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Good Criticism

Read This in Remembrance of Me

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Karen Caldicott
Third Factory

by Viktor Shklovsky

(Dalkey Archive Press) $12.95

Translated by Richard Sheldon

Russian literary critic Viktor Shklovsky will never be forgotten. We may lose sight of him for a few years, decades, a generation, but some way or how he manages to resurface and re-circulate. His work has been renewed by British Marxist literary critics, French-speaking narratologists, and American "Language Poets." His books are still out there, still available to us Americans, who for the most part have forgotten the once omniscient enemy Soviet Union (but now distant friend Russia).

What is most amazing about Shklovsky's persistence is the stiff and crowded field of competition his memory has to battle. Shklovsky came from an exceptional time! He was not a rare genius but one of many gifted literary critics, novelists, and poets who made up what is now described in Russian Literature courses as the Silver Age (1917 to 1937), the post-revolutionary period that's one step down from the Golden Age, whose principal writers form a holy trinity: Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky. (Pushkin is not part of the Golden Age, but as Goethe is to German literature and Shakespeare to British, he constitutes the very point at which the canon was activated.)

The Golden Age--which begins with the arrival of a "handsome, smallish spring britzka" in Gogol's Dead Souls (1842) and concludes with the "fatal troika" near the end of Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov (1879)--is called that not just because it is old or connected with an earlier, more rural society, but because it's so neat: only three writers, and that's it. The other writers of the time are not really important, nor do they come close to the truth triangulated by the big three. The Silver Age, on the other hand, is a glorious mess; there are too many erudite writers, too many breakthrough novels, too many competing/convincing theories, and too many schools churning them out. What shape is the Silver Age? What form or geometric design can we attribute to Babel, Sologub, Olesha, Zamyatin, Blok, Mayakovsky, Bely--all of whom, plus many, many more, were vital to the very definition of the age? Not a form, sir, but a swarm.

From this swarm, exterminated by Stalin a long time ago, how and why did this new translation of Shklovsky's 1926 short and moody mix of memoir, poetry, theory, fiction, letters, and apologies called Third Factory appear on my desk in early January? How and why did it rise up from the gush of spring books that have collected and formed a vertical, frothing lagoon on my office's bookshelf? Why? Because Shklovsky has returned to remind me and you that he will always be remembered.

Third Factory is published by Dalkey Archive Press and translated by Richard Sheldon, with an afterword by "Language Poet" Lyn Hejinian; it's under 100 pages and needs to be read twice, consecutively, with a third desultory or partial or erotic (in the Roland Barthes sense) reading. The book is ordered by the important stages of Shklovsky's life: his childhood, his years with the Russian formalists (an influential group he founded and led), and finally, what is "processing [him at that] very moment" during his exile in Berlin.

In his most famous book, Theory of Prose (1925), Shklovsky blended the penetration of a doctor with the whims of a modern fiction writer. It is both scientific and artistic, performance and research. With the European structuralists, a group often considered the successors of the Russian formalists, the object of analysis is opened with the sharpest instruments and its organization explained in the most clinical terms; with Shklovsky, the object is opened with sharp instruments, but the operating table is in a bar, or brothel, or under the whirling lights of a disco ball. The writer, Shklovsky, is there, in the sentence; he never dissolves into the illusion of the text in the way James Joyce's God dissolves into creation.

Third Factory has very little or none of Theory of Prose's analytics or focused research; there are no sharp critical implements, just an emotionally hurt writer dancing alone in an empty downtown discotheque. (Yes, you film buffs, I'm thinking of the ending of Claire Denis' Beau Travail.)

In "Program for Literary Criticism" (1929), Germany's greatest literary critic, Walter Benjamin, writes, "Good criticism is composed of at most two elements: the critical gloss and quotation. Very good criticism can be made from both glosses and quotations. What must be avoided like the plague is rehearsing the summary of the contents. In contrast, a criticism consisting entirely of quotations should be developed." To prevent the complete failure of this book review (and it has failed you in so many ways--I really don't know why Shklovsky persists), I will leave you with the stuff that, according to Benjamin, makes good criticism. These quotes are gathered from the latest book by the one Russian who, for some reason, refuses to be forgotten, Viktor Borisovich Shklovsky.

Edgar Allan Poe imagined the ocean of the future completely covered with cables on pontoons. People dream about the future in terms of improvement, in terms of continuation. Yet the future is revolution. In the future there will be no disputes about rent.

We [the Russian formalists] studied the sound component not from an emotive, but a technical standpoint. Vegetables of all kinds went into that soup.

My brain is busy with the daily grind. The high point of the day is morning tea. And that is too bad: some artists shed blood and sperm. Others urinate. Net weight is all that matters to the buyer.

In the life of Pushkin, the one clearly unnecessary thing was D'Anthes' bullet.

All of us are merchandise laid out in near rows for the inspection of our time.... We must not die: kindred spirits will be found.

 

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