Zoo or Letters Not About Love by Viktor Shklovsky

       And it is easy to be cruel — one need only not love. Love too understands neither Aramaic nor Russian. Love is like the nails used to pierce hands.
       The stag uses its antlers in combat, the nightingale does not sing in vain, but our books avail us nothing. This wound will not heal.
       All we have are the yellow walls of houses, lit by the sun; we have our books and we have man’s entire civilization, built by us on the way to love.
       And the precept to be light-hearted.
       But what about all the pain?
       Give everything a cosmic dimension, take your heart in your teeth, write a book.
       But where is the one who loves me?

So, I decided to get a tattoo I’ve been thinking about for a while on Monday, which was my 26th birthday. It’s based on an illustration that accompanied Viktor Shklovsky’s Knight’s Move, a collection of Formalist essays on art and literature published in exile (Shklovsky had been part of a failed anti-Bolshevik Leftist movement at the end of the Russian Civil War and escaped execution by fleeing to Berlin, where he lived for several years before ultimately seeking pardon from the Soviet Union and returning home).

From Shklovsky’s introduction to Knight’s Move:

“There are many reasons for the strangeness of the knight’s move, the main one being the conventionality of art, about which I am writing.            

The second reason lies in the fact that the knight is not free – it moves in an L-shaped manner because it is forbidden to take the straight road.


One more word – don’t think that the knight’s move is the coward’s move.       

I’m no coward.            

Our torturous road is the road of the brave, but what are we to do if we see with our own two eyes more than honest pawns and dutiful kings.”

Shklovsky was one of the most influential literary thinkers of the 20th century, a brawler, a soldier, Democratic Socialist, a mixed Jewish-German-Russian who lived and worked on his own terms from within a restrictive, oppressive system. He has been one of my greatest personal heroes for years and now more than ever, identification with his intellectual and creative strategies of lateral subversion keep me going.

So I write another letter.

I love you very much. You are the city I live in; you are the name of the month and the day. I float, salty and heavy with tears, barely keeping my head above water. I seem to be sinking, but even there, underwater-where the phone doesn’t ring and rumors don’t reach, where it is impossible to meet you-I will go on loving you.

I love you, yet you force me to hang onto the running boards of your life. My hands are freezing. I’m not jealous of people: I’m jealous of your time. It is impossible not to see you.

So what can I do when there is no substitute for love? You know nothing about the weight of all things.

Viktor Shklovsky, from Zoo, or Letters Not About Love

His dedication to the Revolution was sincere. He carried his heart in his hands as a live bird. He defended it with his elbows. They were pushing him… He was terribly exhausted when he died. All that was left was a bundle of notebooks with unpublished poems. They were written in the last period. Vladimir Vladimirovich lies in the Writers’ Club. Hordes of people are congregating, they are coming in ten thousands. We don’t even know if they have read him.
—  Viktor Shklovsky to Yuri Tynyanov after the suicide of Mayakovsky, April 1930
And so, held accountable for nothing, life fades into nothingness. Automatization eats away at things, at clothes, at furniture, at our wives, and at our fear of war. If the complex life of many people takes place entirely on the level of the unconscious, then it’s as if this life had never been. And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art. The purpose of art, then, is to lead us to a knowledge of a thing through the organ of sight instead of recognition.
—  Viktor Shklovsky, Theory of Prose

[Almost] every new school of literary theorists in Europe takes its cue from the “Formalist” tradition, emphasizing different trends in that tradition and trying to establish its own interpretation of Formalism as the only correct one.

Douwe Fokkema.

Russian Formalism arose around 1914 in St. Petersburg with the founding of Opayaz (Society for the Study of Poetic Language) and was suppressed by Trotsky and the Soviet Commissar for Education by 1930 for ignoring “the dynamics of development” (this will make sense later).

These critics aimed to devise a general ‘science of literature’ by looking at structures and systematics of literary forms. According to René Wellek, the movement

sharply emphasizes the difference between literature and life, it rejects the usual biographical, psychological, and sociological explanations for literature. It develops highly ingenious methods for analyzing works of literature and for tracing the history of literature in its own terms.

The Russian Formalists pushed back against the nineteenth-century notion amongst Russian critics that art was something mysterious, full of symbolism and poetic parables waiting to be deciphered. This Symbolist trend was brutally undermined by the Futurists, who saw literature as “a matter of technology rather than theology,” and with the rise of Futurism came a need for a new, more scientific way of literary criticism: Russian Formalism. This was not appreciated by Trotsky, who claimed that “art is always a social servant and historically utilitarian.” Russian Formalists stripped art of its halo, and thus, according to Trotsky, their methods were harmful to the political message. By 1930, censorship had made it almost impossible for Formalist works to be published, and the movement died.

One of the most important examples of their ‘highly ingenious methods’ was introduced by Viktor Shklovsky: the distinction between fabula (story) and syuzhet (plot), or, the events of the story and the way the story is told.

Take, for example, a restaurant menu: the actual meal (fabula) may differ from the way it is presented on the menu (syuzhet). That “succulent North Sea cod, coating in a layer of light golden batter” may turn out to be something greyish that tastes like cardboard.

In the same way, there is a distinction between the actual sequence of a story’s event as they happen and the way they are presented in the narrative. For example, the fabula is always chronological, moving from beginning to end, whereas the syuzhet may start in the middle (in media res) and then jump back and forth within the chain of events.

It might seem strange that a movement that only lasted little over fifteen years was so incredibly influential, but we must always remember that the impact of a critical movement cannot be measured by its lifespan, but by how well it utilized its time. The Russian Formalists introduced a new way of looking at literature, and their work paved the way for the field of narratology, New Criticism, and structuralism.


Propp, Vladimir. The Morphology of the Folktale.

Propp aimed to find a ‘grammar of narrative’ in Russian folktales. Find a Literary Theory 101 post on his work here.

Genette, Gérard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method.

Genette was a French structuralist theorist who used his own terminology based on Shklovsky’s original concepts when discussing the syntax of narratives (histoire and récit).

More Literary Theory 101 here!

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