Energy of Delusion

The work of Viktor Shklovsky has slowly but steadily been appearing in English-language translations from the Dalkey Archive Press, and Energy of Delusion: A Book on Plot is a particularly interesting addition to the canon. Unlike such fellow members of the Russian Formalists as Roman Jakobson, Boris Eikhenbaum, and Yuri Tynianov, who utilized complex linguistic models in their analyses of the differences between creative and everyday writing, Shklovsky had a more direct set of questions that he wanted to pose to the literary work. What, for example, distinguishes the “literary” writer’s methods from other forms of authorship? How does experience, that everyday fund of material available to all sentient humans, become transformed into the distinctive and enthralling narratives of a Tolstoy, a Chekhov, or a Gogol? How do such gifted intelligences build upon the achievements of their forebearers, as they steal, borrow, and at their best reinvigorate the fundamental patterns of storytelling that have held attention in such diverse forums as the campfire, the court, and the coffeehouse?

Energy of Delusion displays Shklovsky examining these questions from the classic formalist position that before one can tell what something is, one must first figure out how it has been put together and how it works, and with the corollary that to answer these questions for a text one must approach it in a spirit of humility and open-mindedness. All the circumstances of the text’s coming into being are potentially significant, so readers familiar with Shklovsky’s methods will not be surprised to learn that he begins his consideration of Tolstoy’s fiction with a description of the author’s house in the rural village of Yasnaya Polyana. (Those unfamiliar with Shklovsky’s modus operandi will need to master their surprise and will also have to check any elitist assumptions regarding the theoretical basis of literary analysis at the door of Tolstoy’s modest, albeit comfortable, dwelling.) As Shklovsky meditates upon the situation of Tolstoy’s residence, he observes that life is in motion both within and without its walls, as the road on which it sits flows with traffic, and the rooms inside harbor the work of the writer and the activities of his family. If there is a social reality to be captured here, it can only be one that is what Shklovsky calls “stepped,” a series of happenings that unfolds in a linear, cause-and-effect way that seems to be suggestively parallel to the manner in which stories develop in the consciousness of their author.

Tolstoy fascinates Shklovsky, and more than half of Energy of Delusion is devoted to his work, with Anna Karenina (1875-1877) and three less well-known novels, Kazaki (1863; The Cossacks, 1872), Voskreseniye (1899; Resurrection), and Khadzi-Murat (1911; Hadji Murad), receiving the bulk of his attention. Shklovsky’s discussion of The Cossacks is a notably successful example of his critical practice in which he places particular emphasis on the autobiographical aspects of Tolstoy’s tale of the encounter between an expanding Russian empire and the fiercely independent nomads living on its frontier. Unsure of his own place in the Russia of his time, Tolstoy could not help but admire the Cossacks’ refusal to submit to any authority other than that of their freely chosen leaders. His protagonist in The Cossacks, Olenin, is a Russian youth whose indecisive behavior mirrors Tolstoy’s simultaneous attraction and repulsion to an alternative way of life that seems as desirable as it is unattainable: Even though mistrusted by many of its inhabitants, Olenin goes to live in a Cossack village, is strongly attracted to one of its women, realizes that the relationship cannot last, and with his lover’s help escapes and returns to his homeland. Shklovsky’s commentary establishes the connections between literary text and author’s experience in a suggestive rather than an assertive manner, noting that Tolstoy’s different drafts of the novel reflect an inability to settle on a definitive version of the narrative, as he gives the first example of what will become the book’s most prominent thematic thread: “the energy of delusion” that in Shklovsky’s view supplies the impetus for an author’s successive attempts at crafting a viable narrative.

In keeping with the discursive character of his ideas about literary inquiry, Shklovsky offers several different definitions of what “the energy of delusion” means. Early on, in the same section of the book as his discussion of The Cossacks, it is described as “the search for truth in a novel,” the sense that...

(The entire section is 1938 words.)