Saturday, November 20, 2021

Introduction to Viktor Shklovsky

Humans broke their knowledge into shards in order to learn to talk, to talk out loud.
      Or else, to construct a whole, a unity from the shards.
      There are places in the mountains where the rocks respond to a shout by a landslide.
      There, the stones teach you poetry, teach you how to rhyme.
--Shklovsky (c. 1983)

Alexandra Berlina's Viktor Shklovsy: A Reader makes for a really sumptuous introduction to the harried Russian critic, now best known as the man who first theorized defamiliarization as key to literary art.

Berlina is a wonderful editor, and selects from the whole range of Shklovsky's texts, critical or novelistic, often including things not otherwise available in English. The portrait that emerges is of a keenly persistent survivor, daring and muted by turns. The sections of memoir included, especially from A Sentimental Journey, capture everyday life during the revolutionary period in Shklovsky's sharp, prismatic prose. Selected letters bring out the disjunctions and pained miscommunications of a writer slipping in and out of Russia, nowhere quite at home. The volume catches Shklovsky's memories of Jakobson, Babel, Mandelstam and others.

Shklovksy lived a long life of writing, and in later years came to qualify some of his early Formalist claims. No matter, both the early claims and his later second thoughts (some of which were doubtless intended to appease Soviet authorities) show him always working at the same basic problems: the important ones. Like many great critics, he kept returning to the same handful of great writers to test his thinking: Tolstoy, Cervantes, and Sterne preeminent.

Shlovsky's prose, his edgy, jarring paragraphs, are unique, somehow both precise and slapdash. A great Russian who comes out in clear outline in Ms. Berlina's solid collection.


Check out my Idiocy, Ltd. and begin the long, hard reckoning.

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