Viktor Borisovich Shklovsky (or Shklovskii; Russian: Ви́ктор Бори́сович Шкло́вский; 24 January [O.S. 12 January] 1893 – 6 December 1984) was a Russian and Soviet literary theorist, critic, writer, and pamphleteer.
Shklovsky was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. His father was Jewish (with ancestors from Shklov) and his mother was of German/Russian origin. He attended St. Petersburg University.
During the First World War, he volunteered for the Russian Army and eventually became a driving trainer in an armoured car unit in St. Petersburg. There, in 1916, he founded OPOYAZ (Obshchestvo izucheniya POeticheskogo YAZyka—Society for the Study of Poetic Language), one of the two groups (with the Moscow Linguistic Circle) that developed the critical theories and techniques of Russian Formalism.
Shklovsky participated in the February Revolution of 1917. Subsequently the Russian Provisional Government sent him as an assistant Commissar to the Southwestern Front where he was wounded and got an award for bravery. After that he was an assistant Commissar of the Russian Expeditionary Corps in Persia (see Persian Campaign).
Shklovsky returned to St. Petersburg in early 1918, after the October Revolution. He opposed bolshevism and took part in an anti-bolshevik plot organised by members of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party. After the conspiracy was discovered by the Cheka, Shklovsky went into hiding, traveling in Russia and the Ukraine, but was eventually pardoned in 1919 due to his connections with Maxim Gorky, and decided to abstain from political activity. His two brothers were executed by the Soviet regime (one in 1918, the other in 1937) and his sister died from hunger in St. Petersburg in 1919.
Shklovsky integrated into Soviet society and even took part in the Russian Civil War, serving in the Red Army. However, in 1922, he had to go into hiding once again, as he was threatened with arrest and possible execution for his former political activities, and he fled via Finland to Germany. In Berlin, in 1923, he published his memoirs about the period 1917–22 under the title Сентиментальное путешествие, воспоминания (Sentimental'noe puteshestvie, vospominaniia, A Sentimental Journey), alluding to A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy by Laurence Sterne, an author he much admired and whose digressive style had a powerful influence on Shklovsky's writing. In the same year he was allowed to return to the Soviet Union, not least because of an appeal to Soviet authorities that he included in the last pages of his epistolary novel Zoo, or Letters Not About Love.
The Yugoslav scholar Mihajlo Mihajlov visited Shklovsky in 1963 and wrote: "I was much impressed by Shklovsky's liveliness of spirit, his varied interests and his enormous culture. When we said goodbye to Viktor Borisovich and started for Moscow, I felt that I had met one of the most cultured, most intelligent and best-educated men of our century."
He died in Moscow in 1984.
Writer and theorist
In addition to literary criticism and biographies about such authors as Laurence Sterne, Maxim Gorky, Leo Tolstoy, and Vladimir Mayakovsky, he wrote a number of semi-autobiographical works disguised as fiction, which also served as experiments in his developing theories of literature.
Shklovsky is perhaps best known for developing the concept of ostranenie or defamiliarization (also translated as "estrangement") in literature. He explained the concept in the important essay "Art as Technique" (also translated as "Art as Device") which comprised the first chapter of his seminal Theory of Prose, first published in 1925. He argued for the need to turn something that has become over-familiar, like a cliché in the literary canon, into something revitalized:
The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects 'unfamiliar', to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important.— Shklovsky, "Art as Technique", 12
Shklovsky's work pushes Russian Formalism towards understanding literary activity as integral parts of social practice, an idea that becomes important in the work of Mikhail Bakhtin and Russian and Prague School scholars of semiotics.
Shklovsky was one of the very early serious writers on film. A collection of his essays and articles on film was published in 1923 (Literature and Cinematography, first English edition 2008). He was a close friend of director Sergei Eisenstein and published an extensive critical assessment of his life and works (Moscow 1976, no English translation).
Beginning in the 1920s and well into the 1970s Shklovsky worked as a screenwriter on numerous Soviet films (see Select Filmography below), a part of his life and work that, thus far, has seen very limited attention. In his book Third Factory Shklovsky reflects on his work in film, writing: "First of all, I have a job at the third factory of Goskino. Second of all, the name isn't hard to explain. The first factory was my family and school. The second was Opoyaz. And the third – is processing me at this very moment."
- A Sentimental Journey: Memoirs, 1917–1922 (1923, translated in 1970 by Richard Sheldon)
- Zoo, or Letters Not About Love (1923, translated in 1971 by Richard Sheldon) – epistolary novel
- Knight's Move (1923, translated in 2005) – collection of essays first published in the Soviet theatre journal, The Life of Art
- Literature and Cinematography (1923, translated in 2008)
- Theory of Prose (1925, translated in 1990) – essay collection
- Third Factory (1926, translated in 1979 by Richard Sheldon)
- A Hunt for Optimism (1931, translated in 2012)
- Mayakovsky and his circle (1941, translated in 1972) – about the times of poet Vladimir Mayakovsky
- Leo Tolstoy (1963, translated in 1996)
- Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar (1970, translated in 2011)
- Energy of Delusion: A Book on Plot (1981, translated in 2007)
Select filmography (as writer)
- By the Law, 1926, director Lev Kuleshov, based on a story by Jack London
- Bed and Sofa, 1927, director Abram Room
- The House on Trubnaya, 1928, director Boris Barnet
- The House of Ice, 1928, director Konstantin Eggert, based on the eponymous novel by Ivan Lazhechnikov
- Krazana, 1928, director Kote Mardjanishvili, based on the novel The Gadfly by Ethel Lilian Voynich
- Turksib, documentary, 1929, director Viktor Alexandrovitsh Turin
- Amerikanka, 1930, director Leo Esakya
- The Horizon, 1932, director Lev Kuleshov
- Minin and Pozharsky, 1939, director Vsevolod Pudovkin
- The Gadfly, 1956, director Aleksandr Faintsimmer, based on the eponypous novel by Ethel Lilian Voynich
- Kazaki, 1961, director Vasili Pronin
- Antti Alanen: Film Diary – Amerikanka
- Serena Vitale: Shklovsky: Witness to an Era, translated by Jamie Richards, Dalkey Archive Press, Champaign, London, Dublin, 2012 ISBN 978-1-56478-791-0 (Italian edition first pub. in 1979)