Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Shklovsky remained attached to this novel, as his prefaces to successive editions show: He continually reinterprets that time in his life which the love affair represents. Exile gave him time for, and unrequited love made necessary the torrent of, his creative activity in Berlin. The theoretical excitement among members of Opoyaz (the Society for the Study of Poetic Language), the group of Formalists in Petrograd during the civil war, could here be translated into experimental creative work. Since so many avant-garde Russian writers were in Berlin at the time, the importance of the work could receive immediate appreciation as breaking new ground.

Both Boris Eikhenbaum and Yuriy Tynyanov saw the work as a new form of documentary novel. The autobiographical material is used for interpretation of experience in new terms—in new forms to match. One critic has noted that Shklovsky uses letters the way some writers of early nineteenth century Russia used them to renew and colloquialize diction and to discuss theory. The work also demonstrates fascination with the ambiguity of words and new principles of structure that the Formalists were exploring. It repeatedly “bares the device,” making the reader aware of the artifice in what has become a major twentieth century literary practice.

The underlying pattern of previous epistolary novels of tragic love affairs casts an ironic light on this modern example. The highly colloquial and metaphorical language in which the book is written continues the Formalist challenge of the symbolist and realist literature of Russia’s immediate past. Richard Sheldon, the English translator of the novel, sees the protagonist’s constantly talking about love while not talking about love as paradigmatic of Shklovsky’s whole contradictory, ironic mode of writing.

Shklovsky’s theoretical work and practice have had pervasive influence on Russian twentieth century writers. Zoo had five Russian editions, and it has been translated into French, German, Italian, and English. Only the English edition includes all the letters of the various Russian editions. As Shklovsky’s reputation continues to grow outside the Soviet Union, the novel’s experiments continue to receive attention.