A Sentimental Journey: Memoirs, 1917-1922 Summary
by Viktor Shklovsky

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A Sentimental Journey: Memoirs, 1917-1922 Summary

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

A Sentimental Journey is a novel difficult to describe or categorize. Its narrative line emerges only in discontinuous episodes, memories, character studies, and literary discussions. Yet the cumulative effect of these separate pieces communicates in very personal terms the sweep of events in the revolutions and civil war bringing the Soviet Union into being. The novel is a literary experiment growing out of the commitment of Viktor Shklovsky and other Russian Formalist literary critics to the renewal of Russian prose in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Shklovsky calls the work “memoirs,” but he shapes these memories of World War I, the February and October Revolutions, and civil war as he would a novel, though no conventional novel. The title is an ironic reference to Laurence Sterne’s eighteenth century English novel, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (1768); previously, Shklovsky had published a celebrated analysis of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759-1767). The episodic structure and self-conscious narrative devices of Sterne’s works had excited Shklovsky in his search for ways to make a fresh start in the Russian novel. Sterne’s eccentric and leisurely commentary on his casual travels in Europe is a far cry, however, from the hair-raising history which Shklovsky offers with acute objectivity and tragic irony.

New times bring the need for new forms: Shklovsky’s memoirs make of his experience “a case study for posterity,” as he describes his aim. He communicates events sifted through his own consciousness just as a realistic novelist might do, but he organizes his material using radically different unifying devices.

The novel is in two parts: “Revolution and the Front” and “Writing Desk.” The first part recounts in intensive detail the coming of the February Revolution among soldiers in the armored division in which Shklovsky served; the effort of the Provisional Government under Aleksandr Kerenski to continue the war; the Kornilov revolt; and the Russian army in Persia and its wasteful withdrawal. Shklovsky is an active participant in each of these military undertakings. Part 2 describes, after the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks, Shklovsky’s efforts to support the constitutional government of the February Revolution, first in Petrograd and then in German-held Ukraine, and afterward his joining the Reds to fight the White General Wrangel’s attempt to restore the czar. Both parts also present personalities and activities of the Futurists and the Serapion Brothers, Shklovsky’s literary friends and students. The groups present themselves as creative and human in contrast to the inhumanity of the surrounding violence and death. Episodes follow depicting the deprivation of life in civil war Petrograd. Facing arrest as a member of a secret group opposing the Bolsheviks, Shklovsky flees to Berlin. He writes the second part of the novel in Berlin, and the work is published there in 1923. The book ends with an account of a humanitarian effort by an American doctor and missionary in Persia to save the children of the Aissors, who are fleeing the Turks when the Russian army withdraws.

The events described are superb as history, giving the texture and tone of the swift and shifting changes in this great hinge of Russian life. The scrupulous accuracy of the incidents recounted is that of an objective historian, but their selection and intimacy derive from their shaping by a novelist. This is indeed a literature of “fact,” a term and interest the new writers defined. The work offers a meaningful, exact, and convincing image of the times.

Nevertheless, A Sentimental Journey is also a novel, a work of imagination arranged to develop an interpretation of this life. Shklovsky achieves this hybrid by a dazzling use of literary devices: ironic detachment; abrupt and meaningful digressions; brilliant and fresh metaphors that gradually reveal fuller richness in their meaning by repeated returns in...

(The entire section is 1,151 words.)