Viktor Borisovich Shklovsky
24 January [O.S. 12 January] 1893
|Died||6 December 1984 (aged 91)|
|Alma mater||Saint Petersburg Imperial University|
|Art as Device (1917)|
Zoo, or Letters Not About Love (1923)
Theory of Prose (1925)
Viktor Borisovich Shklovsky (Russian: Ви́ктор Бори́сович Шкло́вский, IPA: [ˈʂklofskʲɪj]; 24 January [O.S. 12 January] 1893 – 6 December 1984) was a Russian and Soviet literary theorist, critic, writer, and pamphleteer. He is one of the major figures associated with Russian formalism.
Viktor Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose was published in 1925. Shklovsky himself is still praised as "one of the most important literary and cultural theorists of the twentieth century" (Modern Language Association Prize Comitee); "one of the most lively and irreverent minds of the last century" (David Bellos); "one of the most fascinating figures of Russian cultural life in the twentieth century" (Tzvetan Todorov)
During the First World War, he volunteered for the Russian Army and eventually became a driving trainer in an armoured car unit in St. Petersburg. There, in 1916, he founded OPOYAZ (Obshchestvo izucheniya POeticheskogo YAZyka—Society for the Study of Poetic Language), one of the two groups (with the Moscow Linguistic Circle) that developed the critical theories and techniques of Russian Formalism.
Shklovsky participated in the February Revolution of 1917. Subsequently, the Russian Provisional Government sent him as an assistant Commissar to the Southwestern Front where he was wounded and got an award for bravery. After that he was an assistant Commissar of the Russian Expionary Corps in Persia (see Persian Campaign).
Shklovsky returned to St. Petersburg in early 1918, after the October Revolution. He opposed bolshevism and took part in an anti-bolshevik plot organised by members of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party. After the conspiracy was discovered by the Cheka, Shklovsky went into hiding, traveling in Russia and the Ukraine, but was eventually pardoned in 1919 due to his connections with Maxim Gorky, and decided to abstain from political activity. His two brothers were executed by the Soviet regime (one in 1918, the other in 1937) and his sister died from hunger in St. Petersburg in 1919.
Shklovsky integrated into Soviet society and even took part in the Russian Civil War, serving in the Red Army. However, in 1922, he had to go into hiding once again, as he was threatened with arrest and possible execution for his former political activities, and he fled via Finland to Germany. In Berlin, in 1923, he published his memoirs about the period 1917–22 under the title Сентиментальное путешествие, воспоминания (Sentimental'noe puteshestvie, vospominaniia, A Sentimental Journey), alluding to A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy by Laurence Sterne, an author he much admired and whose digressive style had a powerful influence on Shklovsky's writing. In the same year he was allowed to return to the Soviet Union, not least because of an appeal to Soviet authorities that he included in the last pages of his epistolary novel Zoo, or Letters Not About Love.
The Yugoslav scholar Mihajlo Mihajlov visited Shklovsky in 1963 and wrote: "I was much impressed by Shklovsky's liveliness of spirit, his varied interests and his enormous culture. When we said goodbye to Viktor Borisovich and started for Moscow, I felt that I had met one of the most cultured, most intelligent and best-educated men of our century."
He died in Moscow in 1984.
In addition to literary criticism and biographies about such authors as Laurence Sterne, Maxim Gorky, Leo Tolstoy, and Vladimir Mayakovsky, he wrote a number of semi-autobiographical works disguised as fiction, which also served as experiments in his developing theories of literature.
Shklovsky is perhaps best known for developing the concept of ostranenie or defamiliarization (also translated as "estrangement") in literature. He explained the concept in 1917 in the important essay "Art as Technique" (also translated as "Art as Device") which comprised the first chapter of his seminal Theory of Prose, first published in 1925. He argued for the need to turn something that has become over-familiar, like a cliché in the literary canon, into something revitalized:
And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art. The purpose of art, then, is to lead us to a knowledge of a thing through the organ of sight instead of recognition. By "enstranging" objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and "laborious." The perceptual process in art has a purpose all its own and ought to be extended to the fullest. Art is a means of experiencing the process of creativity. The artifact itself is quite unimportant.— Shklovsky, Viktor, Theory of Prose. Translated by Benjamin Sher, (Dalkey Archive Press, 1990), p. 6.
Among other things, Shklovsky also contributed the plot/story distinction (syuzhet/fabula), which separates out the sequence of events the work relates (the story) from the sequence in which those events are presented in the work (the plot).
Shklovsky's work pushes Russian Formalism towards understanding literary activity as integral parts of social practice, an idea that becomes important in the work of Mikhail Bakhtin and Russian and Prague School scholars of semiotics. Shklovsky's thought also influenced western thinkers, partly due to Tzvetan Todorov's translations of the works of Russian formalists in the 1960s and 1970s, including Tzvetan Todorov himself, Gerard Genette and Hans Robert Jauss.
Shklovsky was one of the very early serious writers on film. A collection of his essays and articles on film was published in 1923 (Literature and Cinematography, first English ion 2008). He was a close friend of director Sergei Eisenstein and published an extensive critical assessment of his life and works (Moscow 1976, no English translation).
Beginning in the 1920s and well into the 1970s Shklovsky worked as a screenwriter on numerous Soviet films (see Select Filmography below), a part of his life and work that, thus far, has seen very limited attention. In his book Third Factory Shklovsky reflects on his work in film, writing: "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. And the third – is processing me at this very moment."
"Victor Shklovsky and Roman Jacobson. Life as a Novel" documentary film by Vladimir Nepevny