Making Strange: On Viktor Shklovsky

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.”

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