Making Strange: On Victor Shklovsky

Making Strange: On Victor Shklovsky

A Russian novelist’s fight, in life and art, to see the world afresh in all its cruelty and splendor.


In the preface to her book of interviews with Viktor Shklovsky, the Italian writer and translator Serena Vitale describes her third meeting with the aged founder of Russian Formalism—still curious and spry, “like an 86-year-old boy”—in his cramped, two-room Moscow apartment. It was 1978, and Vitale’s Russian friends, she recalls, regarded Shklovsky as a relic. They had not forgiven him for bowing to official pressure almost forty years earlier and recanting Formalism’s most impetuous, insurrectionary and implicitly anti-Soviet precepts: namely, that art is untethered to dogma, state or any apparent “content” and that, as he once put it, “a writer should never be yoked to a trellis and forced to salute.” When Vitale asked him why young Russians considered him “a writer, so to speak, of the establishment,” the blood left Shklovsky’s face. He shook his cane and, yelling, kicked her out into the cold.

It’s not hard to imagine how badly Vitale’s question must have wounded Shklovsky in his dotage. This was, after all, the same Shklovsky who had waged an artistic revolution—one that paralleled but did not always coincide with the Bolsheviks’—with no less at stake than the liberation of human consciousness; the same Shklovsky who had seen at least two brothers and most of his friends (an illustrious literary crew including Vladimir Mayakovsky, Osip Mandelstam and Yevgeny Zamyatin) disappeared, executed, or driven to suicide or exile by the Soviet establishment; the same Shklovsky who had twice been injured in battle fighting for a revolution that had already begun to hunt and humiliate him; who endured cold and hunger and exile and squirmed through years of silence under the censor’s heavy thumb; the same Shklovsky who spent most of his intellectual life championing the emancipatory power of the novel and fighting to blast it—and all of literature and even, yikes, reality—out of subservience to a host of dumb and arbitrary masters.

The establishment, him! Shklovsky had from the start fought for a notion of art directly opposed to socialist realist pieties, one that hinged on the need to push beyond established models, to make things strange so that we might see the world afresh in its cruelty and splendor. He had been at odds not just with the bureaucratic state that congealed in the wake of the revolution, but with stasis itself, with the crust that the world of things deposits on our senses, with routine’s unending murder of the real. Innovation must occur in art, Shklovsky had written as recently as 1970, “because humanity fights for the expansion of its right to life, for the right to search and attain new kinds of happiness.” But age had mellowed the insurrectionist. Shklovsky called Vitale a few hours later to apologize: “My God, I made you cry, forgive this crabby old man.”

In the West, Shklovsky would suffer a different shame: not tameness but oblivion. Formalism would survive here mainly as an academic epithet, shorthand for overindulgent abstraction and inattention to the tug and shove of history. The cultural Cold War guaranteed that even Shklovsky’s most important work would go untranslated into English until a few years before Vitale knocked on his apartment door (even now, only ten of his several dozen books are available in English), and that the school of thought he founded would remain largely consigned to footnotes, an arcane Slavic parallel to the prim American New Criticism of the 1940s and ’50s or the sexier French structuralism of the decade that followed.

For the last twelve years, Dalkey Archive Press—which in 1990 published Shklovsky’s early critical masterpiece Theory of Prose (1925)—has been devotedly rescuing Shklovsky’s works from the void at a rate of about one volume every other year, publishing new editions of some and reissuing out-of-print translations of others. These last two years brought a flurry. In 2011, Dalkey published the extraordinary late theoretical work, Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar (1970), followed this fall by Vitale’s book of interviews, originally published in Italian in 1979, and by Shklovsky’s unclassifiable—we have his permission, so let’s call it a novel—A Hunt for Optimism (1931).

What emerges from these works is a group portrait of Shklovsky’s Formalism—even the name dries the mouth—that bears little resemblance to any school of literary criticism that has arisen in the West in the last century or, well, ever. It was born not in the academy but out of the literary avant-garde and alongside the Russian Revolution. Ironically, given the Formalists’ insistence on literature’s divorce from worldly events, it arose without even a hair’s distance from the tumult that rocked Europe for most of the early twentieth century. When the revolution erupted in February 1917—“it was like Easter,” Shklovsky would recall, “a joyous, naïve, disorderly carnival paradise”—he was already an insurrectionist, though of a different sort from Lenin or Trotsky. Years later, when Vitale asked him what the revolution had meant to him, Shklovsky would answer, “the dictatorship of art. The freedom of art.”

* * *

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.

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.”

* * *

These and other sundry obstacles, all of them oriented toward rupturing the smooth flow of narrative, are tools in the service of what Shklovsky called ostranenie, which is variously translated as “estrangement,” “defamiliarization” or simply “making strange.” In Theory of Prose, Shklovsky would distinguish between “recognition” and “seeing.” Ordinary perception falls into the former category: we don’t see objects so much as recognize them according to pre-existing patterns of thought. The world arrives “prepackaged” and passes us by without a graze. “And so, held accountable for nothing, life fades into nothingness. Automatization eats away at things, at clothes, at furniture, at our wives, and at our fear of war.”

The point for Shklovsky was to find a way to shake ourselves out of this collective stupor so that we might see the world in all its startling brightness and, presumably, act on what we see. (An unacknowledged politics hides behind Shklovsky’s poetics, a quasi-anarchist insistence on permanent revolt, but that is an argument for another essay.) For this, “man has been given the tool of art,” which—and this is where ostranenie comes in—employs various tactics to defamiliarize the world, to allow us to see it as if for the first time. If it is anything, art is oppositional and insurrectionary, and literature an authorial conspiracy to overthrow anachronistic modes of thought. “Art,” Shklovsky wrote in A Sentimental Journey, “is fundamentally ironic and destructive. It revitalizes the world.”

This position leads him to some surprising places: first, to a notion of literary change based on rupture rather than influence and inheritance. Art changes not out of fashion or habit, but because it must. New forms are created when the old ones become as sclerotic as the ones they replaced. (No wonder Shklovsky made the Bolsheviks edgy.) Second, the practice of literary criticism involves a quest for ostranenie that parallels the artist’s. (In 1972, the Marxist literary theorist Frederic Jameson would somewhat snidely call Shklovsky’s critical works, of which he had not read many, “little more than an endless set of variations” on the idea of ostranenie.) If the critic is to see the object of his study sufficiently to analyze its workings, he must “extricate” it “from the cluster of associations in which it is bound.” So while language may be subject to all the usual social and economic forces, literature, if it is to be seen at all, must be looked at on its lonesome.

From there, Shklovsky leaps a few wide boulevards and, post-extrication, tosses out all the scraps from which the work emerged: “No more of the real world impinges upon a work of art than the reality of India impinges upon the game of chess,” he wrote in Theory of Prose with characteristic modernist élan. This means that any erstwhile “content” we might imagine clinging to the work (whatever a book is ostensibly “about”) is no more than a function of “form,” of whatever combination of stylistic devices the author has brought to bear. Plot is mere structural play.

If this sounds counterintuitive, it was—and remains—an intensely fruitful insight. Shklovsky’s audacity gave him the freedom to take apart Cervantes and Sterne, Gogol and Tolstoy, with a brilliance that still dazzles ninety years later. And it allowed works of literature to become visible, not as natural objects like fingernails or trees, but as complex creatures of artifice, as purposeful forms of play. This notion did not go down smoothly. As the ’20s dragged on and Soviet aesthetic attitudes became more rigid, art had only two options: it could be an organic growth of proletarian consciousness, or counterrevolutionary poison. Shklovsky’s Formalism made him, in the words of an unnamed KGB interrogator quoted by Vitale, “an enemy of the real world and [of] socialist realism in literature.”

* * *

More than ever, the real world needs committed enemies. The half-joking observation by Croatian essayist Dubravka Ugresic—that socialist realism lives on in what she called “contemporary market literature”—has only grown more apt and less funny since she made it a few years ago. The swelling MFA-
industrial complex and the now almost entirely monopolized corporate publishing market enforce their edicts with no more flexibility than the bureaucratic state: novels must be peopled with “motivated” and “dimensional” characters, “believable” plotlines, something called “resolution,” and other such sparkly ghosts. Ignoring centuries of literary whimsy, 91 percent of American MFA students—I base that figure on my own informal polling—and a similar proportion of mainstream book reviewers regard the novel as a type of window tasked with representing the real.

But literature, the young Shklovsky insists, is its own planet, bound by the rules that it creates. “Art,” he wrote in Zoo, “if it can be compared to a window at all, is only a sketched window.” Its point is not to accurately reflect this same old cruddy, shrink-wrapped world, but to steal us new sets of eyes, to forge new and unimagined senses. This is art’s one virtue, its promise and delight. And the novel, call it dead or alive, is not a thing among things of a certain weight and size, obliged to obey established formulae. It is a weird box of almost bottomless openness, a compact revolution in a cloth and cardboard binding. Or, if you prefer, in pixels. 

In his exuberance, Shklovsky allowed himself some blind spots. He had complained in A Sentimental Journey that his co-revolutionists, the Bolsheviks, believed “that it’s the design that matters, not the building material…. They couldn’t understand the anarchy of life, its subconscious.” He was unable to level the same criticism against his own work, to realize that he had cast himself adrift. If the purpose of ostranenie was to perceive the world anew, Shklovsky had kept on pushing and tossed the world away. It’s hard to blame him. By 1919, he had already sensed the danger of art’s subservience to the state: the banner of art, he insisted, “has never reflected the color of the flag over the city fortress.” It would soon enough.

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 
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.”

* * *

“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.”

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply-reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish everyday at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy