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)
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 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.
Yuriy Palmin
Viktor Shklovsky, Moscow, 1970s

Shklovsky called the method that literature employs to make things strange the “device.” The proper field of study, therefore, for literary theorists is not the writer’s biography, or his historical situation, or his personal habits (“Did Pushkin Smoke?” was the title of a 1913 essay by a Pushkin scholar that was mocked by the Formalist Osip Brik); it is, rather, to figure out which devices he used, when and how he used them, and to try to grasp their fundamental nature. “A literary work is pure form,” Shklovsky writes in one of his early essays on plot. “It is not a thing, not a material, but a relationship between materials.”

The Formalists had begun with poetry, but with “Art as Device” they moved into prose, and from there outward. Eikhenbaum’s 1919 article on Gogol argued against nearly a century of interpretation (going back to Belinsky) that presented Gogol as a progressive thinker, champion of the little man, but passed over his strange and original prose. The interest of “The Overcoat,” Eikhenbaum argued, lay not in its featuring a downtrodden bureaucrat, but in its grotesque mixture of a comic and a melodramatic voice; in fact the story’s plot is merely the occasion or motivation for this mixing.

The Formalists attacked the quasi-biblical nature of most accounts of literary history, whereby Pushkin begat Gogol who begat Dostoevsky in an unbroken progression of greatness. What the Formalists saw instead was a ceaseless churning of literary styles or approaches. Those that were defeated in one period reemerged victorious in another period under a slightly different guise. In Shklovsky’s formulation: “In the change of literary schools, the inheritance goes not from the father to the son, but from the uncle to his nephew.”

The Formalists had begun their life in 1913 as the theoretical wing of Russian Futurism, that is, of the Russian literary avant-garde, and they remained loyal to the avant-garde. But they did more. By walling literature off from other fields, like philosophy, they were able to understand the philosophy of form; by examining texts with very close attention to their formal qualities, they were able to make broad comparative leaps, asserting that the same stories appeared on different continents, in different times, not because those people and places had the same customs or ideas, but because plot follows certain immutable laws in all times and places. It was a literary criticism fundamental and radical enough to be worthy of a revolution, though the revolution itself wouldn’t think so.

Later, Shklovsky would be faulted by more “responsible” Formalists—most notably Victor Erlich in his 1955 history of Russian Formalism—for the extravagance of some of his early statements. There is plenty of justice to this accusation. Shklovsky was ruthless and very funny, attacking everyone he came across with undisguised zeal. Andrei Bely’s theory of poetry, he wrote, is “a heroic attempt to create an aesthetic theory from unverified facts from old books, a large store of knowledge about poetic devices, and a high school physics textbook.” Shklovsky compares a venerable philologist’s mistaken ideas about the genealogy of plots to Voltaire’s mistaken idea about the source of seashells in the Alps (both assume that someone must have brought them there).

To the young Formalists, but to Shklovsky especially, their predecessors had compounded ignorance of the laws of literature with stupidity. They ought to be mocked mercilessly. Shklovsky’s verbal provocations gave the Formalists a reputation for scandal, which later made them vulnerable; but without the offensive Shklovsky they would have been just another group of grad students writing erudite papers on linguistic patterns in contemporary poems.

In Finland, Shklovsky produced a memoir of the revolution and civil war in record speed. He called it, after Laurence Stern’s famous novel, A Sentimental Journey: Memoirs, 1917–1922. It is written with the digressiveness, humor, one-sentence paragraphs, and sense of historic occasion that had now become his style. (Gorky, sympathetic to Shklovsky but annoyed by such novelties, called it “Shklovsky’s ‘style.’”) He then left Finland to join the large and rambunctious Russian émigré colony in Berlin.

In Berlin, Shklovsky fell in love with Elsa Triolet, Lilya Brik’s younger sister. She did not return his affection, and Shklovsky converted their cross-town correspondence on the subject into an experimental epistolary novel called Zoo, or Letters Not about Love. In his letters Shklovsky describes the Russians in Berlin, discourses on literature, and tries, per Triolet’s instructions, not to mention love. The penultimate letter in the book has “Alya” (Triolet) telling Shklovsky: “On various pretexts, you keep writing about the same thing. Quit writing about how, how, how much you love me, because at the third ‘how much,’ I start thinking about something else.”

Shklovsky took the hint. The next letter in the book is addressed not to Triolet but to the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party. “I want to go back to Russia,” Shklovsky tells the Central Committee. “All that was has passed—my youth and self- assurance have been taken from me…. I raise my arm and surrender.” In addition to the letter, Shklovsky asked his friends back home to help get him yet another pardon. It was granted, and in early 1924 he returned to the USSR. (Triolet, who was also being courted by Roman Jakobson, from Prague, eventually married Louis Aragon, moved to France, and became a famous French novelist.)

Shklovsky returned to Russia with the hope that he could get back to work, but it was not so simple. One of the conditions of his return was that he live in Moscow rather than Petrograd, which put him further away from his old Formalist friends. At the same time it put him closer to his other old friends, the avant-gardists Mayakovsky and Osip Brik, who had recently founded the Left Front of Art, or LEF. Shklovsky joined them, editing and writing for their magazine. Moscow was also home to the nascent, and still highly experimental, Soviet film industry, for which he wrote scenarios for silent films, then scripts for films with sound, and discussed with Eisenstein the possibilities of montage. All of this, as Kaverin would point out, took him away from his scholarly work. Nonetheless, in 1925, he published Theory of Prose, which collected his major articles on literary theory from the Opojaz days, starting with “Art as Device.”

Time was running short. In 1923, while Shklovsky was still in Berlin, Leon Trotsky had published an article in Pravda attacking the Formalists. The article, later expanded and reprinted in Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution, acknowledged that the Formalists had done good work. “Owing to the efforts of Shklovsky—and this is not an insignificant virtue!—the theory of art, and partly art itself, have at last been raised from a state of alchemy to the position of chemistry,” Trotsky wrote. Nonetheless the Formalists’ theories were reactionary, “childish,” “an abortive idealism applied to the question of art.”

Toward the end of the 1920s, Tynyanov and Eikhenbaum began to be drummed out of their university posts. Shklovsky, who did not have a permanent university post to be drummed out of, saw the attacks on him in the press increase. “Not a day goes by without someone ‘criticizing’ Shklovsky in a newspaper column or magazine,” Eikhenbaum wrote in 1929. “It’s gotten to the point where people take Shklovsky’s classes so they can learn how to criticize him.”

Eventually the pressure became too much, and in January 1930—three months before his friend Mayakovsky committed suicide—Shklovsky recanted. In an article called “Monument to a Scientific Error,” he declared that formalism was finished—“a path I’ve already walked.” It was time to look at the conditions of production in which writers worked, to study their dealings with publishers, to examine the world surrounding them. “I do not declare myself a Marxist,” he concluded, “because one does not join a scientific method. Scientific methods are learned, and they are created.”

Shklovsky’s greatest American champion, Richard Sheldon, has argued that Shklovsky was only pretending to capitulate, the better to continue his work, but for Shklovsky, it was the first of many similar capitulations. In 1934, at the First Congress of Soviet Writers, he denounced Dostoevsky. In 1958, when Boris Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Shklovsky renounced Pasternak. He wrote critically in Soviet publications of his old friend Roman Jakobson, to the point that Jakobson severed all ties with him. “I rejected everything,” Shklovsky said to Vitale, “father, mother, dog, cat.”

Though personally honorable—two things he’d never written, he told Vitale, were poetry and denunciations—Shklovsky became an emblem of the compromised Soviet intellectual. “You had to raise your hand and surrender,” Kaverin later wrote. Shklovsky surrendered once when he pleaded to be allowed home from Berlin; then he kept surrendering. “The second time was, no doubt, harder than the first,” Kaverin went on. “But the third time, and the fourth, and the fifth were already not so hard. And then, in the 1950s and 60s, it wasn’t hard at all.”

Having survived the purges, Shklovsky became a grand old man of Soviet letters, a living memorial to the defeated revolutionary avant-garde. He died in 1984, still carefully writing and rewriting his personal history so as not to run afoul of the authorities again.

Would things have been very different for Shklovsky if he had remained abroad in 1924 instead of pleading for his return, or if a more aesthetically progressive Soviet state had smiled upon the avant-garde instead of persecuting it? Many certainly think so. Interviewed for a 2005 Russian documentary on the long friendship between Shklovsky and Jakobson, the literary scholar Marietta Chudakova blamed the USSR for Shklovsky’s decline. “To compare Shklovsky and Jakobson, to put them side by side,” she said,

is to see a talented person, with elements of genius, in a free society, and a talented person, with elements of genius, in an unfree society. It’s as if they took it upon themselves to illustrate how two people at the same level—and they were at the same level—could develop, and Jakobson developed in all sorts of directions, while Shklovsky had to stand and beat his feet in place.

Yet the personal and intellectual testimony tells a slightly different story. As early as the mid-1920s, before they were forced to seek other fields of study entirely, most of the other Formalists had developed in different directions anyway. Tynyanov started working in literary history; Eikhenbaum flirted with the “heresy” of biography. Shklovsky remained truest to the original method, but it was not productive; when Mikhail Bakhtin and Pavel Medvedev surveyed the situation in 1928, they were able to delineate four strains of actually existing Formalism: the fourth, and least promising, was “the preserved [‘canned’] formalism of Shklovsky.” The gradual collapse of the project was hardest on Shklovsky. “He’s a little lost,” Eikhenbaum noted in his diary. “He doesn’t seem to know what to do. He’s become a man—solid, powerful, energetic—but there’s no real work for him. He’s surrounded by hacks. It’s sad to look at.”

After 1930, Shklovsky’s fellow Formalists escaped into more private labors. Eikhenbaum worked on a huge, multivolume biography of Tolstoy. Tynyanov wrote a series of very good historical novels about early-nineteenth-century poets. Jakobson had escaped the USSR entirely, and with the help of Claude Levi-Strauss turned Formalism into French Structuralism, and eventually continued his work in linguistics in the United States. Shklovsky kept producing articles and books of literary criticism and literary history. He won a Stalin Prize in 1939 for his screenplay for a film about the 1612 recapture of Moscow from the Polish king. In later years he wrote a popular memoir and appeared frequently on television. He tended to find it annoying that people only wanted to talk about Opojaz.

In Shklovsky’s later works, some of which are now being translated and published in English for the first time, you can see that he’s kept up with new developments in literary theory without necessarily understanding how interesting they are (he is dismissive, for example, of the semiotician Yuri Lotman, not seeming to realize how much Lotman had learned from the Formalists). There are moments of his old brilliance, and a great deal of repetition. One feels that Shklovsky was one of those literary figures who flash up at a historic moment to embody the spirit of a time, to express its great tumult and revolutionary energy. When the moment passes—or when, as with Formalism in the USSR, it is strangled out of existence—such a person has nowhere to go.

For all that, Shklovsky’s early work retains its vitality in a way that the more subtle, scholarly work of his fellow Formalists sometimes does not. The very violence of his rejection of the old philologists, the clarity of his insights, the sense of discovering an entirely new scientific approach: this is something that Shklovsky’s writings still communicate vividly. As long as there are naive readers who think that the form of a literary work is merely the most convenient receptacle for its moral or philosophical content—and every serious reader begins as a naive reader—there will be people for Viktor Shklovsky to offend.