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 modernist ferment of the city early on. In 1912, the year he entered St. Petersburg University, the Russian Futurists came out with “A Slap to the Face of Public Taste,” a manifesto that called for “Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, etc., etc.” to be “thrown overboard from the Ship of Modernity.” Shklovsky was immediately attracted to this movement, and in December 1913 he nominated himself Futurism’s theoretician with a public talk, “The Place of Futurism in the History of Poetry,” which deployed a twenty-year-old’s knowledge of Aristotle, Rousseau, and the Symbolists to argue that the Futurists were rejuvenating literary language. A young scholar named Boris Eikhenbaum, who would later become Shklovsky’s closest collaborator, heard the talk and found it barely comprehensible, but the Futurists were flattered: no one with such erudition had ever before undertaken to explain what they were doing in their poems.
Over the next five years, Shklovsky gathered around himself the group that would come to be called the Formalists. At the time they called themselves the Society for the Study of Poetic Language (Opojaz, in Russian). It consisted primarily of young linguists trying to understand the discoveries of nineteenth-century philologists such as Ferdinand de Saussure, who had found that language as a system was ruled by particular laws. Might literary language also have such laws, and might they be more central to understanding texts of poetry and fiction than the writers’ lives? The Formalists set out to formulate such laws.
In 1916, the group published its first pamphlet, ambitiously titled Collections on the Theory of Poetic Language, Volume I. The essays were ostentatiously technical, with titles like “On Sounds in Poetic Language” and “On the Subject of Sound Gestures in Japanese.” Shklovsky contributed one called “Trans-sense Language and Poetry.” The group’s second pamphlet, published a few months later, featured Shklovsky’s programmatic and still most famous essay, “Art as Device,” to which I will return.
Meanwhile the country was falling apart. Shklovsky had joined the army in 1914 in order to avoid taking his exams at the university, or so he told the Italian Slavicist Serena Vitale, whose interviews with him, from 1979, have just been published in English for the first time. Unable to become an officer because his father was Jewish, Shklovsky joined a motorized division as a driver, first in western Ukraine, then Galicia. Eventually he returned to Petersburg (now Petrograd) as an instructor in a school for armored car drivers. Most of the men in the school had never driven a car before, much less an armored one. “It was the slaughter of the innocent cars,” Shklovsky wrote a few years later.
The countless automobile schools …had been cranking out hordes of drivers with half an hour’s training. And now these half-trained characters gleefully fell upon the vehicles. The city resounded with crashes.
Shklovsky was on the side of the revolutionaries during the February Revolution, but after the Bolsheviks dispersed the Constituent Assembly in early 1918, he became involved in a Socialist-Revolutionary plot to overthrow the new Communist-dominated government. When this was discovered, he fled for the provinces, though not before ripping out the pages from the books he needed to continue working on his theoretical texts. He ended up in Ukraine, fighting for the Bolsheviks against the Whites. “I think I know the Whites,” he wrote. “The Whites hang men from the lamp posts and shoot them on the street out of romanticism.” In Ukraine, Shklovsky was put in charge of a demolition crew, and was injured by one of his own explosions.
After recovering, he used his literary connections to come to Moscow and receive a pardon directly from Yakov Sverdlov, the chairman of the Supreme Soviet. “Back then it was easier to call the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet than it is to get hold of the Housing Office today,” Shklovsky told Vitale. Sverdlov signed a letter granting amnesty to Shklovsky, and as he did so made an interesting remark that the literary theorist recalled sixty years later: “Shklovsky, you have no idea what a great pleasure it is for an old revolutionary to be able to write and take notes. That wasn’t possible before. You had to keep everything in your head.”
Petrograd during the civil war was a hungry and cold city. Shklovsky’s aunt starved to death; his sister became sick and died. One of his brothers, a doctor, was beaten to death; another was shot by the Bolsheviks. (His last remaining sibling, the linguist Vladimir, would be arrested in the 1920s and shot during the purges in 1937.) Shklovsky himself barely survived; he recalled burning books and furniture for heat. Yet these were the most productive years of his life. He took part in some of the arts institutions set up by the new regime, while keeping a critical distance from some others. Opojaz became an official organization and was joined by Yuri Tynyanov, who would become its most trenchant theorist, and also by the linguist Roman Jakobson, who would eventually take Formalism to Europe and the United States. In 1919, Opojaz published its third collection, which included Boris Eikhenbaum’s essay “How Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’ Is Made.”
This happy and productive time for Shklovsky and for Opojaz came to an end in early 1922, when the Bolsheviks decided to round up some of the old Socialist-Revolutionaries, including Shklovsky, and hold their first show trial. Tipped off that his arrest was impending, Shklovsky fled the country across the frozen Gulf of Finland.
Shklovsky’s escape marked the end of the first, heroic period of Russian Formalism. In six years the group had managed to challenge a century’s worth of dogma. Russia, which had produced a powerful literary critic in Vissarion Belinsky during the first half of the nineteenth century, now produced, in Shklovsky, an anti-Belinsky. Belinsky had raised literature to the level of the other arts by proclaiming its relevance to society in general, but his heirs had lowered it again by ransacking literature more specifically for politics, philosophy, even religion (in short, its “message”) while ignoring the aspects of a literary work that were specific to it—its language, its structure. As it happened, “naive” readers tended to approach texts as Belinsky would, seeing them as reflecting society; and these tendencies, the naive and the sociological—along with the reigning Symbolist doctrine that literature was the expression in language of some mystical other reality—became the ones that the Formalists set out to debunk.
Shklovsky’s essay “Art as Device” did this by looking at Tolstoy. The great novelist, wrote Shklovsky, is known for describing things exactly as they are. But a close reading of Tolstoy reveals something different. Shklovsky quotes at length from a story called “Kholstomer,” which is partly narrated by a talking horse named Kholstomer who cannot understand private property, especially as it pertains to him:
The words “my horse” were used to describe me, a living horse, and seemed as strange to me as the words “my earth,” “my air,” “my water.”
By telling the story from a horse’s point of view, Tolstoy suggests that the notion of property is not as obvious as it appears. Shklovsky names this device “defamiliarization,” or “making strange”: Tolstoy, he writes, “does not call a thing by its name, but describes it as if he’s seeing it for the first time.”
From this genuinely original observation, Shklovsky begins to formulate a theory of literature. All of literature, he argues, is nothing other than the practice of making things strange, of making the reader see what would otherwise remain obscure or “natural.” This can be accomplished through narrative perspective, or through plot (or lack of plot), but it can also take place on the level of language itself. “Recall the horror of Pushkin’s contemporaries at some of his ‘common’ expressions,” Shklovsky writes.
Pushkin employed common speech as a particular device to catch his reader’s attention, in the same way in fact that people of his generation used Russian words in their otherwise French conversations.