Because of the energy, imagination, and versatility manifested in his numerous writings, Viktor Borisovich Shklovsky (SHKLAWF-skee) won recognition as the most durable and possibly the most prominent critic and writer affiliated with the Russian Formalist movement. His father was a mathematics teacher of Jewish ancestry, and his mother was of Latvian descent; he was born in St. Petersburg on January 24, 1893, and was raised in a household which included an older half brother and a sister. Apparently even during his adolescent years, Shklovsky had a proclivity for literary disputation. He published a short article in 1908, and while he was enrolled at the University of St. Petersburg in 1913, problems of critical theory evidently interested him more than academic matters. In 1914, an important essay, Resurrection of the Word, appeared, which presented his assessment of the challenging new ideas advanced by Russian Futurist writers. In order to promote innovative approaches to art and literary style, he took a leading part in the formation of Opoyaz, a society for the study of poetic language.
During World War I Shklovsky enlisted in the army and served with Russian forces stationed in Galicia and Ukraine. For a time he also was employed in the capital as an instructor for armored car personnel. His political leanings led to complications after the Russian Revolution of 1917. In connection with his official duties, he spent time on the Austrian front and also in Iran; while in Petrograd, he took part in a plot to restore parliamentary government at the expense of the Bolshevik regime. Afterward, he escaped to Kiev, and upon his return he was exonerated of political charges.
In Petrograd, Shklovsky married Vasilisa Georgievna Kordi, who became the mother of his two children, Varvara and Nikita. Shklovsky assisted young writers, such as the Serapion brothers, and he became a member of Lef, an association of Futurist and Formalist authors. Once more to avoid arrest on political grounds, he emigrated and remained abroad for more than a year, first in Finland and then in Germany. In the autumn of 1923, under the terms of a general amnesty, he returned to his native country and settled in Moscow.
Highly idiosyncratic views of his personal travails during this period were presented in semiautobiographical works such as A Sentimental Journey, Zoo, and Third Factory, which have the appearance of novels but, because of their unusual patterns of narration and odd ways of designating the author’s point of view, elude precise classification. Shklovsky’s penchant for experimentation also was demonstrated in curious traits, such as the frequent use of one-sentence paragraphs. In places he employed an erratic mixture of high-sounding phrases and colloquial expressions.
In such major theoretical efforts as Theory of Prose, Shklovsky formulated distinctions which posed the criteria that he thought were important for literary analysis. Contending that fictional works should be understood in terms of form rather than content, he maintained that devices such as obstruction, parallelism, retardation, and contact were the essential elements of narrative writing. In arguing that the sum total of such means determined the nature and quality of literary works, Shklovsky posited an approach to criticism that, although supported by many examples, struck some readers as extreme and was viewed by others as a bold and innovative method. The notion of estrangement (ostranenie), which later was cited by many others in a variety of contexts, was probably the most influential of the conceptions that Shklovsky developed.
A sizable part of Shklovsky’s writing had to do with the cinema, and he wrote many screenplays; his views about film were presented in theoretical works and biographical studies. Among the exemplars he cited as vital in the development of modern cultural ideas was Sergei Eisenstein, the director whose seemingly plotless techniques in some ways resembled...
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