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Making Strange: On Victor Shklovsky | The Nation

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Making Strange: On Victor Shklovsky

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At the beginning of the 1910s, Shklovsky had befriended the young Futurist poets Velimir Khlebnikov and Vladimir Mayakovsky and, while still a student, had become the Futurists’ theoretical champion. The world was sick and palsied—who can now deny it?—so thoroughly smothered in vestigial tradition and used-up forms that it couldn’t even be properly perceived. “Do something undreamed-of,” demanded Khlebnikov, “strictly new, you horses pulling the hearse of the world!” Out of the radical poetics of the Futurists, Shklovsky and a few comrades founded Opoyaz (an acronym for “Society for the Study of Poetic Language”), the nucleus of the critical movement that would later be called Russian Formalism, in the kitchen of an abandoned St. Petersburg apartment.

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When the uprising began, Shklovsky, a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, rushed to join. “We felt like it was the end and the beginning of the world,” he would tell Vitale. “Our heads were clear, our eyes were fresh. And hope. What hope? No less and no more than of rebuilding the entire world.” Shklovsky volunteered for the Austrian front; World War I was still grinding on, and the czar’s army had become a revolutionary force overnight. He would soon endure the misery of the trenches, be shot in the stomach, and survive to return to Petersburg and accept a posting in Persia, which was then occupied by Russia, where he nearly died in a pogrom: a half-Jew, he fought off Cossack troops in defense of local merchants. He witnessed all the stupidities of imperial domination. “We squeezed and choked,” he wrote, “but found the corpse inedible.”

Much of this is recorded in Shklovsky’s memoir—if that’s the right word: like most of his texts, it confounds conventional genre categories. His A Sentimental Journey (1923) takes its title and at least some of its stylistic bravado from the novel of the same name by Shklovsky’s literary hero, Laurence Sterne. Written in short, staccato bursts as events were unfolding—“I’m writing while on guard with a rifle between my legs. It doesn’t get in my way”—it goes on to recount Shklovsky’s return to Petersburg in time to greet the arrival of famine and the early terrors wreaked by the Bolsheviks’ secret police. He joined a Socialist Revolutionary conspiracy to re-establish the Constituent Assembly, which the Bolsheviks had dissolved. It failed. His comrades were arrested and killed. His brother Nikolai was arrested and killed. Shklovsky went into hiding, all the while writing an essay on the theme “The Connection Between Plot Devices and General Stylistic Devices,” and a book then titled Plot as a Stylistic Phenomenon.

The civil war raged on. Another brother, Evgeny, was arrested and killed. “Either the Whites or the Reds killed him,” Shklovsky wrote. “I don’t remember which.” Wanted by the Bolsheviks and traveling under a false passport, he re-enlisted in the Red Army. The revolution was still the only thing worth fighting for. He made it to Moscow, where Maxim Gorky smoothed over his problems with the regime (a function the older novelist would be fated to fulfill time and again), freeing Shklovsky to rejoin his old Opoyaz comrades in Petersburg. Food was scarce and the winter fierce. They kept writing, burning furniture and books to stay alive. “Books burn very badly,” Shklovsky later wrote. “They create a lot of ashes.” Shklovsky’s sister died of illness, his aunt of hunger. White armies besieged the city. He took up arms again and joined a demolition squad. A bomb blew up in his hands. “I hardly had time for a fleeting thought about my book, Plot as a Stylistic Phenomenon. Who would write it now?” 

Shklovsky would live to publish that book in 1925 under the title Theory of Prose, but not before his Socialist Revolutionary past again became a dangerous liability, forcing him to flee to Berlin, where he joined a growing colony of Russian exiles, finished the memoir and, on the verge of breakdown, fell in love with a beautiful and brilliant émigré named Elsa Triolet, who did not love him back. Triolet, who would go on to marry the French surrealist Louis Aragon and to become a celebrated novelist in France, was the sister of Lili Brik, the longtime lover, muse and primary tormentor of Shklovsky’s good friend Mayakovsky.

Shklovsky made a book of it, an odd epistolary novel titled Zoo, or Letters Not About Love (1923): Triolet had allowed him to write to her on the condition that he not mention love. The constraint proved productive. Zoo is a brilliant, unhinged and tortured work, with little of the romance and all of the self-laceration that marked Mayakovsky’s poems for Lili Brik. “I was bound to be broken while abroad and I found myself a love that would do the job,” Shklovsky wrote. Triolet had little to do with it. (Her own letters, several of which he included in Zoo, suggest she knew as much.) Despite its double bluff, Zoo is less about Shklovsky’s love for Triolet than it is about the pain of exile, the heartbreak of the revolution and, of course, about art, about writing, about being a book.

The latter is in some large part the subject of all of Shklovsky’s works. “This book is an attempt to go outside the framework of the ordinary novel,” Shklovsky confesses in Zoo. “Writing it is physically painful.” Even in his anguish, Shklovsky couldn’t help but play. Letter Nineteen—“Which is not to be read”—is crossed out with big red Xs, a nod to the typographic high jinks of that giddiest and most self-conscious of novels, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Employing a narrative strategy of purposeful digression, A Sentimental Journey toys with a similar range of Sterne-ish tricks. Shklovsky interrupts one long detour (on the gas and oil lines of one variety of rotary engine) by pointing out that “This whole digression is built on the device which in my ‘poetics’ is called retardation.” That intrusion is itself based in another device, which elsewhere in Shklovsky’s poetics is called “baring the device.”

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