A Sentimental Journey, by Viktor Shklovsky

Given that Shklovsky was a founding father of formalism, a breed of literary criticism I possibly have the least low opinion of (on the basis that writing at the highest level is mostly about the skill of writing (an ability at construction and an ability with words), and that the critical concentration on the meaning of texts is largely something of blind alley (albeit, one which gives plenty of scope for pointless argument)), I thought I might enjoy this book; but as it turned out I didn’t. It was a book I’d got sufficient far into by circumstance, that I felt obliged though reluctant to persevere to the end.

Essentially, in this book, Shklovsky, now in exile, recounts his experiences in the first world war and the subsequent Russian civil war. This is hailed as “a memoir in the form of a novel” – or, to put it more succinctly, a memoir. What Shklovsky manages to do, however, is to make his story as confusing and frustrating to read as possible. He does this by means of his choice of form.

The work is written in single paragraph sentences (as are many contemporary novels, though this might have been quite new back then). (I imagine, in Russian, maybe each of these sentences is a highly polished work of art. There is at least something of the sense of this in the English, though it’s hard to be certain because if it’s true it doesn’t really seem to have translated). They are in fact gnomic utterances. (Actually, flicking through it again, it’s not all like this: it’s only after the first hundred pages or so that the paragraph-sentences take over). But this is only part of the form.

Perhaps you’re noticed the title and made a connection with Sterne. Well, there most certainly is one: Shklovsky seems to have been a bit obsessed with Sterne. So the form is a matter of disgressions: constant, endless ones interrupting the narrative. The difference, it seems to me, is that Sterne’s digressions actually are the narrative; whereas in Shklovsky’s book they just get in the way of it; and there are so many of them, the narrative jumps about so much, that you haven’t any real idea a lot of the time what’s going on: what particular battlefield Shklovsky finds himself on, what country this is, what he’s doing there, who all these other people are around him and which side he supports. Perhaps, you may say, this is a fair depiction of the chaos of war, but it makes it a bit of a struggle for the reader to get a grip on anything.

Also, Shklovsky is frequently repetitive. It was interesting, for instance, towards the end of the book, to learn about a people called the Aissors, and their annihilation at the end of the Russian civil war (or perhaps it was during the first world war). I didn’t know any of this history at all (along, actually, with any of the history of the Russian involvement on the Persian front). I was intrigued. But my intrigue soon wore off as Shklovksy proceeded to tell the same story about them in extensive detail three times over the last 50 pages of the book. I’m sure he must have had a reason for this, but it escaped me.

I did like the little snippets though about literary figures of the time whom Shklovsky met, and so will probably read the other book I have by him (I believe this one is “literary criticism in the form of a novel”), Mayakovsky and His Circle. I can’t at least believe anything will be boring which has Mayakovsky in it.

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2 thoughts on “A Sentimental Journey, by Viktor Shklovsky

  1. By chance, I am reading a book that might be related, Alexander Herzen’s memoirs, written from exile.

    The reason I wonder if it is related is that it is full of digressions, but of course of a completely different character than Shklovsky’s. In logical places, Herzen digresses on prison conditions, revolutionary movements, the fate of people he knew, the behavior of the Czar, just the sorts of things his readers in the 1860s would expect him to write about.

    But otherwise the narrative is clear, and there is nothing like those paragraphs you describe.

  2. I read and enjoyed a memoir by Herzen once, though I can’t remember what it was called or if it’s the same book you’re reading. I have an idea he wrote quite a few memoirs.

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