticism of Western and Soviet literature. His novels, THE STORM and THE THAW, were both published in this country, and the latter was the subject of considerable controversy in 1955.

Ilya Ehrenburg

THERE are certain events that it is hard to ignore. You can’t sleep through wars; sirens or summonses are sure to awaken you. A storm topples the trees. If a neighbor dies, his body is carried out of the house. The newborn babe cries on the other side of the wall. But an artist must be able to hear the grass growing, for that is why he is an artist. He should discern the approach of spring from the rooks and the snowdrops. His vision is comparable to an X-ray machine, his heart to a seismograph.

Great changes are taking place in the presentday world. Some of them hit one between the eyes, others pass unnoticed. Who can fail to observe the change that has occurred in the language of statesmen, diplomats, and journalists? Talk of a notorious push button which, if pressed, would be enough to have hydrogen bombs showered over an ideological adversary is becoming anachronistic. The monologues of statesmen are going out of fashion; the era of dialogues has opened.

Is it necessary to speak of the impression made on everyone by the successes of Soviet science? Simple folk used to be impressed less by theoretical discoveries than by useful inventions; it was not Newton’s laws but the first steam engine, not Rutherford’s splintering of the atomic nucleus but the tragedy of Hiroshima which struck their imagination. But the launching of earth and moon satellites, it seems, has now for the first time brought the scientists a victory bereft of any corresponding utilitarian significance; it promises no increase in prosperity or comfort, yet it has inspired all mankind. The world has become broader; notions of time, of infinity are changing. Vast changes have also occurred in the daily life of our country. The writer’s task is to comprehend these changes and to draw the appropriate conclusions.

Art simply vegetates in the supply train; its place is with the reconnaissance. A writer cannot remain in the rear with impunity for even a brief period. Let us say frankly that Soviet literature has known periods of greater boldness and greater achievements than the last few years. This is not in itself so terrible; books are not composed by the stop watch nor by the calendar, for the creative process differs from the working of a machine. The distressing thing is the discrepancy between a mass of literary productions and the spiritual growth and changing consciousness of the readers.

There is no use being needlessly boastful or despondent. Our readers are not only countless; they are now more profound, more demanding, more complicated (in the best sense of the word) than were the contemporaries of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov; yet, despite the achievements of Soviet literature, we know we still have not reached the heights of our predecessors.

I recently saw an article in the Saturday Review on “Readers and Writers in Russia.” Its author, Norman Cousins, describes a conversation he had with me, while he was visiting Moscow, about the problems of Soviet and American literature. The talk was friendly, and the article was by an American who, I think, sincerely desires an end to the Cold War. Norman Cousins correctly reported many of the ideas I advanced during our talk, although in Certain places his memory betrayed him. For example, he writes that in my opinion there are no Soviet writers who can be compared to Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, and other American authors. I have a very high regard for these American writers, above all for Hemingway (I know and love him), but in speaking of what we have not yet achieved, I was not referring to him, and still less, of course, to Upton Sinclair. I was thinking of Soviet novels as compared with Gogol’s The Greatcoat, or War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, and Chekhov’s A Boring Story.

IN SOME forty-odd years, Soviet literature has known some major achievements. I shall not list any living authors, for it is only too easy to overlook one or another, to put them in the wrong order — and besides, we still suffer from parochial preferences. I shall simply name a few works by dead writers: Gorky’s My Universities and The Artamanov Business, Mayakovsky’s poetry, Alexei Tolstoy’s Peter the Great and Nikita’s Childhood, Babel’s stories, Fadeev’s Havoc, and Yesenin’s verse. These are major, not ephemeral books. But our task is not to list the achievements of the past but to try to peer into the future.

A lively controversy is at present raging among Soviet youth, the subject of which may cause surprise: Isn’t art destined to perish, or at any rate, doomed to oblivion? Is it really necessary for the people of our age? This might seem surprising. Why should it be precisely now, in a period of greater prosperity and social solidification, that such a suspicion should occur to even an insignificant segment of youth? It is not just a question of the dazzling achievements of science and the development of technology. Other and more serious reasons — the inadequacies of aesthetic education, the shades of the past, half nihilistic, half constructive — are raised in certain letters from readers of Komsomolskaya Pravda.

My attention was drawn, among the letters of those participating in the debate, to one written by an ordinary engineer, working at some distance from large cities. He wrote: “Of course, art, with its millennial past, cannot die out overnight. I am deprived of the theater here, but I subscribe to two magazines and I can get new books from the library. Like all those working in our industry, I am proud of our successes, of our responsibility, and I am beginning to ask myself and my comrades, Why is it necessary that someone should register your successes? There are statistics; people can see things for themselves; and in the future the historians will take care of the description.”

Although the author of the letter eventually comes to the conclusion that art has “outlived its lime,” his arguments — which are quite correct — are directed not at art but at the surrogates of art. A writer engaged in simply registering the achievements of nonwriters reminds one of an airplane equipped with wings, cabin, seats, and even a timetable, which never took off, and will never take off, from the ground.

All of us deep-rooted, stubbornly anchored earth dwellers rejoice in and are enthused by a photograph of the hidden side of the moon. But we may well consider the sad state of many readers who wonder why our writers so seldom show them the hidden side of the human heart. To expose what is plain to all is patently unnecessary.

The fundamental task of literature, in my opinion, is to illuminate the spiritual world of one’s contemporaries, their secret thoughts and feelings, their doubts and hopes, their joys and sufferings, and that immense will power which can overcome all trials and tribulations. We have been a long time building our Soviet home. We have not stopped building; we shall always be building. The will to construction, to creation cannot weaken as long as the heart beats. But there was a time when the thoughts of Soviet citizens were, above all, directed to the mighty task of construction. We lived, as it were, in mud huts, in barracks. Today, for the first time, people have a chance to meditate at ease on how to embellish and elevate life in an already constructed dwelling; they have finished the building and are working on the superstructure and the trimmings. At the same time, they are preoccupied by questions of human relationships, morality, aesthetics, and stirrings of culture. This opens up new possibilities for writers and demands new flights of the creative imagination.

To our great joy, we are no longer building skyscrapers in the midst of ramshackle huts, but we are building hundreds of thousands of good houses. What we need in literature are not declamatory skyscrapers but homes imbued with real life and the warmth of the human presence. Words, like money, are subject to the laws of limited issue, and we are only too familiar with the inflation of sonorous words, exalted tirades, grandiose images strewn over five or fifty pages of a novel. Modesty is inherent in authentic grandeur, and restraint in authentic passion.

Some may say that I am repudiating the romantic. But surely romanticism can be varied and does not necessarily have to lean on figures or run around on stilts. There are a great many genres and diverse kinds of writers. But it seems to me difficult for a writer in any one genre to soar up into the clouds without making a preliminary descent into the deep mine shafts of men’s hearts and without unearthing there a few grains of precious emotion.

The prevailing literary genres are decidedly poor and boring. Where, for example, has satire vanished? The author’s approach to a theme is too often hackneyed, monotonously familiar. The visitors to the Soviet pavilion at the Brussels Fair were amazed at the number of different kinds of bread we have, but our readers could hardly experience similar feelings after plowing through the latest number of a literary magazine.

It is now being said that critics should exercise a certain moderation in their praise as well as in their condemnation. If a young author’s book makes pleasant reading, one is nevertheless obliged to point out its failings, but if it is bad, this should be mentioned only in a whisper. Of course, criticism should be humane, honest, free of mendacity and gross insults, but at the same time it should be passionate and, most important of all, should stimulate argument. When we talk among ourselves in an intimate group we argue, for tastes are linked to individuality and estimates vary according to a kinship or aversion which is of the heart and not just of the tongue. But in print an argument about a work of art rapidly terminates in an irrevocable judgment, and the urge to argue fades away. Young writers are left to their own devices; some of them, cleverer or weaker than others, draw the conclusion that it is better to write about something recognized which presents no risks, invites no bold quests, offers no dark corners. It is astonishing that in Komsomolskaya Pravda readers carry on the debate on the theme “Is art necessary?” almost abstractly, but in the literary reviews and magazines, where all are convinced that art is indispensable, there is almost no argument as to whether this or that work deserves the title of art.

Young writers are confronted by the task not only of mastering their craft but of saying what has remained unsaid, of expressing the unspoken by finding their themes, their heroes, and, ultimately, themselves. This can be done only by participating in life — not by contemplating people from the side lines but by sharing their passions, enthusiasms, setbacks, their holidays and workdays. In a review of a book by a young man of letters, I read, “rather weak, the story needs to be polished up.” The story was distinctly weak, but it was sufficiently cleverly written to hide from the indifferent reviewer the impassivity of the man who had written it. What was needed was not the polishing up of the story but the humanizing of its author.

This monotony can be found even in decorative details: in stories and poems, the sun shines or the snow sparkles far more often than the rain drizzles. This, they say, is due to the author’s optimism. Optimism, in my opinion, should not reveal itself in the choice of the weather or of a happy ending but in the author’s approach to the theme and the characters. One can be an optimist in understanding the road which a man, a nation, or mankind must travel and still not be afraid to depict the rainy day, and along with it boredom, grief, and sorrow.

I said that the rejection of art by certain young people and their joking attitude toward certain works attest a weakness in aesthetic education. Part of the blame must consequently be laid on us, the writers. The leaders of the Party, the industrial managers, the engineers, the agronomists have rapidly raised the standard of living of the population. The astrophysicists are groping their way toward the moon. But people judge our work by the customs and usages of daily life, by the relationships a man has with his comrades and his family, by one’s responsiveness or impassivity, one’s sensitivity or indifference. A writer is, to a certain extent, responsible not only for his readers but for those he has failed to make his readers. Is it really more important to reach the moon than to understand the heart of the man living in the next street?

I say all this because I am an optimist. I often meet unusual readers. I see before me a rising young generation which searches, criticizes, loves, hates, and boldly looks ahead. I am convinced that some truly great writers will emerge from this youth. When polite people meet a man of my age, they invariably say, “You are looking wonderful today, even better than the last time!”

Just as they lull the elderly, so they lull a senile society. Our world is young; it changes with each new day, opening up a horizon of unlimited hopes and boundless expectations. Our sputniks successfully circle the earth. A Tolstoy, a Chekhov must come forth, for no matter how big the earth, no matter how small the heart of man, the heart must and will have its sputniks: novels, poems, canvases, symphonies. Extraordinary machines have replaced the plow in the village of Mikhailovskoe, but the tractor driver awaits the strains of that lyre which arouses man’s good feelings.

Translated by Curtis Cate.