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 (via ahuntersheart)
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!

Do you have a question/suggestion/correction? Leave it here!

If we start to examine the general laws of perception, we see that as perception becomes habitual, it becomes automatic. Thus, for example, all of our habits retreat into the area of the unconsciously automatic; if one remembers the sensations of holding a pen or of speaking in a foreign language for the first time and compares that with his feeling at performing the action for the ten thousandth time, he will agree with us. Such habituation explains the principles by which, in ordinary speech, we leave phrases unfinished and words half expressed. In this process, ideally realized in algebra, things are replaced by symbols. Complete words are not expressed in rapid speech; their initial sounds are barely perceived. Alexander Pogodin offers the example of a boy considering the sentence “The Swiss mountains are beautiful” in the form of a series of letters: T, S, m, a, b.

This characteristic of thought not only suggests the method of algebra, but even prompts the choice of symbols (letters, especially initial letters). By this “algebraic” method of thought we apprehend objects only as shapes with imprecise extensions; we do not see them in their entirety but rather recognize them by their main characteristics. We see the object as though it were enveloped in a sack. We know what it is by its configuration, but we see only its silhouette. The object, perceived thus in the manner of prose perception, fades and does not leave even a first impression; ultimately even the essence of what it was is forgotten. Such perception explains why we fail to hear the prose word in its entirety and, hence, why (along with other slips of the tongue) we fail to pronounce it. The process of “algebrization,” the over-automatization of an object, permits the greatest economy of perceptive effort. Either objects are assigned only one proper feature - a number, for example - or else they function as though by formula and do not even appear in cognition:

I was cleaning and, meandering about, approached the divan and couldn’t remember whether or not I had dusted it. Since these movements are habitual and unconscious I could not remember and felt that it was impossible to remember - so that if I had dusted it and forgot - that is, had acted unconsciously, then it was the same as if I had not. If some conscious person had been watching, then the fact could be established. If, however, no one was looking, or looking on unconsciously, if the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been.’ (Tolstoy’s diary, Mar 1, 1897)

And so life is reckoned as nothing. Habitualization devours work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war. “If the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been.” And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. 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…

—  Art as Technique – Viktor Shklovsky

Let me tell you a story. In Petersburg, there was a huge bar of gold, I don’t remember its exact weight, but it was very, very heavy. After some time they wondered where they should put it so that it didn’t get stolen, and then they decided to just pretend it was copper. And that bar’s still there, for over a hundred and fifty years, and no one has ever touched it, it has never occurred to anybody that it could be gold. And in art there’s gold that isn’t recognized as such, but it’s still gold.

(Viktor Shklovsky, Interview with Serena Vitale, December 23, 1978)

Drink, friends– drink, great and small, from the bitter cup of love! No special qualifications required. Standing room only. 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.
—  Viktor Shklovsky, Zoo, or Letters Not About Love, 20

Work changes a person. There is a Russian saying, “The eyes are afraid, whilst the hands create.” The hands are capable of doing what the eyes haven’t seen yet. The hands teach the head.

A person learns how to write if he is indeed a writer. And in the process of writing he masters the subject, creating something completely new.

(Viktor Shklovsky, Energy of Delusion)

The Rebel’s Camp

(Then the lion)
(the lion asked with no anger)
(without a frightening roar)
Lion (what brings you to my lair?)
At the time (was) just had a meal
although he
The lion said in kindly spirit (and) ferociously
The Lion has just had a meal,
ferocious as he is,
“What brings you
To my lair?”


This is a transcription of a draft by Pushkin, to be used as an epigraph in a later chapter of his The Captain’s Daughter, where he attributes it to Sumarokov. The Lion here is ostensibly Pugachev, brutal classless antihero of the book, but it also refers to Ivan IV and perhaps even Catherine. I found it in Viktor Shklovsky’s Energy of Delusion, from Dalkey Archive, translated by Shushan Avagyan, and I love it.

An aside: I read this and the surrounding chapter about Pushkin’s influence on a single story (“The Snowstorm”) by a young Tolstoy last night in bed. Aloud. By which I mean to say never date me.

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.
—  Viktor Shklovsky