The Reckless Founding Formalist

Theory of Prose

by Viktor Shklovsky, translated from the Russian by Benjamin Sher, with an introduction by Gerald L. Bruns
Dalkey Archive, 216 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Zoo, or Letters Not About Love

by Viktor Shklovsky, translated from the Russian and with an introduction by Richard Sheldon
Dalkey Archive, 162 pp., $12.50 (paper)
gessen_1-042414.jpg
Viktor Shklovsky; portrait by Yury Annenkov, 1919

In Venyamin Kaverin’s early novel The Scandalist (1931), a literary critic named Viktor Nekrylov wakes up in Leningrad with a hangover. He has a train ticket back to Moscow but, shaking off sleep, he makes a decision: “He wasn’t going to leave Leningrad until he caused a scandal.”

Later that day, Nekrylov runs into an old acquaintance, a midcareer novelist named Putyatin, and sees an opportunity. “How much will you give me if I guess the plot of your novel?” Nekrylov asks him.

Putyatin winced and gave out a laugh.
“No, thank you,” he said, coughing and laughing. “I know the plot of my novel just fine. You and your plots….”
“Too bad!” Nekrylov didn’t even smile. “I could have given you some advice. It might have helped.”
“I think I’ll manage just fine without your help, thank you very much,” said Putyatin, who was beginning to grow angry.
“No, you won’t manage without my help because you are a bad writer,” Nekrylov said, almost under his breath. “You see, you and Ehrenburg are always writing the same thing. Don’t get mad, Ehrenburg is an interesting writer. But the subject’s always the same. People pulled apart by history. Finding themselves in opposite camps. A father and a son, or a mother and a daughter, or two sisters. Or three sisters! Did I guess right?”

Nekrylov, as many Soviet readers would have recognized, is Viktor Shklovsky, the literary provocateur, founder of Russian Formalism, war hero, and comrade of Vladimir Mayakovsky: a member of the heroic, revolutionary generation. But the novel captures the literary critic in what appears to be the twilight of his career. In honor of his visit, Nekrylov’s old colleagues and students throw him a party, but it does not go well. “Everything he’d done had come out of his scholarly work, and the keys to this work were kept by his friends in Leningrad,” writes Kaverin. “Scholarship was his true work. He’d been meaning to come back to it a thousand times. But Moscow got in the way; and the movies; and generous advances. Also women, perhaps.” What Kaverin can only hint at is that the rising tide of Stalinism is also ruining Nekrylov.

It’s worth returning to Kaverin’s novel for the portrait it gives of Shklovsky just before he capitulated to the Stalinists, because that capitulation has become not only one of the central facts of his biography, but also of the entire history of culture under the Soviets. Did people renounce their beliefs—in this case, in Formalism as a method of literary study—because they were scared, or because they lost interest, became seduced by other things? The case of Shklovsky is especially interesting because he had been the most pugnacious, even reckless, of his generation of writers.

Shklovsky was born in St. Petersburg in 1893, the youngest of five children. He became involved in the …

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