Reading Viktor Shklovsky with a little bit about Jonathan Franzen

Context N°13

by Martin Riker

Viktor Shklovsky is known here in the United States, if he’s known at all, as one of the founders of Russian Formalism, the critical movement that set out back in the early 1920s to “identify the specific set of things which distinguishes art from all other domains of intellectual activity, and which makes them its material or tools.”1 The idea was to treat literature scientifically, with an emphasis on technique and on the palpable qualities of writing. For Shklovsky, the scientific study of literature was a very personal and passionate undertaking—one that he managed in the midst of world wars and revolutions, writing wherever he could—because he believed that art serves a crucial function: to expose reality, tear down conventional ways of seeing and stimulate our perception anew, to “revitalize the world.” As a critic, he was before all else a reader, and held the optimistic view that reading is active, that literature is “a means of experiencing the process of creativity,” and that the purpose of reading literature is not to escape reality, but to connect us to the real circumstances in which we all live.

Out of Shklovsky’s conviction came critical works of great beauty and complexity, but also several utterly remarkable literary works, all written during a brief, turbulent period in the early and mid twenties. These are revolutionary books, in ways comparable to William Carlos Williams’s prose from the same period, both authors rebelling against social and artistic conventions, and both focused unpretentiously on the realities of their immediate environments, making art out of the rough pieces of their lives and surroundings. “I want to write about things and thoughts,” says Shklovsky, like words out of Williams’s mouth. Stylistically they’re very different from one another—Shklovsky’s a clown, more inclined toward anecdotes and wisecracks, his language less violent in its cuts and jumps—but their work has a similar raw energy, and the result in both cases is a powerful sense of immediacy or “in-the-worldness.” Each is a unique voice speaking to the world about things that matter, and in their writing, everything matters.

Three books make up about seventy-five percent of Shklovsky’s total literary output, including all that’s been translated into English to date: A Sentimental Journey; Zoo, or Letters Not about Love; and Third Factory. All three can be viewed together as an extended memoir, but a memoir-in-forms, each book structurally unique, and each containing elements of novel, poem, essay, and rant. They are also a good introduction to Shklovsky’s writing as a whole, because they are his most personal books, the most emotionally and stylistically extreme, and because in them we see the passionate motives behind the study of artistic forms that spanned the next sixty years of his life.


The first of the three, A Sentimental Journey (1922), is the only one that calls itself a memoir and is closest to what a reader might expect from one, with long narrative passages describing Shklovsky’s experiences as commander of an armored-car division through a world war and revolution—from Russia to Persia and back, living intermittently as a writer and critic, eventually landing in Germany. Shklovsky treats the sequence of these events loosely, concerned less with their historical relevance than with capturing the particulars of his own experience, material culled from every type of source: the physical realities of the moment, the political and social milieu, literary history, the war, the weather. He arranges these materials the way a collage artist might, placing distinct pieces and passages beside each other, these juxtapositions creating internal tensions and a sense of movement as the narrative trips back and forth between contrasting “things and thoughts.” For example, on page nine of A Sentimental Journey, Shklovsky writes: “Bread was bought from the soldiers. The crusts and scraps which, along with the sour smell of servitude, had been the trademark of barracks now disappeared.” He places “the sour smell of servitude” into a sentence about bread crusts, making the sentence resonate in unexpected ways, even while the bread crusts themselves remain bread crusts (i.e., a tactile image, rather than becoming a symbol for servitude, or being overshadowed by the political presence of the soldiers). Thus he encompasses a range of images, ideas, perspectives, etc., without losing a sense of direct engagement with the physical world.

What makes A Sentimental Journey seem more stylistically conventional than the later books is that (not discounting the above example) these kinds of juxtapositions are more often between paragraphs or whole passages than within a single line. He’ll place a personal anecdote alongside instructions on how to operate an armored car, for example, or a landscape alongside a discourse on creativity and freedom. He balances styles against each other—analytical descriptions against impassioned wisecracks—and the resulting contrasts make the experience of reading overtly participatory, at times even jarring, as the reader becomes momentarily aware of the “strangeness” of one kind of writing (or way of seeing) standing alongside (and in relation to) another.

At the extreme “sentimental” end of A Sentimental Journey’s stylistic spectrum are passages of melancholic despair, although Shklovsky’s despair is less for himself than for mankind in general. These passages are usually as funny as they are sad and are tied, like all his literary writing, to his own experiences. In the following dialogue, for example, Shklovsky has sat beside a Cheka officer on a train, and the officer (ostensibly his enemy) has been describing his own wartime activities:

“In the next district,” said my neighbor—and he named the district—”they caught a bandit. I was going there, since he was supposed to have hidden a lot of money, but those fools took him out and shot him. Now the money’s lost.”I said, “But how would you have found out about the money?” That is, I was asking about torture. And my heart was aching.

“There are ways,” my neighbor answered politely without ignoring the question.

We were silent for a while. Then he asked sadly, “Do you know Gorky?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Tell me, why didn’t he come over to our side right away?”

“Well,” I said, “you use torture and the land is ruined. Can’t you understand that it’s hard to be on your side?”

This is a real conversation, not imagined.

I have a good memory.

If my memory were poorer, I would sleep better at night.

At the extreme “analytical” end of the spectrum, then, is the baring of device itself—the discussion, within the book, of how that book’s effects are accomplished—a technique Shklovsky inherited from eighteenth-century Irish author Laurence Sterne (from whom he also borrowed the title A Sentimental Journey). Sterne had a tremendous influence on Shklovsky. It was in Sterne’s writing that he first identified many of the devices upon which he based his critical work (see Shklovsky’s seminal essay “The Novel as Parody: Sterne’s Tristram Shandy“), including the baring of device as well as the use of digressions to impede a narrative’s progress and to allow in seemingly incongruous pieces. Yet talking about his own literary devices is also perfectly natural to Shklovsky, an inevitable result of his tremendous critical enthusiasm, his love of artistic forms and of looking at literature scientifically. Far from being dry, pedantic, or overdetermined, Shklovsky’s critical digressions are playful, showing up out of the blue but bringing with them also a sense of seriousness and conviction, the author stepping outside for a moment to keep himself (and the text) honest to his experience. What makes these passages balance with the more sentimental passages—what makes both equally compelling, so that there’s no lag in the reader’s interest—is that Shklovsky is so incredibly good (clear, articulate) at writing about literary forms and processes, including his own. For example, discussing shortages of butter and sugar, and the human brain’s need for both, Shklovsky writes: “Someday poems will be written about dried Soviet fish. To the starving, it was manna from heaven.” The mention of poems, however, turns him to a digression on Russian literature and the Formal method:

The formal method is fundamentally very simple—a return to craftsmanship. Its most remarkable feature is that it doesn’t deny the idea content of art, but treats the so-called content as one of the manifestations of form.In a work of art, thought is juxtaposed to thought, just as word is to word and image to image.

Art is fundamentally ironic and destructive. It revitalizes the world. Its function is to create inequalities, which it does by means of contrasts.

The use of contrasts to “revitalize the world” is what Shklovsky, in his critical writing, called “estrangement” (also translated as “enstrangement” and, less accurately, as “defamiliarization”). It’s a concept I’ll come back to, as this way of thinking about art is key to understanding how Shklovsky’s own writing works, as well as why he chooses to write this way.


Shklovsky’s second literary book—Zoo, or Letters Not about Love (1923)—takes the form of an epistolary novel. He’s in Germany now, having landed in political trouble for his writing, and is living among a group of Russian intellectuals who, like him, have come to Berlin to escape persecution. Being naturally fascinated by all aspects of his environment, he finds himself writing on various, seemingly unrelated topics. But then he wants to make a book, in fact a novel, out of this material.

Among the Russian intellectuals in Berlin was Elsa Triolet (called “Alya”), a woman with whom Shklovsky was very much in love. Their relationship was complicated, and the realities of it aren’t historically clear (it seems they fooled around for a while, then she dumped him), but it did provide him with a form for his novel: it would be a series of love letters to Alya, except that she (the character Alya) would refuse to allow him (the character Viktor Shklovsky) to write about love. “I had to motivate the appearance of unrelated pieces,” Shklovsky states in the book’s introduction. “I introduced the theme of a prohibition against writing about love, and this prohibition let into the book autobiographical passages and the love theme.” Scientific or cold as this may sound, in practice the book is brilliantly funny and touching. It is also a serious account of the social and political circumstances in which Shklovsky found himself, although the overriding theme of love keeps this material from weighing the book down, i.e., becoming the point. Instead, the book’s seriousness is couched in Shklovsky’s irrepressible enthusiasm and wit, as we see in Letter Four, the first letter after Alya has asked him not to write about love:

I’m not going to write about love. I’m going to write about the weather.The weather in Berlin is nice today.

The sky is blue, the sun higher than the houses. The sun looks right into Pension Marzahn, into Aikhenvald’s room.

Outdoors, it’s nice and cool.

There was almost no snow in Berlin this year.

Today is February 5 . . . I’m still writing not about love.

From here, the letter goes on to discuss how Shklovsky doesn’t like cold weather, how the apostle Peter denied Christ because of cold weather, and how Russia is very cold compared to Palestine, so cold that if Christ had been crucified in Russia his disciples “would have flocked to the fires . . . and would have stood in line to deny Him.” All this leads to a digression about Russian editorial offices and the futurist poet Khlebnikov, and so on, until there are five distinct narrative threads (the weather, Christ and his apostles, Khlebnikov and his death, the Red Army, the sorrow of exile in a foreign land), each of which is spun around and related metaphorically to the others, but none of which can be considered the central or primary material.2 Toward the end of the letter, then, he can’t help himself, and returns to talking about love:

All we have are the yellow walls of houses, lit by the sun; we have our books and we have man’s entire civilization, built by us on the way to love.And the precept to be light-hearted.

But what about all the pain?

Give everything a cosmic dimension, take your heart in your teeth, write a book.

Love’s enthusiasm is contagious, it colors everything the narrator sees . . . although the love we’re reading about no longer seems to be the romantic kind. Of course romantic love is part of it, but we’re also reading about a lot of other things, not all of which are particularly worth celebrating. Love is not the subtext of Zoo, not the story that the book is “really” telling; instead, it’s everywhere on the surface. It works thematically, as a kind of vocabulary around which the book is constructed. In other words, love is the book’s theme not because Shklovsky has something of superior importance to tell us about it, but because it provides the form and motivation for everything else he wants to say. At the same time, love is still love, real and intoxicating. But Shklovsky “tames” love to come and go as he needs it.3


“Red elephant, step aside. I want to see life seriously and to say to it something in a voice not filtered through a squeaker.”

The statement “I want to see life seriously” shows up in one form or another in all three of these books, becoming a kind of mantra for Shklovsky. In Third Factory (1926), it appears at the very start, addressed to his son’s red rubber elephant toy. By itself it sounds a bit vague or flimsy, but by speaking this line to his son’s toy, Shklovsky places it within a series of metaphorical relationships that give it specific direction, identifying his antagonist in the form of this rubber elephant and, by association, the factory that churned the toy out, and the society that churned out the factory, which is the same society that is churning out Viktor Shklovsky.

Third Factory is arguably the most autobiographical of these books, since it traces Shklovsky’s history from childhood through his education and up to the present day, but it’s also the most stylistically divergent from narrative realism. His imagery has been growing more densely interwoven from book to book, and at this point the prose style essentially dictates a whole new form: one- or two-line paragraphs in sections of only a page or two, with wryly funny bold-faced headers such as “The Childhood of a Writer Who Eventually Learned to Be Succinct,” “I Write about Kisses,” and “A Case Ineptly Pleaded by Me.” He’s back in Russia now, working as a film editor in a studio he calls a “factory.” His environment is still politically turbulent, but his daily life (work, family) starts to look more and more domestic and regulated. This is the world we find upon opening the book, the one Shklovsky is speaking to through his son’s toy elephant.

The elephant image continues, sewn into Third Factory’s first few pages along with a discussion of his son’s first impression of a horse (“he thought it was doing four legs and a long nose just for fun”), the letter-writing practices of Mark Twain and Pushkin, the last days of autumn (“they echo with the sound of leaves withering in the lanes”), the green arc of streetlamps, the plywood partitions of editorial offices, and, finally, an explanation of the book’s title:

First of all, I have a job at the third factory of Goskino.Second of all, the name isn’t hard to explain. The first factory was my family and school. The second was Opoyaz.4

And the third—is processing me at this very moment.

Do we really know how a man ought to be processed?

Maybe it’s all right to make him stand in line for things. Maybe it’s all right for him to work outside his specialty.

That’s not the elephant squeaking—that is my voice.

Just as A Sentimental Journey’s theme is war, and Zoo’s is love, Third Factory is a book organized around the theme of industry, which Shklovsky uses to talk about the automatization of human experience (“We are cranked out in various shapes, but we speak with one voice when pressure is applied”), but also about the materiality of art (“The artist doesn’t produce an orderly arrangement of happiness. He produces a product”). For Shklovsky, conceptions of art and of human experience are inextricably related; in fact, their relationship is the basis for his entire career. It is in Third Factory, though, that this relationship finds its most concise, most overt, and most personal expression as he traces a path through the “factories” of his life and the many limitations, influences, and processes—the “squeakers”—by which he’s been shaped and molded. Shklovsky’s “squeakers” are obvious things such as education, politics, and money, but they also include authoritative literary conventions, ways of writing the “rightness” of which is assumed (“of course you write this way”) and that are so familiar as to cause no disruption of the reader’s expectations or sense of perception. His work diverges from such conventions because he believes that art’s function is to combat the “of course’s” of the world, and to “estrange” the reader’s perception through formal and stylistic dissonance. Yet his goal is not strangeness for strangeness’ sake; it’s to make the real “realer” (or as he says, “to make a stone feel stony”), which means that the word, the image, has to register in the reader’s mind. It needs to be precise and directly engaging. For Shklovsky, dissonance is a product of the writing’s clarity, not its confusion.

All of this was his project from the very beginning, and his intentions could not be clearer. In his early essay “Art as Device,” for example, in a passage that might as well be describing the state of things in contemporary America, he writes: “Held accountable for nothing, life fades into nothingness. Automatization eats away at things, at cloths, at furniture, at our wives, and at our fear of war.” He then quotes his literary hero, Tolstoy: “If the complex life of many people takes place entirely on the level of the unconscious, then it’s as if this life had never been.” When he concludes this passage by stating that literature is “a means of experiencing the process of creativity,” he’s not talking about the writer’s creative process; he’s talking about the reader’s.


All that Shklovsky represents, his ideas about literature and about reading, the value he places on seeing life seriously, stands in contrast to many of the assumptions that our own popular culture makes about literary art, such as the assumption that “serious” is a synonym for “elitist,” and that most readers don’t want to have to think, and that the experience of reading should always be satisfying in a familiar way, as an escape from reality, emotionally moving but ultimately harmless. This view of literature—which is tied to the idea that conventional realism is the only legitimate form of literary writing—is not at all new. Shklovsky fought against it all his life. If contemporary American readers don’t even recognize this view as a view (i.e., don’t recognize such assumptions at work in their own lives), that’s because none of this is argued over these days, at least not in mainstream culture; it’s just taken for granted.

And nowhere is it more taken for granted than among popular literary critics, whose assumptions about the nature of literary art—how it works and what it accomplishes—can be really surprisingly narrow-minded. A particularly ugly example is Jonathan Franzen’s September 2002 New Yorker piece titled “Mr. Difficult,” in which Franzen assumes a very cynical view of why some readers and writers value literature that is unconventional in style or form. He effectively lumps the writers of such works together in what he calls the “Status model” or “Status crowd” and says that in their books

Difficulty tends to signal excellence; it suggests that the novel’s author has disdained cheap compromise and stayed true to an artistic vision. Easy fiction has little value, the argument goes. Pleasure that demands hard work, the slow penetration of mystery, the outlasting of lesser readers, is the pleasure most worth having; and if . . . you can’t hack it, then to hell with you.

While parts of this vision sound accurate (the valuing work and disdaining cheap compromise parts, for example), Franzen neglects to mention why readerly work might provide pleasure—or what kind of pleasure—implying instead that such work is pointless, a literary equivalent of fraternity hazing, and that the pleasure it brings has entirely to do with being “better” than other people. Based on this absurd premise, Franzen then goes on to claim, “The Status position is undeniably flattering to the writer’s sense of importance”—making it clear that the real reason some writers don’t always stick to established conventions is to placate their own egos.

All of this is patronizing to readers as well as writers, and we should all be offended by it. Jonathan Franzen may very well have embraced more conventional modes of writing because he felt that otherwise he’d simply be flattering himself, but why he would assume that all writers are this self-congratulatory, I don’t know. I actually doubt that there are many writers in the history of the world who fit Franzen’s vision, and certainly Shklovsky is an example of one who doesn’t. (More than an example, his work provides a way of thinking about art and literature that is far more interesting and optimistic than anything Franzen has to offer.) Yet many readers of the New Yorker will follow Franzen’s lead in taking this view of writers for granted, so will be discouraged from reading “difficult” books based on the false belief that such books are written in the hope of excluding them, and will fail to recognize how cynical and reductive this view really is.


1This definition is actually from the formalist writer Jurij Tynjanov and is quoted in Boris Eikhenbaum’s “The Theory of the Formal Method” (in Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views), a short essay that provides a very good overview of the evolution of the formal method and its key contributions to literary and critical thought.

2A wonderful description of Shklovsky’s use of motifs in metaphorical relation to one another would be John Cage’s summary of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone compositional method, since Cage describes qualities that are both “musical” and “democratic.” Cage writes: “Schoenberg’s method assigns to each material, in a group of equal materials, its function with respect to the group. (Harmony assigns to each material, in a group of unequal materials, its function with respect to the fundamental or most important material in the group.) Schoenberg’s method is analogous to a society in which the emphasis is on the group and the integration of the individual in the group” (Silence. Wesleyan University Press, 1973).

3In the later book Mayakovsky and His Circle, Shklovsky describes clearly the nature of the writer’s (in this case, Mayakovsky’s) control over his materials: “Impassioned by his work, impassioned by his words, the poet is joyous when he speaks of grief. But, though exalted, grief remains grief. The poet tames grief to come and go at his beck and call. It does not have to be leashed.”

4Opoyaz is the literary/critical circle Shklovsky founded with Osip Brik and Felix Mandelstam.

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