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New Left Review 15, May-June 2002


Past, present and future of the automobile, as technological device and libidinal object; and some of the ways in which it has figured in narratives from Kipling onwards. Towards the de-cathected passenger-machine?

JOHN HOWE

VEHICLE OF DESIRE

Ilya Ehrenburg’s visionary text The Life of the Automobile is usually called a ‘novel’; but in the foreword, the author describes it as a ‘chronicle of our time’, adding that he has ‘made a point of not deviating from the raw material: news items, minutes of meetings, court records, as well as memoirs, diaries, private letters, plus personal observations by the author’. The treatment is fictionalized, with conflated characters, imaginary dialogue and embroidered events. But the polemic is so consistent, the sarcasm so sustained, that the book cannot be seen as a work of fiction in any normal sense. It is a brilliant essay or tract, not so much about the life of the automobile itself as about human life under the sway of the automobile.

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