FOR MANY, the price of canonicity is reduction to a single, dead cliché: Proust with his long-stale madeleine, Kant with his categorical imperative, Hannah Arendt with the banality of evil, and Viktor Shklovsky, dragging about ostranenie (estrangement or defamiliarization) like Jacob Marley with his chain of keys and ledgers. Such a fate is especially cruel for this prolific Russian theorist, who published his first short story at 15 and did not stop writing until his death at the age of 91. Shklovsky, who asserted in the Technique of Writing Craft — a 1927 manual for proletarian would-be authors — that “there are no clear demarcations between imaginative literature and what we call non-fiction,” composed novels, memoirs, film scripts, and essays that put the very notion of genre into question. Viktor Shklovsky: A Reader, thoughtfully translated and edited by Alexandra Berlina, is a valiant reminder of the extraordinary versatility, humor, brilliance, and sensitivity the Formalist label has come to conceal.

A prevailing confusion, its roots presumably etymological, is that those literary history has designated as Russian “Formalists” (a name pinned on them at first rather than one they willingly assumed) stressed the autonomy of literary form in relation to content, and that for them, literariness — to use Roman Jakobson’s famous term — was the effect of a finite set of literary devices. Two distinct but related groups propounded the formal method: the Moscow Linguistic Circle, focused initially on prosody and the study of folklore, and OPOYAZ, the Saint Petersburg–based Society for the Study of Poetic Language, which included, among others, Shklovsky, Boris Eichenbaum, and Osip Brik. Though it is true that early formalist research laid great emphasis on sound patterns, the universality of plot structures, framing techniques, and other “timeless” aspects of literary language, members of the Moscow Linguistic Circle did fieldwork gathering folklore in the Russian countryside, not only to work out its universal features, but also to understand why certain stories appealed to a given communities at a specific moment in time. Some years later, this research would lead Jakobson to the concept of the augenblicklich wirksames Künstwerk (currently effective artwork). Meanwhile, the constant mention of the purpose of poetic language in Shklovsky’s “Art as Device,” the most famous of all Formalist texts, as well as his willingness to characterize poetic language as the fulfillment of the aesthetic mission of redeeming life as outlined in Tolstoy’s diaries, show how far OPOYAZ stood from a mechanistic approach to literature, even at the moment of its birth. “Formalism,” Eichenbaum wrote, “was convenient as a simplified battle cry, but it fails, as an objective term, to delimit the activities of OPOYAZ.”

In fact, Formalism is best understood in relation to the late Romantic attempt to replace the sentimental, prescriptive, or biographical criticism that had prevailed over the previous 200 years with a science of literature based in comparative philology, with a particular emphasis on morphology and etymology. A key figure in the new criticism was Alexander Potebnya, whose characterization of poetry as “a special way of thinking and knowing” — more concretely, thinking in images — inspired the Russian Symbolists, many of whom sought to express a separate, higher reality through their verbal art. Unconvinced by the Symbolists’ esotericism, Shklovsky took aim at Potebnya in “Art as Device,” claiming that his failure to distinguish the language of prose and of poetry led him to ignore the difference between two types of image: “the image as a practical means of thinking, as a means of grouping objects — and the poetic image, as a means of intensifying an impression.” Shklovsky posits an opposition between recognition and perception: the first is utilitarian, “algebraic” thinking, which eases the processes of abstract thought at the expense of all that is unique in its object, whereas the latter elevates the aesthetic experience to the highest degree of consciousness. In this way, Shklovsky anticipates a key finding of experimental psychology: that the evolutionary function of consciousness is the generation of heuristics to react to information that transcends the capacities of bare instinct. The refinement of these heuristics speeds up what is known as processing fluency, allowing conscious perception to recede into the background. Whereas conventional prose labors in the service of instrumental thought, privileging outcome over experience, art impedes immediate understanding and reinstates the primacy of perception, in order “to make the stone stony,” in Shklovsky’s words. Defamiliarization is its primary means of doing so.

The task of defamiliarization is to bring back to thought’s objects the sensuous and evocative properties stripped away by recognition through veiled, dilatory language, so that “perception lingers and reaches its greatest strength and length.” This concept was not a new one; at the dawn of the 19th century, Novalis defined Romantic poetics as “the art of making an object pleasantly strange, and yet also familiar and attractive.” But in the Formalist view, defamiliarization became chief among a set of devices distinguishing poetic language from its routine counterpart, and made possible the liberation of literary aesthetics from such bugbears as “imagination,” “genius,” and “the “spirit of the age.”

Formalism arose in concert with Russian Futurist art and poetry. The protagonists of both movements knew each other, attended the same readings and parties, fought, and fell in love, and more than a few went into exile together after the end of the Russian Civil War. Stressing the “palpability” of poetry and the need to liberate language from hidebound formal strictures, Futurist poets like Vladimir Mayakovsky used strident juxtapositions to accentuate the semantic content of individual words and sounds. Another Futurist, Alexei Kruchenykh, classified words by their phonetic texture (moist, coarse, tender) and devoted an entire treatise to “shiftology,” the study of verbal dislocations employed for artistic effect. The Futurists’ contrariness was evident from the title of their founding manifesto, “A Slap in the Face of Public Taste,” which called for throwing Pushkin, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy “overboard from the ship of modernity.” Viewed against the backdrop of its era, Shklovsky’s early declaration that “art is always free from life, and its color has never reflected the flag over the city’s fortress” was less a credo than youthful bombast and the hunger for a theoretical counterpart to the Futurists’ call for a “self-sufficient word.” Both gestures marked a break with a critical tradition whose fixation on the social and historical antecedents for literature would, after a brief wave of revolutionary enthusiasm for the avant-garde, dovetail conveniently with the Bolsheviks’ materialist obsessions.

Fifty years have passed since Shklovsky was first translated into English, and he has long been a canonical figure in literary studies on the virtues of “Art as Device” alone, yet he is the subject of only a single biography, published in Russian in 2014 and still untranslated. This is unfortunate, for Shklovsky’s life was the stuff of cinema, full of war, fistfights, revolutionary scheming, last-minute escapes, and star-crossed love. A welcome feature of Berlina’s book is its extensive chronology of its subject’s life and excerpts from his memoirs and letters. Shklovsky was born in Saint Petersburg in 1893. While contemporaries like Marina Tsvetaeva or Osip Mandelstam attended boarding school in Lausanne or studied at the Sorbonne or Heidelberg, Shklovsky was repeatedly expelled from gymnasium and gave up university after a year and a half. As an adolescent, his ambition had been to become a boxer. But by 1912, he was frequenting an eccentric circle of poets and artists that included Mayakovsky and Osip and Lilya Brik, and giving raucous talks at literary cafes. In 1914, he volunteered to fight in World War I. He wrote “Art as Device” while out on maneuvers.

The following decade brought war, emigration, and frenetic creativity. In 1917, Shklovsky joined the February Revolution on the side of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, receiving a medal for bravery; later that year, he fought in Persia in the Caucasus Campaign. After the October Revolution, he took part in the anti-Bolshevik underground, participating in a coup; when it failed, an acquaintance helped him hide in a madhouse, advising him, “Don’t pretend anything, behave the way you always do. That’s quite enough.” In 1918, he supported Ukrainian independence in Kiev, then returned to Saint Petersburg after a declaration of general amnesty for members of the SR Party. Back home, he married and busied himself with OPOYAZ. In those years, two of his brothers were shot and his sister starved to death. In 1922, the Soviets revoked his amnesty, and after narrowly ducking arrest, Shklovsky crossed the frozen Gulf of Finland, dashed off his memoir A Sentimental Journey during a 10-day respite, then moved on to Berlin, where he would remain just over a year.

In Germany, he fell in love with Elsa Triolet, the daughter of a distinguished lawyer and sister of Mayakovsky’s muse, Lilya Brik. Elsa had married a Frenchman and moved to Tahiti in flight from the October Revolution. After a precipitous divorce, her husband returned home and she made her way to Berlin, where the enormous émigré community included such luminaries as Andrei Bely and the young Vladimir Nabokov. In an early letter to Shklovsky, she wrote, “My dear, my own. Don’t write to me about love,” and her prohibition provided the pretext for one of Shklovsky’s most famous books, Zoo, or Letters Not About Love. Just as his hero Tolstoy liked to describe things without naming them, so Shklovsky renders the pain of longing — not only for a woman, but also for an abandoned motherland — through musings about the weather, table manners, and, of course, the conventions of the epistolary novel itself. Shklovsky’s fellow Formalist Yury Tynyanov praised Zoo as a new kind of documentary fiction, and indeed, in its unprecedented self-consciousness, it realizes the principle of “laying bare the device” that Shklovsky had put forth in his 1921 monograph on Laurence Sterne. Zoo would have extraordinary consequences for Triolet as well as for Shklovsky: after seeing her letters, included verbatim in the manuscript, and judging them better written than those of the author, Maxim Gorky encouraged her to gather her reflections into a book. In 1925, she would produce In Tahiti, a narrative of her exile and failed matrimony. In 1928, after meeting her future husband, Louis Aragon, she began publishing in French, and 16 years later became the first woman (and first nonnative speaker) to win the Prix Goncourt.

Later additions to Zoo include a paean to Russia, whose culture, according to Shklovsky, “refused to emigrate.” He was miserable in Berlin: his beloved didn’t care for him; he felt deeply out of place; he didn’t speak the language; and, most significantly, the Soviet authorities had taken his wife hostage in his absence. In its original version, Zoo closes with a plea to the All-Russian Central Executive Committee:

I cannot live in Berlin.
My entire way of life, all my skills bind me to today’s Russia. I can only work for her …
Let me and all my simple luggage into Russia: six shirts (three at home, three at the laundry), a pair of yellow boots accidentally polished with black wax, and my old blue trousers on which I in vain attempted to make a crease.

The last line refers to an apparent assertion on Elsa’s part, vehemently countered by Shklovsky in Letter Eleven, that men ought to wear pleated pants.

It was inevitable that a regime so insistent on eating its own, so determined to wedge ideology into every aspect of its citizenry’s lives, would turn on those Formalists who hadn’t remained in exile, and in 1923, Leon Trotsky denounced Shklovsky in his essay “The Formalist School of Poetry and Marxism,” a preliminary version of the first chapter of Literature and Revolution. Decrying Formalism as “the only theory which has opposed Marxism in Soviet Russia these years,” Trotsky called for an art “that is always a social servant and historically utilitarian.” Shklovsky replied publicly, dismissing Trotsky’s essay as “a most vulgar misunderstanding of a scholarly theory whose only fault is that it is being misread,” but the writing was on the wall, and by 1930, Shklovsky repented in “A Monument to a Scholarly Error.”

Like many critics, Berlina takes a dim view of his retraction, calling it “a matter of self-protection” and “a rather somnolent affair.” I am not sure this is quite right. Though the grating presence of Marxist jargon is a far cry from his personal, anecdotal style, Shklovsky’s contention that it is impossible to study literary devices in isolation from one another, that they are correlated in a system which is in turn an outgrowth of social reality, is consonant with a renewed emphasis on the real and on the irreducibility of lived experience that would form the backbone of Shklovsky’s late work, much of it composed after the cultural “thaw” of the 1950s and ’60s, when there was little fear of reprisal. Furthermore, as the great scholar of Formalism Victor Ehrlich notes, the alleged anti-historical bias of the Formalists was, from the beginning, more a Marxist canard than an accurate description of their aesthetics; as the Great Terror gathered force in the 1930s, the label “Formalist” would be used to denounce painters, composers, architects, and even followers of the physicist Niels Bohr. Moreover, Shklovsky wasn’t doctrinaire about his own beliefs, and had quipped: “We are not Marxists, but if that utensil should prove useful in our household […] we will not eat with our hands out of spite.”

Even as a young man, Shklovsky characterized consciousness of the world as a good in itself and showed a deep interest in the evolution of art forms over time. In 1914, he had written:

Nowadays, the old art has already died, new art has not yet been born, and things have died — we have lost our awareness of the world; we resemble a violinist who has ceased to feel the bow and strings; we have ceased being artists in everyday life, we do not love our houses and our clothes, and we easily part with life, for we do not feel life.

It is difficult to square these words with the supposedly mechanistic aesthetics of Formalism. Over and over in Shklovsky’s memoirs, from A Sentimental Journey to The Hamburg Score, what predominates is tenderness, a yearning for the real and living, and a keen eye for incident that recalls Kundera’s definition of detail as “compassion for the ephemeral.”

In a study of literature trials in the Soviet Union, Sylvia Sasse places Shklovsky’s show of contrition in the context of the introduction of lay courts throughout the Soviet Union in the 1920s. Originally a stopgap response to a lack of trained legal personnel capable of prosecuting the mounting caseloads in official courts, by 1930 they were an accepted part of the Soviet legal establishment, charged with judging moral offenses in line with what Sasse calls “a juridification of society by means of compulsory and public self-criticism and the denunciation of those who transgress Soviet doctrine.” By the time “Monument to a Scholarly Error” was published, Shklovsky had been shot, barely survived an explosion, and seen rape, murder, and starvation with his own eyes. All this sufficed to convince him of the supreme value of life. The worst that can be said of him is that he was shrewd enough to talk his way out of the grim fate faced by Isaac Babel, Osip Mandelstam, and hundreds of other artists and writers. “The fields do not need my irony. I do need the fields, though; I need real things. If I don’t find some way of seeing them, I will die,” he writes in Third Factory.

From 1930 until the late ’50s, Shklovsky continued to publish, though by his own account the work was boilerplate — “mediocre, even terrible things” meant to put food on the table. It was not until 1965 that he became famous, thanks to Tzvetan Todorov’s influential translations of Formalist writings in Théorie de la littérature. With age, his concerns drifted toward plot and the nature of character. Plot he defines as a series of wrong turns and evasions serving to decelerate a story whose outcome is more or less predictable in advance; whereas “character as we understand it appears in the fairy tale when a simple person is contrasted with a hero.” Historically, the former takes precedence over the latter. But at the moment when attention begins to idle over incidental figures, whose humility and ambiguity reject the categorical moral schemas of primitive stories, a new kind of empathetic imagination emerges, and with it, the possibility of realism and the modern novel.

Shklovsky’s late work is animated by a new simplicity and a turn toward the human element in art. His idea of plot as an impediment, a stumbling block to rouse consciousness from its slumber, takes on a moral aspect. “The laws of art are the laws of internal human need, the need for a change in tension,” he says in Bowstring — and in Tales About Art, written in 1966 but revised in 1983, he affirms: “Now I know that art is based on the desire to enter life. Seeing and touching life, let us not claim that it doesn’t exist.”

Serena Vitale, the Italian scholar and translator, interviewed Shklovsky in 1979 and described him as “like an eighty-six-year-old boy.” Amid gossip, witticisms, and tears, he remarked about Anna Karenina: “[Tolstoy] brings everything down, he destroys what he has built, and in this destruction, he brings out and exposes the mechanisms of humanity.” With this, he hints at the ideas behind his last, perhaps greatest book, 1981’s Energy of Delusion, hoping to show “how a plot lives, how it dies, and why it gets revived.” In plain but heartfelt words, Shlovsky recollects the books he has written about for 60 years — the Decameron, the Quixote, Dead Souls — and his verdict on the motives of creation resembles nothing so much as the theory of Kunstwollen (artistic volition) as propounded by Alois Riegl: the expression of the individual artistic will through historically determined, but not inflexible forms, which adapt to the needs of artists and their era. Returning to a principle first put forth in a 1919 article on cinema — that in art it is not sons who inherit from their fathers, but rather nephews from their uncles — Shklovsky shows how traditional forms are taken up and altered under the pressure of psychological demands, giving rise to new ways of writing, thinking, and perceiving.

In her memoirs, the great and, sadly, little-known critic Lidiya Ginzburg recalled Shklovsky telling her that “formalism, idealism and such are like tins bound to a cat’s tail. The cat flings itself about, and the tin keeps clattering after him.” With this exemplary new anthology, Alexandra Berlina has helped free Shklovsky from the clanging of -isms, allowing new readers to appreciate his thought in the fullness of its diversity and beauty.


Adrian Nathan West is the author of The Aesthetics of Degradation as well as translator of numerous works of contemporary European literature, including Pere Gimferrer’s Fortuny and Marianne Fritz’s The Weight of Things.