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Shklovskii, Viktor Borisovich

(1893–1984), literary critic and theorist, writer, and a founder of Obshchestvo Izucheniia Poeticheskogo Iazyka (Society for the Study of Poetic Language; Opoiaz). Shklovskii was born in Saint Petersburg and studied literary history there at the university. If one is to believe his retrospective miscellany Tret’ia fabrika (The Third Factory; 1926), academic philology had little to offer this irreverent and restless student. Brilliant, exuberant, versatile, he felt more at home amid the noise of literary cafés than in the calm atmosphere of the university classrooms. A close association with futurist poets and artists gave Shklovskii what his professors sadly lacked—awareness of literary form and of artistic construction. “With the aid of futurism and sculpture one could already understand a great deal. It was then that I grasped art as an independent system.” And it was then that Shklovskii became eligible for the role of a leading spokesman and a pungent phrasemaker of Russian formalism.

His programmatic essay “Iskusstvo kak priem” (Art as a Device; 1916) launched the influential concept of ostranenie (making it strange)—presenting the familiar as if it were seen for the first time—as a central literary strategy. In his provocative essays, collected in Khod konia (The Knight’s Move; 1923) and Literatura i kinematograf (Literature and Cinema; 1923) he insisted on the autonomy of literature and warned against political regimentation of the arts. “Comrades in revolution, comrades in war, leave art free not for its own sake, but because we must not regulate the unknown.” In his seminal if onesided O teorii prozy (The Theory of Prose; 1925), he urged other formalist tenets such as the notion of the conventionality of literary art, a conventionality that is periodically dramatized or “laid bare,” and the distinction between “fable” and “plot.”

In the late 1920s, Shklovskii sought to modify his initial posture by incorporating some elements of the sociological approach to literature. His hastily assembled “socio-formalist” method was tested in Mater’ial i stil’ v romane L’va Tolstogo Voina i mir (Materials and Style in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace; 1928), where the Marxist concept of “class” tenuously coexisted with the formalist emphasis on genre. In 1930, in the face of overwhelming pressures toward methodological conformity, he offered a hedged apology for his original “scientific error,” and for more than two decades thereafter abandoned literary theorizing. He turned to his other fields of interest, notably film criticism, script writing, popular biography, and memoirs.

If Shklovskii’s Zametki o proze russkikh klassikov (Notes on the Prose of Russian Masters; 1953), which appeared toward the end of the Stalin era, was timid and uncharacteristic, his book on Dostoevsky, Za i protiv (Pro and Contra; 1957), had some of the freshness and vigor of the critic’s early writings. The works of the aging litterateur’s last decades—Khudozhestvennaia proza: Razmyshleniia i razbory (Artistic Prose: Reflections and Analyses; 1959) and Tetiva (The Bowstring; 1970)—were wide-ranging and thoughtful performances. Mixing as they did history and theory of narrative fiction with snatches of memoirs and self-conscious polemic, these rambling volumes were testimony to a lifelong engagement with literature and to the strains and stresses of what Soviet pundits used to call a “complex path.”

When still at the peak of his influence as a critic, Shklovskii encouraged hybrid—half-documentary, half-fictional—modes as a solution to the impasse allegedly reached by Russian artistic prose. Some of his own writings are attempts to implement this program. Sentimental’noe puteshestvie (A Sentimental Journey; 1923), a whimsical and candid autobiography, blends scenes of revolutionary turmoil with lyrical effusions and sorties into literary criticism. Zoo: Pis’ma ne o liubvi (Zoo, or Letters Not about Love; 1923) is a record of the author’s actual romantic involvement, cast in the form of an epistolary novel.

Suggested Reading

Victor Erlich, Russian Formalism: History, Doctrine (New Haven, 1981); Richard Sheldon, “The Formalist Poetics of Victor Shklovsky,” Russian Literary Triquarterly 2 (1972): 351–371; Viktor Shklovskii, Theory of Prose (Elmwood Park, Ill., 1990).