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.