In the spring of 1920, on the banks of the Dnieper, the Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky found himself commanding a demolition squad in the Red Army. With no dynamite, detonators or safety fuses at his disposal, Shklovsky, a lifelong admirer of Robinson Crusoe, turned his improvisatory genius to the field of military pyrotechnics. Gathering the materials at hand–a disassembled smoke bomb, “some little white cylinders of German origin” and a lit cigarette–he withdrew to a deserted ravine. As he recalled:

My arms were flung back; I was lifted, seared and turned head over heels. The air filled with explosions. The cylinder had blown up in my hands. I hardly had time for a fleeting thought about my book Plot as a Stylistic Phenomenon. Who would write it now?

The great Formalist, somewhat perforated and mangled, was rushed to the hospital in a cart normally reserved for “potato expeditions.” Even here, the spirit of scientific endeavor did not desert him: “Take a report,” Shklovsky directed, supine in the potato cart. “The object given to me for purposes of experimentation proved to be too powerful for use as a primer. The explosion took place prematurely…. use regular primers!”

Viktor Borisovich Shklovsky was the kind of man who, in a state of affliction, is already debating how his injuries may further the cause of science. Fortunately, he lived to write the book for which he spared a thought midair: the 1925 masterpiece Theory of Prose, arguably the foundational text of Russian Formalism.

Shklovsky was born in St. Petersburg in 1893, descended on his father’s side from Jews who fled the 1768 massacre in Uman; on his mother’s side, his grandmother was the daughter of a Russian Orthodox deacon. Because of his poor spelling, Shklovsky failed several high school entrance exams and attended “bad schools” that were “overrun with rejects.” Admitted nonetheless to the department of philology at the University of Petersburg, he was alarmed to discover that “nothing was being done about prose theory,” failed his exams in ancient Greek and began frequenting the Stray Dog, a cafe where he met the Futurist poets Vladimir Mayakovsky and Velimir Khlebnikov and presented his first scholarly analyses of Futurist verse.

In 1914 Shklovsky enlisted in the army, studied “vehicle operation and maintenance” and acquired a lifelong passion for fast cars. Back in Petrograd he formed the Society for the Study of Poetic Language (OPOYAZ), which convened in the apartment of the critic Osip Brik and his wife, Lilya. OPOYAZ began publishing “Formalist” articles in 1916, and continued meeting throughout the war, between Shklovsky’s stints as commissar on the Austrian front and in the Russian territory in Persia.

Formalism was invented in the meetings of OPOYAZ and of a second group called the Moscow Linguistic Circle, founded by Roman Jakobson in 1915 with the participation of Mayakovsky; the most lasting achievement of the Circle was Jakobson’s Modern Russian Poetry (1921). Shklovsky, for his part, shifted his attention entirely from poetry to prose in 1918. That fall he fled Petrograd to avoid arrest for his affiliation with the Socialist Revolutionaries. He dyed his hair purple and briefly hid in Jakobson’s library. (“If there’s a search,” Jakobson instructed, “rustle and say you’re paper.”) Shklovsky spent the rest of the year in Ukraine but returned to Petrograd in time to survive the famine of 1919 on a diet of potato peels and birch-sap tea. “You could boil this sap for a year without making it any worse,” he noted, displaying a characteristic gift for looking on the bright side. In January 1920 Shklovsky challenged a bourgeois “imitator” to a duel, and won. Shortly afterward he married Vasilisa Kordi, traveled to Kiev and joined the Reds as a demolitionist. After nearly detonating himself, Shklovsky was sent home to Petrograd, where he continued his work on prose.

In 1922 a new wave of arrests threatened the former SRs. Shklovsky fled via Finland to Berlin, where his acute homesickness nearly drove him to a nervous collapse. In Berlin he met and fell in love with Lilya Brik’s sister, Elsa Triolet, who was, as it happened, also beloved by Roman Jakobson. Due perhaps to Triolet’s impartial rejection of both Formalists–as Shklovsky ruefully put it, “All men are equal before you as before the Lord”–Shklovsky and Jakobson remained friends. “Roma sends me one telegram in the morning and one at night,” Shklovsky wrote to Maxim Gorky in 1922. “I love him like a lover.”

Thanks to a bit of string-pulling by Gorky, Shklovsky was allowed to return to Russia toward the end of 1923. Back home, he met with increasingly vituperative attacks from Soviet Marxist literary critics, who objected to his insistence on the autonomy of literature in relation to other social forces. Throughout the 1920s Shklovsky gradually retreated from his intellectual entrenchment; in 1930 he finally conceded, in A Monument to Scientific Error, that the time had come for critics to study “the Marxist method.”

Formalism literally ended overnight with the publication of Monument. Although Shklovsky continued writing and publishing in Russia until his death in 1984, his work was poorly received, and almost nothing he wrote after 1926 has been translated into English. He is remembered primarily for Theory of Prose, now in its third English edition–part of a newly reissued series from Dalkey Archive Press, including Knight’s Move, A Sentimental Journey, Zoo and Third Factory.

Theory of Prose begins with the question of what distinguishes the prose of novels and short stories from ordinary language. Poetry was already recognized, thanks largely to Jakobson, as an autonomous language with clear formal rules; but prose was still typically characterized by its content–beautiful images, for instance, or “philosophical truths.” Shklovsky’s revolutionary move was to redefine prose as form, as a function of the artistic “device.”

The key Formalist device is ostranenie, variously translated as “defamiliarization,” “making the familiar strange,” “estrangement” or–in the translator Benjamin Sher’s vaguely annoying neologism, which is, however, faithful to the original Russian neologism–“enstrangement.” Shklovsky’s most famous example of enstrangement is the description of the opera, in War and Peace, as a collection of “very fat” people singing in front of “painted pictures” and “green cardboard.”

The concept of enstrangement gradually spawned an entire literary methodology, and even a model of literary history. All literary forms eventually ossify into cliché, and new forms are created only when subsequent writers are able to identify, expose and “enstrange” these clichés: thus Cervantes invented the modern novel by exposing the cliché of chivalric romance. New forms, then, appear “not in order to express a new content but in order to replace an old form that has outlived its artistic usefulness.” (In this respect, Shklovsky is diametrically opposed to Georg Lukács, who maintains that the chivalric romance expired because it ceased to reflect reality. For Shklovsky the chivalric romance, like the rest of literature, had never reflected reality in the first place.) At its most extreme, Formalism rejects “content” altogether in favor of either “the device” or “motivation of the device”: Napoleon becomes a mere “device” to impose order and disorder on the narrative of War and Peace; King Lear’s madness is a “motivation of the device” of misrecognition. In an essay “On Tolstoy’s Crises,” Formalist critic Boris Eikhenbaum even claims that Tolstoy’s conversion was “really” just his motivation for a new literary method.

Because of its rejection of psychology and philosophy, Formalism has often been accused of “soullessness.” However, some version of the “human struggle” is present in Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose, recast as a struggle between enstrangement and “automatization.” “Automatization eats away at things, at clothes, at furniture, at our wives, and at our fear of war”: alienation results and, paradoxically, only enstrangement can bring us back together. Shklovsky illustrates the point with a quote from Tolstoy’s diary. “As I was walking around dusting things off in my room,” writes Tolstoy, “I came to the sofa. For the life of me, I couldn’t recall whether I had already dusted it or not.” Tolstoy has no trouble coaxing from this non-event a philosophical conundrum: If he has dusted the sofa and forgotten about it, and if nobody was paying attention, then it is essentially just as if he had never dusted the sofa. Therefore, if there are people who live life as inattentively and unobservedly as he, Tolstoy, dusts the sofa–these people might as well never have lived.

Here we catch a glimpse of how high Shklovsky’s stakes really are: He is playing for nothing less than human history itself. And yet, what he is restoring to human history is, in this case, the lost spectacle of Tolstoy dusting the sofa–more precisely, the spectacle of Tolstoy trying to remember whether he had already dusted the sofa, apparently such a nuanced question that it could not be resolved by merely inspecting the sofa.

Furniture, real and metaphysical, lies at the heart of Shklovsky’s theory. After all, only something close to us–something we see every day–can be “enstranged.” Shklovsky restores to us the most boring moments, handing them back to us as the most valuable. He shares the Futurists’ telegraphic typography, their omnivorous metaphors–but while Mayakovsky is striding “across the mountains of time,” “preceded by/Napoleon, like a pug on a leash,” while Khlebnikov is drafting proposals to have all Futurists “promoted to the ranks of Martians” (signed “Velimir I, King of Time”)–while even Jakobson is analyzing the Futurist use of “transrational language”–Shklovsky is resurrecting Tolstoy and his dusty sofa.

The tension between the revolutionary and the everyday–between Futurism and, well, furniturism–is a running theme in A Sentimental Journey (1923), Shklovsky’s memoir of the war years. If this book succeeds in nothing else, it succeeds in enstranging the furniture. Consider the scene in which Shklovsky attends the performance, at a Kiev cafe in 1920, of a French clairvoyant who fields questions from the audience. What do the people most want to learn from the man who can see the future? They want to learn the fate of their furniture. “Is my furniture in Petersburg still all right?” they demand.

“I see, yes, I see it–your furniture,” replies the clairvoyant, lurching about the stage in his blindfold, “it’s all right.”

A Sentimental Journey shimmers with these transitory moments of “reorganization”: The old furniture hovers briefly in the ether over a Kiev cafe, briefly “all right”–before being boiled, perhaps, into tea. Samovars are used to pound nails; pianos are burned for firewood.

The defamiliarizing power of war is particularly clear in Shklovsky’s account of the “special folklore” generated by war. In 1918, for example, a “folklore” develops around the theme of the French army, including two concurrent rumors. It is said that “the French had a violet ray with which they could blind all the Bolsheviks”; it is said, by the same people, that the French had already landed in Odessa and marked off a new French colony with chairs–“not even cats could get through.” Cervantes glimpsed, in a moment of genius, the imaginary overlap between a giant and a windmill; so does Shklovsky capture the fleeting convergence of a blinding “violet ray” with a pile of chairs.

In 1923 Shklovsky undertook his second exercise in device-centered literature: Zoo, or Letters Not About Love, an epistolary “novel” based on his correspondence with Triolet. Triolet, who really wrote the seven letters attributed to her in the book, subsequently expanded one of them into a novel, became a novelist and won a Prix Goncourt in 1944. Zoo begins with a prohibition: Triolet forbids Shklovsky from writing to her about love. Shklovsky gamely complies. “Writing about love is forbidden,” begins Letter Seven, “so I’ll write about Zinovy Grzhebin, the publisher.” Grzhebin, we learn, has been exiled to Berlin, where he compulsively buys and publishes Russian manuscripts. The censors won’t let the manuscripts into Russia. Grzhebin, undiscouraged, keeps publishing them “like a rejected suitor who ruins himself buying flowers.” Amazingly, every subject Shklovsky chooses turns out to be a metaphor for unrequited love–from the weather to the living conditions of Berlin’s anthropoid ape.

At the end comes a turn of the screw. The last letter is addressed not to Triolet but to the All-Russian Central Executive Committee and consists of a request to be allowed back into Russia. “It is not right that I should be living in Berlin,” Shklovsky writes. “I raise my arm and surrender.” Love, the object of all the metaphors, itself turns out to have been a metaphor for exile. Ultimately Zoo is driven neither by the love plot nor the exile plot but by that painful formula “it is not right.” Shklovsky really has managed to write a book whose content is incidental to its form.

In the preface, Shklovsky claims that Zoo began as a series of essays on Russian Berlin and that he turned to the embargo on love letters as a “device.” But as contemporary readers knew, Shklovsky’s love and Triolet’s embargo were real, so they couldn’t be “devices” to motivate a series of essays on Berlin… could they? In fact, the reality of Elsa’s indifference does nothing to preclude its use as a plot device.

Here we can see the “soulless” Formalist obsession with “device” as a means of elevating writing to the level of life itself. For Shklovsky, work rather than love is the height of human endeavor–and literature is a form of work. Shklovsky makes the obvious but neglected point that a writer is someone whose life consists primarily of writing. In such a life, it makes sense for an unhappy love affair–or a political exile, or a religious conversion–to be “motivation of a device.” It is no more “human” to suffer for love than to suffer for plot construction.

In 1976 Fredric Jameson expressed “astonishment that [Russian Formalism] has had so little impact on American critical practice.” It is still possible to be astonished. True, Formalism is taught in most American universities, but it is often dismissed as a critical movement that “failed” as a result of its hubristic claims to scientific rigor. Critical arduousness had driven its practitioners mad: Tynianov, increasingly disabled by multiple sclerosis, abandoned criticism and obsessively produced historical novels; Eikhenbaum kept rewriting his multivolume analysis of Tolstoy until his heart gave out. Jakobson survived, turned to semiotics, enjoyed a distinguished career at Harvard–but even he was somehow damaged: The great scholar of aphasia never really shook the Formalist belief in the “total analysis” of poetry through close reading. Hadn’t his own readings grown smaller and smaller, as each word opened into an infinite abyss, one day to swallow him altogether?

As for Shklovsky, he is portrayed as a kind of negative Galileo, recanting his work at 37 and spending the rest of his days in unproductive “arrest.” In his seminal History of Russian Formalism (1954), Victor Erlich reproaches Shklovsky for “capitulating” to Marxism, which he characterizes as both bad politics and bad scholarship. “Gone were the days,” writes Erlich, “when Shklovsky referred airily to Marxism as a gadget which might some day come in handy. Now he was quite ready to swear by the name of the master and to recognize Marxist dialectics as the alpha and omega of literary scholarship.”

Today, the word on Shklovsky is still strangely circular: He recanted because he was wrong, and he was wrong because he recanted. Nobody seems to have entertained the possibility that Shklovsky’s Marxist “conversion” might have been motivated by literary concerns. In fact, Marxism and literary criticism are by no means incompatible, as Lukács, among others, has shown. Shklovsky’s theory clearly needed some revision–in the long run, no serious critic can maintain a total autonomy of art from all other aspects of human history. Isn’t it possible that Shklovsky was using Marxist theory precisely in order to make this revision, in order to account for some interplay between literature and other “social facts”?

Third Factory, Shklovsky’s third semi-autobiographical work, addresses this interplay. The central conceit is of life as a factory that “processes” the writer according to the laws of “unfreedom.” Unfreedom, though painful, is good for literature. Don Quixote, according to Shklovsky, “owes its existence to unfreedom”; after all, Cervantes thought of Don Quixote in a prison cell.

Shklovsky’s metaphor for salutary unfreedom is the chess knight: Unfree to move in a straight line, the knight must travel in an L. In Knight’s Move (1923), the unfreedom is purely formal; by Third Factory it is dictated externally, by arbitrary “destiny.” Destiny, not form, deforms Cervantes’s knight into a knight manqué.

In Third Factory, Shklovsky attempts to decipher the deformations of his own destiny. In a quasi-Proustian search for the meaning of “his time,” he decides to visit the novelist Andrei Platonov, whom he finds dredging rivers in Voronezh. The depressingness of the trip is barely mitigated by the opportunity afforded to make fun of “Comrade Platonov,” who, playing Levin to Shklovsky’s Oblonsky, takes his guest on a tour of orphanages, dams and villages called Big Stump and Dog’s Wallow. At one point, Shklovsky toys with the idea of making fun of some cows, only to realize that the joke is on him: “The fields do not need my irony. I do need the fields, though; I need real things. If I don’t find some way of seeing them, I will die.”

Shklovsky is facing an ultimatum–find a way to “see real things,” or die–which recurs throughout Russian literature. It is enacted in the ending of Anna Karenina: Anna, unable to transcend the adultery novel, commits suicide; Levin returns to his farming, manages to see real things and survives. In Shklovsky’s account, Mayakovsky was facing the same impasse. As early as 1924, Shklovsky wrote of Mayakovsky that an “absence of irony” had made him a “captive of his theme”; theme, Shklovsky warned, is “nothing in particular but a nail, on which you can hang yourself, or just your hat.” Mayakovsky–who was born the same year as Shklovsky–shot himself in 1930, the same year that Shklovsky published his Monument to Scientific Error. Shklovsky’s “conversion” was surely his way of responding to the ultimatum: an attempt to hang his hat and walk on.

It seems fitting that Shklovsky, like Eikhenbaum, turned to Tolstoy at the end of his career: Tolstoy alone, of all Russian writers, hung his hat and not himself; Tolstoy got old, and left behind no maddeningly unfinished work. He too, like the Formalists, recanted–but so successfully that it went down in history as a “conversion.”

In 1963 Shklovsky wrote a 600-page biography of Tolstoy. Tolstoy is also the subject of his last book, Energiia zabluzhdeniia (The Energy of Error, 1981). The “energy of error” is the mysterious force that, during the writing process, enables Tolstoy’s characters to transcend their flat, “literary,” initial conceptions–to turn out interesting, complicated and “true.” It is tempting to interpret The Energy of Error as another methodological autobiography: Shklovsky started out a literary parody of himself, and the “energy of error” made him more complicated as the story went on.

And the story did go on: Shklovsky died in 1984, at age 91–indubitably a monument to something. Whether to truth or to scientific error is an open question.