Monday, September 24, 2018

Viktor Shklovsky's Hamburg Score

Viktor Shklovsky is one the best literary critics I have ever encountered.  And even in translation, he's also one of the best of twentieth century stylists in Russia.   It's a gross understatement to say that Shklovsky was outrageously creative, uncannily observant, and spectacularly funny.  Indeed, Shklovsky doesn't seem to have written a boring book, or to have been capable of doing so.  Everything he wrote is riven with insights, anecdotes, and analogies. Shklovsky was a genius, pure and simple.  In his day, he was one of the most knowledgeable men of letters alive.  This knowledge extended to both Russian literature, but also to German, Spanish, French, Italian and English poetry and prose.  In fact, Shklovsky often drew parallels between contemporary Russian literature and Chinese, Arabian, Persian, and other non-Western literary traditions.  But Shklovsky's appeal is that he never let his erudition interfere with his desire to promote something new in literature:  poetry and prose better suited to the modern era.

Shklovsky is in fact rare in his ability to balance his respect for the past with his hope for the future.  Unlike many revolutionaries, he deeply respected the masters of nineteenth century Russian prose.  Unlike many counterrevolutionaries, he completely rejected the idea that nineteenth century prose was appropriate to an age of scientific discovery, mechanical innovation, and social upheaval.  Reading his book, The Hamburg Score, reminds of Shklovsky's virtuosity.  It's filled with trenchant insights into dozens of literary and social phenomena, including nineteenth century realism, Soviet literary experimentalism, film, and the Russian Revolution.

To read The Hamburg Score, is to get a glimpse of a profound intellect capable of overriding the artificial divide between creative prose and good literary criticism.  The Hamburg Score demonstrates the fact that literary criticism is itself a creative genre.  All of Shklovsky's books are illuminating.  This one helps readers to see the relationship between authors, genres, literary movements, and evolving media. Without addressing the tenants of Russian formalism, which are not in any event articulated in this book, Shklovsky's particular talent was to use literary history and genre analysis to illuminate the unique qualities of any particular text.  This book also seems to striving to help readers understand the past (i.e., social realism, etc.) in order to discern the outlines of the future (montage, etc.).  It's not necessarily that Shklovsky gets everything right, it's just he's bold, smart, and clairvoyant enough to make you feel that authors can't be understood if they are taken on their own terms, without reference to literary traditions and emerging genres.

Shklovsky is also interesting merely as a witness to his age.  As The Hamburg Score makes clear, Shklovsky knew almost everyone in Soviet literature.  Almost universally respected, Shklovsky was a participant or even combatant in the post-revolutionary Russian literary scene.  His barbs help us to understand the vitality of Soviet literary culture, even after so many Russian writers and thinkers had fled to Central and Western Europe.  The book also demonstrates the excitement of the general scene, and Soviet men and women debated the future with one another.  As Shklovsky says, the Russian Revolution put an end to fate. 

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