Making Strange: On Victor Shklovsky
In the fall of 1923, Shklovsky received an amnesty (again thanks in part to Gorky) and returned to Moscow from Berlin. Seven years later, he would be forced to recant the more radical tenets of Formalism in an essay grandly titled “Monument to a Scientific Error,” which, as far as I can tell, has not been published in English translation. Echoes of that disavowal still hum through Mayakovsky and His Circle, written a decade later, in 1940, ten years after Mayakovsky’s suicide. (The book was Shklovsky’s attempt to rescue his friend’s legacy from the froth of revolutionary kitsch it had gathered following his postmortem lionization by Stalin.) “I had an incorrect theory,” Shklovsky conceded, perhaps with something less than full sincerity. “The only excuse, or rather comment, that I can make, is that I still bear many very real wounds from that time.”
But Shklovsky lived long enough (outliving many of his persecutors) to do some rethinking. By the time Vitale knocked at his door in 1978, he had published Bowstring, in which he displayed an earnest effort to sort through the contradictions of his youth. “Back then I used to say that art had no content, that it was devoid of emotion,” he marvels, “while at the same time I wrote books that bled.” Through analyses of Homer, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Rabelais, Updike (yes, him) and, as always, Sterne, Cervantes and Tolstoy, he lays out a heretical, softer and less formal Formalism. Ostranenie, Shklovsky writes, “can be established only by including the notion of ‘the world’ in its meaning. This term â¨simultaneously assumes the existence of a so-called content.” He holds tight, though, to the importance of contradiction, anachronism, disharmony, which provide the needed tension from which art derives its powers. “If one can say that imagination is better than reality, art is even better,” he explained to Vitale, “because it’s the dream of every structure’s collapse and at the same time the dream of the construction of new structures.”
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“A crooked road, a road in which the foot feels acutely the stones beneath it, a road that turns back on itself—this is the road of art,” Shklovsky wrote in Theory of Prose. At the end of that decade, still a young man and very much in the thick of things, he began work on A Hunt for Optimism. The next year, 1930, brought Mayakovsky’s suicide and the publication of Shklovsky’s recantation, a bullet of sorts fired into his own temple. The book is thus a raw one, almost throbbing with grief, a collection of anecdotes, aphorisms and more experimental forms. An early tale told via unattributed dialogue in a state registry office prefigures by more than a half-century Vladimir Sorokin’s The Queue (1983), in which latter-day Muscovites wait in an endless line for shoes or jeans or maybe jackets (no one seems to know). A late section on Mayakovsky interweaves the poet’s verses with others by Khlebnikov and Alexander Blok and from various Gypsy ballads: not so much a montage as a mash-up, and a mournful one.
Themes emerge: betrayal, interrogation, exile, anachronism, loss. Every betrayal is a double betrayal. The cheating wife is enraged at her husband’s infidelity. The exile returns and finds his home a foreign country. Or he can’t return: “imagine that you have moved from Moscow to the moon and that it’s stifling there. And then you find out suddenly there, on the moon, that you have been forbidden forever to return to Moscow and that they have rented your apartment to someone else.” Some fragments feature recognizable avatars of Shklovsky. (“It’s very difficult to speak through a mask. Only a few can play themselves without it.”) The prince of Siam is sent to Russia for military training; he falls in love with a Russian girl and brings her home to Siam, where she is poisoned. Marco Polo lingers on his deathbed; a priest promises that if he repents and admits his tales of China were all lies, “we won’t burn your books, for which you are still guilty in front of Venice, because it’s not good to tell everyone about other countries and the roads that lead to them.” Fiction has its virtues: he doesn’t do it.
The book proceeds in exemplary Shklovskian style: sudden breaks; short, one-sentence paragraphs; flashes of authorial self-consciousness. Part III is titled “The middle of the book or thereabout.” Its first chapter is the “Preface to the Middle of the Book.” The language is so precise that it’s almost skeletal. The similes startle: “The road keeps turning. The turns throw back the highway like a roll of fabric on the counter.” Many of the stories take place in the outer reaches of the Soviet Union, on collective farms and in desolate villages where the shocks of modernity hit hardest. Bridges are being built. Swamps are being drained. Long-isolated ethnicities are assimilating, “if not to each other then to something else.” That something else is on the march. Its feet are big. It tramples everything. A second person bursts right in: “O friend. My dear friend, please cough if you are alive.”
None of it adds up. But that’s OK, that’s the whole point, that’s what we’re doing here, even if it hurts. Especially when it hurts. Shklovsky reassures us:
Unity, reader, is in the person who is looking at his changing country and building new forms of art so they can convey life…
Browse through our works, look for a point of view, and if you can find it, then there is your unity.
I was unable to find it.
Ben Ehrenreich wrote here most recently on Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai, in “The Ravaging Nothing.”