Summary (Masterplots II: World Fiction Series)
In 1924, Yuriy Tynyanov, a Formalist critic, said of Viktor Shklovsky’s Zoo: Or, Letters Not About Love: “The book is interesting in that a single emotional core provides the basis for a novel, and a feuilleton, and a scholarly paper.” The comment covers the contents of this unusual mix of a novel. Shklovsky, an unwilling Russian emigre in Berlin in 1922, uses his own painful experience of unrequited love for Elsa Triolet, the estranged Russian wife of a Frenchman, as the core of a novel expressing his sense of dislocation in the West and his views on literature and his literary comrades.
The novel is arranged as a series of letters to Elsa (Alya is her Russian nickname.) A second subtitle Shklovsky uses, “The Third Heloise,” refers to the stories of the love of Heloise and Abelard in the Middle Ages and of the lovers in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Heloise (1761). In both these stories, the lovers are devoted to each other; they are frustrated by outside forces. The third Heloise is not so satisfactory a beloved; Shklovsky’s love is frustrated by the woman herself. She cannot love him in return. While she grants him the opportunity to write to her (and occasionally to telephone), she makes the stipulation that he must not write or speak about love.
This prohibition motivates the actual content of most of the letters: Shklovsky’s ideas about literature and his sketches of Russians in the Berlin literary...
(The entire section is 1325 words.)
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