Themes and Meanings

It is ironic that a major part of the meaning of this painful novel is its innovation in form. Art ordinarily pales in importance in time of war. The vitality of the young critical theorists—among them Boris Eikhenbaum, Lev Lunts, Osip Brik, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Yury Tynyanov—sets their sense of the importance of their thought and practice in verbal art against the destructive elements in all that Shklovsky encounters. Their ideas have since permeated literature in the West: the emphasis on craftsmanship, on the importance of the word, on the necessity to “estrange” reality by means of literary devices in order to let readers feel and see reality more clearly; the power of past forms to generate the nature of new ones; the pressure of changing reality to generate new forms of expression; new ways of integrating “fact” into literature. This novel is a generator for a whole way of writing in the twentieth century.

The theory, however, is not what stays with the reader. The effect of the formal innovation is to deliver awareness of a new reality. Readers can literally see the Revolution happen, see the diverse ways in which people respond to its challenge, live through the hatred of one ancient people for another in Persia in Shklovsky’s appalled yet sympathetic representation of the Aissors and the Kurds. A value system emerges of patriotism, personal courage, commitment to truth, respect for life, deep distrust of war, hatred, and prejudice, respect for competence when it appears in anyone’s work, revulsion at violence, honor for generosity, and an overriding compassion for human beings. Composed of bits and pieces as the novel is, a mosaic image comes into being that, like a Russian icon, combines pity and judgment. It is a work demanding deep attention, defining excellence, pinioning evil, and humanizing those who can hear what the narrator has to say.