Viktor Shklovskii began his career as a futurist. Strongly attracted to the poetry of Vladimir Maiakovskii and Velimir Khlebnikov, he enthusiastically joined their crusade against the tenets of realism and symbolism. In his essay entitled Voskreshenie slova (1914; “Resurrection of the Word”), Shklovskii provided a theoretical basis for the work of the futurists, advancing the idea that futurist poetry emancipated words from their traditional significance and restored them to perceptibility by calling attention to their sounds. This essay is usually regarded as the cornerstone of the movement eventually known as Russian formalism.
Shklovskii showed the essay to the eminent scholar Baudouin de Courtenay, who introduced Shklovskii to his most brilliant linguistics students, Lev lakubinskii and Evgenii Polivanov. Tired of analyzing ancient texts, they were intrigued by the possibility of applying their techniques to the language of futurist poetry. Together with Shklovskii they formed the nucleus of Opoiaz (Society for the study of poetic language), and were subsequently joined by Osip Brik, Boris Eikhenbaum, and lurii Tynianov. Before long, the group’s interest in futurist poetry broadened into an interest in the specific nature of verse language as a whole. Collections of their essays were published in 1916, 1917, and 1919. The 1919 collection contained Shklovskii’s seminal articles “Iskusstvo kak priem” (Art as device) and “Sviaz’ siuzhetnykh priemov s obshchimi priemami stilia” (The connection between plot devices and general stylistic devices), in which he enunciated the theoretical principles that laid the foundation for the formalist school of criticism.
Next Shklovskii set out to rescue literature from the critics who insisted on treating it as a mirror of society or the author’s life. Discarding the conventional dichotomy of form and content, he substituted the dichotomy of form and material. He insisted that a work of literature, in all its component parts—hero, plot, motif—is form and only form. In one of the provocative formulations for which he was famous, he proclaimed, “A work of literature does not exceed the sum of its stylistic devices.”
Literature restores outworn words, objects, and genres to perceptibility. To describe that process, Shklovskii coined two terms that subsequently gained wide currency: ostranenie (estrangement) and zatrudnennoe postroenie (obstructed form). Estrangement includes all the techniques by which a writer renders the material unfamiliar, such as the use of a peculiar narrative viewpoint (e.g. a child or a horse); obstructed form refers to the process by which a writer dismantles the material and arranges it into conspicuous verbal patterns.
In his essay on Vasilii Rozanov (1921), Shklovskii completed his theoretical edifice with a new hypothesis about the dynamics of literary history that drew upon his theory of perception. At any given time, literary forms exist in a complex hierarchy. As a dominant form ceases to elicit perception, it is replaced by one of the subordinate forms in the hierarchy. In other words, a major new writer originates not from the dominant predecessor, but from the minor genres and writers in the literary hierarchy of the time.
As Shklovskii phrased it, “In the history of art, the legacy is transmitted not from father to son, but from uncle to nephew.”
The seminal essays Shklovskii produced after the Revolution were collected in his landmark book, O teorii prozy (1925, 1929; Theory of Prose). He found in the work of Rozanov, Laurence Sterne, and Andrei Belyi not only ideal subjects for his theories, but models for his own prose. Influenced by Rozanov’s rebellion against “tidy,” cohesive literature, Shklovskii cultivated a deliberate stylistic and compositional nonchalance: a conversational tone, the use of ironic epigraphs, and a cavalier disregard of logical composition. Sterne taught him numerous methods for distorting the proportions of a work by using chronological shifts and digressions. From Belyi, Shklovskii learned how to lay bare the components of a work and to unify those components with a substratum of repeated images.
In his style Shklovskii obtained striking effects in a variety of ways. He interspersed literary language with slang and conversational idioms. He chose images that juxtaposed startlingly dissimilar items. He renounced the paragraph as a means of organizing a cluster of related material: instead, he either assembled incongruous ideas in the same paragraph or resorted to the one-sentence paragraph, which became his trademark.
After the Revolution, Shklovskii propagated the doctrines of formalism in countless essays and lectures, working with special intensity as mentor to a brilliant group of young writers who called themselves the Serapion Brothers. Threatened by arrest for his heretical views and activities, he fled to Berlin in Spring 1922. There he published an essay on Charlie Chaplin and a book called Literatura i kinematograf (1923; Literature and cinematography), in which he applied his theories about literature to the new medium. After his return to the Soviet Union in Fall 1923, he worked closely with the important film directors of the 1920s, especially Sergei Eisenstein, whose theories of montage owe something to Shklovskii’s influence.
During the late 1910s, as the Communist Party imposed tight controls on art and literature, Shklovskii abandoned his early insistence on intricate forms and irony.
Invoking his theory of perception, he asserted that the new Russian reader had ceased to respond to those forms and now preferred documentary literature. Accordingly, Shklovskii led the exploration and refinement of such genres as the newspaper article, the feuilleton, and the essay—forms that would dominate the Russian literary scene during the 1930s. He retained his much maligned dedication to formal analysis, but enlarged his
scope to include the impact of society on the formation of literature.
In 1930 Shklovskii published his controversial essay “Pamiatnik nauchnoi oshibke” (A monument to scientific error), which has been widely misinterpreted as his unconditional surrender to the Party’s demand for orthodoxy in art. In fact, this essay took the position that the charges against the formalists apply only to the initial stge of their movement.
Shklovskii argued that after 1924, the formalists evolved a more sophisticated approach to literature that included recognition of social and economic factors. He concluded the essay by flatly refusing to declare himself a Marxist.
Throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, Shklovskii was pilloried by Marxist critics for his alleged adherence to the heresies of formalism. Finally, however, he was able to publish his critical masterpiece, Khudozhestvennaia proza: Razmyshleniia i razbory (1959, 1961; Artistic prose: reflections and analyses), in which he re-established himself as a superb comparativist with a series of essays on his old favorites: Shakespeare, Boccaccio, Cervantes, Fielding, Sterne, and Dickens, along with the Russian writers Tolstoi, Chekhov, and Sholokhov. In 1966, Shklovskii expanded this book by adding essays on Gogol’, Pushkin, and Dostoevskii and changing the title to Povesti o proze: Razmyshleniia i razbory (Tales about prose: reflections and analyses).
In 1970, at the age of 77, Shklovskii published Tetiva: O neskhodstve skhodnogo (Bowstring: on the dissimilarity of the similar), which one reviewer described as “the champagne of criticism” (TLS, 15 October 1971). In this book Shklovskii moved beyond the confines of the individual text into a sort of meditation on the essence of literature: the sources of unity, the shaping role of the author, the tension between component parts, and the deformation of fact by literary form.
The revolution Shklovskii led against hackneyed language, form, and thought in all the arts made a powerful contribution to the brilliant achievements of Russian art during the early part of the 20th century. He also left an indelible imprint on the schools of criticism that followed Russian formalism.
Viktor Borisovich Shklovskii. Born in St. Petersburg, 6 February 1893. Studied philology at St. Petersburg University. Married Vasilisa Kordi, 1909 (later divorced): two children.
Cofounding member, Opoiaz (Society for the study of poetic language), 1916. Joined the Social Revolutionaries and fought against both the White Guard and the Bolsheviks during the Civil War, 1917. Professor, Institute of Art History, St. Petersburg, 1920–21.
Fled to Berlin to avoid arrest for anti-Bolshevik activities, Spring 1922; after receiving an amnesty, returned to Russia, Fall 1923, and settled in Moscow, where he spent the rest of his life. Never forgiven by the Communist Party for his activities, both literary and nonliterary, during the 1920s. Hounded by the Marxist critics virtually all his life. War correspondent during World War II; consultant to Sergei Eisenstein in the making of the film Ivan the Terrible, 1944. Married Serafima Narbut after World War II.
Awards: State Prize, 1979.
Died in Moscow, 5 December 1984.
Essays and Related Prose
Voskreshenie slova, 1914; as “Resurrection of the Word,” translated by Richard Sherwood, in Russian Formalism, edited by Stephen Bann and John E.Bowlt, 1973:41–47
Rozanov, 1921; as “Plotless Prose: Vasilii Rozanov,” translated by Richard Sheldon, Poetics Journal 1 (January 1982): 3–23
Razvertyvanie priema (The elaboration of the device), 1921
Tristram Shendi Sterna i teoriia romana, 1921; as “Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and the Theory of the Novel,” translated by Richard Sheldon, Review of Contemporary Fiction (Spring 1981): 190–211
Khod konia, 1923
Literatura i kinematograf, 1923
O teorii prozy, 1925; revised, enlarged edition, 1929; as Theory of Prose, translated by Benjamin Sher, 1990
Udachi i porazheniia Maksima Gor’kogo (Successes and failures of Maksim Gor’kii), 1926
Piat’ chelovek znakomykh (Five acquaintances), 1927
Tekhnika pisatel’skogo remesla (The technical devices of the writer’s craft), 1927
Gamburgskii schet (Hamburg account), 1928
Mater’ial i stil’ v rotnane L’va Tolstogo Voina i mir (Material and style in Lev Tolstoi’s
novel “War and Peace”), 1928
Matvei Komarov: Zhitel’ goroda Moskvy (Matvei Komarov: inhabitant of the city of Moscow), 1929
Kratkaia no dostovernaia povest’ o dvorianine Bolotove (A short but reliable tale about the nobleman Bolotov), 1930
Podenshchina (Day labor), 1930
Poiski optimizma (In search of optimism), 1931
Chulkov i Levshin (Chulkov and Levshin), 1933
Zhizn’ khudozhnika Fedotova (The life of the artist Fedotov), 1936
Kapitan Fedotov (Captain Fedotov), 1936
Marko Polo, 1936; revised edition, in Istoricheskie povesti i rasskazy, 1958; revised edition, as Zemli razvedchik (Marko Polo), 1969; revised edition, in Sobranie sochinenii, vol. 2, 1974
Zametki o proze Pushkina (Remarks on Pushkin’s prose), 1937
Dnevnik (Diary), 1939
O Maiakovskom (About Maiakovskii), 1940; revised edition, in Sobranie sochinenii, vol. 3, 1974; as Maiakovskii and His Circle, translated by Lily Feiler, 1972
Minin i Pozharskii (Minin and Pozharskii), 1940
Vstrechi (Encounters), 1944
O masterakh starinnykh (About the masters of old), 1951; revised, enlarged edition, 1953
Zametki o proze russkikh klassikov: O proizvedeniiakh Pushkina, Gogolia, Lermontova,
Turgeneva, Tolstogo, Chekhova (Remarks on the prose of the Russian classics), 1953; revised, enlarged edition, 1955
Povest’ o khudozhnike Fedotove (A tale about the artist Fedotov), 1955; revised edition, in Istoricheskie povesti i rasskazy, 1958; revised, enlarged edition, 1965
Za i protiv: Zametki o Dostoevskom (Pro and con: remarks on Dostoevskii), 1957; revised edition, in Sobranie sochinenii, vol. 3, 1974
Istoricheskie povesti i rasskazy (Historical tales and sketches), 1958
Khudozhestvennaia proza: Razmyshleniia i razbory, 1959; revised, enlarged edition, 1961; enlarged edition, as Povesti o proze: Razmyshleniia i razbory, 2 vols., 1966
Zhili-byli: Vospominaniia, memuarnye zapisi, povesti o vremeni: S kontsa XIX veka po
1962 (Once upon a time: reminiscences, memorial notes, tales about the era), 1964; revised, enlarged edition, 1966
Za sorok let: Stat’i o kino (In the course of 40 years: articles about film), 1965
Staroe i novoe; Kniga stat’ei o detskoi literature (The old and the new: a book of articles
about children’s literature), 1966
Tetiva: O neskhodstve skhodnogo, 1970
Energiia zabluzhdeniia: Kniga o siuzhete (The energy of delusion: a book about plot), 1981
Za shest’desiat let: Raboty o kino (In the course of 60 years: pieces on film), 1985
Gamburgskii schet: Stat’i, vospominaniia, esse (1914–1933) (Hamburg account: articles, reminiscences, essays), 1990
Other writings: experimental memoirs (including Zoo: Pis’ma ne olyubvi, ili Tret’ya Eloiza [Zoo, or Letters Not About Love], 1923; Sentimental’noe puteshestvie: vospominaniia 1917–1922 [A Sentimental Journey], 1923), over two dozen screenplays, and a biography of Lev Tolstoi (1963–67).
Collected works edition: Sobranie sochinenii, 3 vols., 1973–74.
Berman, D.A., and L.A.Verolainen, “Viktor Borisovich Shklovskii,” in Russkie sovetskie prozaiki, vol. 6, pt. 1, Moscow: Kniga, 1969:229–89
Galushkin, A.Yu., “Novye materialy k bibliografii V.B. Shklovskogo,” De Visu 1 (January 1993): 64–77
Sheldon, Richard, Viktor Shklovskii: An International Bibliography of Works by and About Him, Ann Arbor, Michigan: Ardis, 1977
Galan, F.M., “Film as Poetry and Prose: Viktor Shklovskii’s Contribution to the Poetics of Cinema,” Essays in Poetics 9 (1984):95–104
Gifford, Henry, “Viktor Shklovskii,” Grand Street (Autumn 1988): 94–110
Grits, Teodor, “The Work of Viktor Shklovskii,” in Third Factory by Shklovskii, Ann Arbor, Michigan: Ardis, 1977:91–121 (original edition, 1927)
Haber, Edythe C., “Bulgakov and Shklovskii: Notes on a Literary Antagonism,” in New Studies in Russian Language and Literature, edited by Anna Lisa Crone and Catherine
V.Chvany, Columbus, Ohio: Slavica, 1987:151–58 Mitchell, Stanley, “From Shklovskii to Brecht: Some Preliminary Remarks Toward a
History of the Politicization of Russian Formalism,” Screen 15 (Summer 1974):74–80;
see also Ben Brewster’s article, “From Shklovskii to Brecht: A Reply”: 81–102
Nicholas, Mary A., “Formalist Theory Revisited: On Shklovskii’s ‘On Pil’nyak’,” Slavic and East European Journal 36, no, 1 (Spring 1992):68–83
Segre, Cesare, “Viktor Shklovskii, or the Structures of Pity,” in Semiotics and Literary Criticism, The Hague: Mouton, 1973: 133–44
Sheldon, Richard, “Shklovskii, Gor’kii and the Serapion Brothers,” Slavic and East European Journal 12, no. 1 (Spring 1968): 1–13
Sheldon, Richard, “Making Armored Cars and Novels: A Literary Introduction,” in A Sentimental Journey by Shklovskii, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1984:ix-xxv (original edition, 1970)
Sheldon, Richard, Introduction to Zoo, or Letters Not About Love by Shklovskii, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1971: xiii–xxxiii
Sheldon, Richard, “The Formalist Poetics of Viktor Shkovskii,” Russian Literature Tri- Quarterly 2 (Winter 1972):351–71
Sheldon, Richard, “Viktor Shklovskii and the Device of Ostensible Surrender,” Slavic Review 34, no. 1 (March 1975):86–108
Sheldon, Richard, “Shklovskii and Mandelshtam,” in Russian and Slavic Literature, edited by Richard Freeborn, R.R.MilnerGulland, and Charles A.Ward, Coiumbus, Ohio: Slavica, 1976: 396–406
Sheldon, Richard, “The Itinerary of Viktor Shklovskii’s A Sentimental Journey” in Norwich Symposia on Russian Literature and Culture, vol. 3, Northfield, Vermont: The Russian School, forthcoming
Sherwood, Richard, “Viktor Shklovskii and the Development of Early Formalist Theory on Prose Literature,” in Russian Formalism, edited by Stephen Bann and John E.Bowlt, Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, and New York: Barnes and Noble, 1973:26–40
Steiner, Peter, “The Praxis of Irony: Viktor Shklovskii’s Zoo,” in Russian Formalism, a Retrospective Glance: A Festschrift in Honor of Victor Erlich, edited by Robert Louis Jackson and Stephen Rudy, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Center for International and Area Studies, 1985
Thompson, Ewa M., “V. Shklovskii and the Russian Intellectual Tradition,” in Aspects of Modern Russian and Czech Culture, edited by Arnold McMillin, Columbus, Ohio: Slavica, 1989
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