Against the Poverty of the World: Viktor Shklovsky and the Critical Mass

By James Norton

victor-shklovsky.jpgViktor Shklovsky

While still in his early twenties, Viktor Shklovsky, a leading light of the Russian literary scene, published on the eve of the Revolution the most influential theoretical article of its time, ‘Art as Technique’, in which he introduced the idea of ostranenie, insisting on the power of art to defamiliarise the everyday and return it to us in the full force of its poetic meaning. No Shklovsky, no Brecht; and we still need Brecht.

Following a brief flowering of Formalism and convulsive artistic experimentation after the revolution, Shklovsky came under pressure from Soviet officials. In the winter of 1922 he emigrated to Germany, where his fellow émigrés included Elsa Triolet, with whom he began a correspondence which formed the basis of his epistolary novel Zoo, or Letters Not about Love, written concurrently with Ulysses, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu and The Waste Land and the equal of all three as a Byzantine gem of exquisite prose, a radical mosaic of modernist literary experimentation. This novel, like so much of the greatest literature of the heart, was inspired by unrequited passion. Triolet, whose own letters are reproduced verbatim in the book, insisted “don’t write to me about love,” one of those restrictions that leads to the most marvellous and witty creativity. Shklovsky makes himself strange, and as his theory prescribes, makes great art in doing so. His letters, on such subjects as exile, pants, Einstein’s relativity, monkeys, Boccaccio, cars, how to hold a fork, Japanese folk tales and a fascination with the automobile, are all, of course, actually about love. The book was not reprinted from the end of the 1920s until 1964, when Shklovsky added the exquisite postscript: “let us view this book as water in whose passages the heart remained. So much of the past is contained in the blood and pride called lyricism.”

In 2006 the German film maker Bernhard Sallman constructed a split-screen video essay based on Zoo… The work follows Shklovsky’s chapter headings with readings of the letters over an empty black screen periodically lit with quarter-sized images of Sallman’s native Berlin; between which the same shots, wordless and contemplative, are expanded to film the screen. These images make strange the familiar forms of cars and subway trains and show a repeated fascination with reflecting surfaces and trompe l’oeil hoardings, revisiting the forgotten modernity of Shklovsky’s cityscape, the industrial skeleton of an inter-war Babylon. But while the work’s formal rigour is impressive and its compositions graphically beautiful, its empty monotone reduces Shklovsky’s passion and oneiric charm to a treatise on alienation.

 Zoo… is published in English by Dalkey Archive Press, devoted to the crucial task of restoring out-of-print classics to rightful public attention and whose list is a guarantee of astonishing riches. Their commitment to Shklovsky includes Third Factory, the follow-up to Zoo… written after his return to the USSR, in which his genius for visionary metaphors encodes a protest at the deadly Soviet orthodoxy which was to estrange him and many other great writers from themselves, and his monumental study of Tolstoy, Energy of Delusion.

Dalkey’s latest retrieval is Shklovsky’s Literature and Cinematography, a concentrated distillation of his theoretical reactions and the perfect introduction to them. Quick to grasp the importance of new technologies, Shklovsky was initially dismissive of the artistic potential of film, until won over by Battleship Potemkin, which satisfied his prescription for a poetic cinema which favoured formal elements over plot. Schklovsky was vexed by cinema’s inability to reproduce movement other than in a succession of still images, and because of this, its failure as an artistic advance, a theoretical problem later solved by Gilles Deleuze’ Image-Mouvement which shared with Shklovsky an interest in Zeno’s paradoxical arrow and the films of Chaplin. Reprising his definition of ostranenie, Shklovsky reminds that far from being a device for formal experimentation, it has an emotional and invigorating force, aimed at overpowering the fact that “we live in a poor and enclosed world. We do not feel the world in which we live, just as we do not feel the clothes we wear.”

In this volume, Schklovsky, who would later become a successful scriptwriter, notably of the pioneering documentary Turksib, a dramatic account of the construction of the railway across Central Asia to Siberia, also berates cinema for its inadequacy as a medium for literary adaptation. Shklovsky was to overcome his reservations and embrace the possibilities of cinema and his brief essay ‘The Future of the Motion Picture’, written even before the invention of sound cinema, is remarkably prescient, predicting the development of “the American film geared towards special effects… with minimal focus on acting, but with lots of animals, train wrecks etc., used as material for the artistic structure.” He was one of the first to get excited about animated films, convinced “that they have possibilities that are, as yet, untapped… Maybe cartoons can be combined with regular films?” Indeed, when Shklovsky died in 1984, aged 91, having avoided every purge endured by the ranks of Soviet artists, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was already in development at Disney.

For full details of Shklovsky’s books, please visit

James Norton is a director, producer and researcher in the television arts. Thanks to Sophie Lewis.