Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Viktor Shklovsky

Viktor Shklovsky (VIHK-tohr SHKLOV-skee), the narrator, a Russian novelist, literary critic, and political émigré living in Berlin after the consolidation of Bolshevik power in the Soviet Union. The narrator is in love with the woman to whom he writes the letters that form the novel; she does not reciprocate the narrator’s feelings. She does, however, allow him to write to her as long as he does not write about his love. Because he cannot write what he wishes, he writes about what interests him: the theory of literature; literary friends in Berlin and in Russia whom he has left; descriptions of places; cars and the effect of technology on the world; the contrast between the life of bourgeois Europe, which Alya comes to represent, and the revolutionary culture to which he has become accustomed; and his bitter experience of exile. These topics reveal a man who values talent, wisdom, compassion, and magnanimity. He is ironic, witty, and imaginative, though he says that he is sick of wit and irony. He says that he is “sentimental” because he “takes life seriously.” It gradually becomes clear that the narrator’s passion for Alya is not so great as his passion for literature, as she is surely aware. In the last letter, he reveals his deep and enduring patriotism, asking his country to allow him to return home.

Elsa Triolet


(The entire section is 575 words.)

The Characters

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Elsa appears directly only in her own seven letters. She presents herself as a self-indulgent, intensely feminine, and creative woman. She never promises Shklovsky what she cannot give him; in fact, in one letter she says that she knows she is “good for nothing” in that she can, but does not, use her books, her piano, the telephone, or his love.

Shklovsky presents her in his letters (though rarely, because of the prohibition against mentioning love) as having first let him think that she could love him and then having withdrawn—but not so far as to drive him away. He comes to see her love of comfort as part of the bourgeois world of the West that seems so hostile to him with his war experiences. Nevertheless, he makes her sound bewitchingly attractive, and he admires her letter about Tahiti (though he plays with her metaphors in such a way as to instruct her in how to write fresh ones).

Shklovsky, as the main narrator and letter-writer, receives fuller characterization. The nature of the qualities that he values in the Russian writers whom he depicts—their magnanimity, their talent, their devotion to art, their wisdom—makes clear his own value system. His imaginative play with metaphors of his own and others shows his feverishly agile and creative mind. The seriousness and brilliance of his letters about art show the depth and value of his commitment to his profession. The range of his interests and the freshness of his metaphors suggest the scale of the man. The resolution to ask for the right to return to Russia in terms sure to limit his creative freedom argues the deep connection that he feels with his country.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Erlich, Victor. Twentieth Century Russian Literary Criticism, 1975.

Library Journal. Review. XCVI (December 1, 1971), p. 4031.

Listener. Review. LXXXVII (February 24, 1972), p. 249.

Sheldon, Richard. Introduction to Zoo: Or, Letters Not About Love, 1971.

Simmons, Charles. “But Let’s Not Talk About Love,” in The New York Times. CXXI (January 24, 1972), p. 31.