- Shklovsky: Witness to an Era by Serena Vitale
trans. Jamie Richards (Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive, 2012), 120 pp.
In deep winter 1978 – 79, six years before his death, the enfant terrible of Russian formalism and its longest- living survivor, Viktor Shklovsky (1893 – 1984), granted a series of interviews to the Italian Slavist Serena Vitale. Her little book tells two stories. The first is the interviewer’s own. There wasn’t a glimmer yet of glasnost, and, during her second week in Moscow, Vitale was run down on the street by the KGB thugs assigned to trail her, leaving her badly bruised and with two cracked ribs. Shklovsky urged her to return promptly to Italy with her precious tapes; seventy years in literary harness had taught him how to bend so as not to break. The second story is an oral memoir, eased out of an eighty- six- year- old man with flexibility and tact, and full of marvelous things. Amid praise for Tolstoy and Pushkin, Shklovsky recalls his friendship with Mayakovsky, Khlebnikov, Pasternak, Meyerhold, Eisenstein. The master of montage did not care for the object in itself, we learn: “What interests him is the reciprocal interaction of objects and ideas.” The poet Mayakovsky “wanted to be liked right away,” most of all by the Revolution. And although Bulgakov was an “incomparable writer,” the end of The Master and Margarita was a disappointment, because Christ and the Master have nothing to say to each other: “Christ is better informed, he has all the news, he’s more interested and involved in the problems of the world.”
Through every ghastly Soviet freeze and thaw, Shklovsky never withdrew from the world’s problems. But by 1978, he did have some anxieties about the profession. He feared for language. Technology (that is, television) was distorting the living word. Critical jargon (in this case, that of Structuralism) was distorting discussions of literature (“The language of professors is always ugly”). Shklovsky was an unusual revolutionary formalist. He wrote pathbreaking studies of Sterne, Conan Doyle, Dickens, and Cervantes without knowing English or Spanish (and in Vitale’s book we learn that he also “worked a lot on Boccaccio,” thus adding Italian to the literary traditions on which he worked but whose language he did not know). Shklovsky as a formalist scholar and critic was dependent on forms not belonging to their authors. What he studied, of course, was less formal verbal [End Page 327] structure than devices for waking up the reader (“estrangement”) and for the pacing and dynamics of plot. But even plot, he confessed, was constraining: “Talking about a beginning, middle, and end has nothing to do with art. . . . I myself, with all the love I have for novels, I prefer to doze off before the denouement.” Shklovsky did just that, dying four years before the end of the Soviet era that had defined his life.
This timely memoir, which passed from Russian conversation through Italian into English, is wonderfully rendered by Jamie Richards into the rambling, aphoristic, suddenly profound voice we recognize as that of Soviet Russia’s most cosmopolitan monolingual critic. It took work to survive. To support himself, Shklovsky worked for everyone: editing banned film scripts to get them through the censorship, ghostwriting whole books for ungifted colleagues. Only two things, he remarked, he never wrote: “Poetry, and denunciations.”
Caryl Emerson is A. Watson Armour III University Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures and professor of comparative literature at Princeton University. Her books include The First Hundred Years of Mikhail Bakhtin, The Life of Musorgsky, and Boris Godunov: Transpositions of a Russian Theme, as well as the Cambridge Introduction to Russian Literature and (with Gary Saul Morson) Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics.