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Viktor Shklovsky

Viktor Borisovich Shklovsky (or Shklovskii; Russian: Виктор Борисович Шкловский; Saint Petersburg, 24 January [O.S. 12 January] 1893; Moscow, 6 December 1984) was a Russian and Soviet critic, writer, and pamphleteer.

Life and work

Shklovsky was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and attended St. Petersburg University. During the First World War, he served as a Commissar in the Russian army, as described in his memoirs, Sentimental'noe puteshestvie, vospominaniia (A Sentimental Journey).

He was the founder of the OPOYAZ (Obshchestvo izucheniya POeticheskogo YAZyka—Society for the Study of Poetic Language), one of the two groups, with the Moscow Linguistic Circle, which developed the critical theories and techniques of Russian Formalism.

In addition to literary criticism and biographies about such authors as Laurence Sterne, Maxim Gorky, Leo Tolstoy, and Vladimir Mayakovsky, he wrote a number of semi-autobiographical works disguised as fiction, which also served as experiments in his developing theories of literature.

Shklovsky is perhaps best known for developing the concept of ostranenie or defamiliarization (also translated as "enstrangement") in literature. He explained the concept in the important essay "Art as Technique" (also translated as "Art as Device") which comprised the first chapter of his seminal Theory of Prose, first published in 1925:

"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." (Shklovsky, "Art as Technique", 12)

In other words, art presents things in a new, unfamiliar light by way of formal manipulation. This is what is artful about art.

Shklovsky's work pushes Russian Formalism towards understanding literary activity as integral parts of social practice, an idea that becomes important in the work of Mikhail Bakhtin and Russian and Prague School scholars of semiotics.

He died in Moscow in 1984.


In English, by Viktor Shklovsky:

  • A Sentimental Journey: Memoirs, 1917-1922 (1923, translated in 1970 by Richard Sheldon)
  • Literature and Cinematography (1923?, republished in 2008)
  • Zoo, or Letters Not About Love (1923, translated in 1971 by Richard Sheldon) - epistolary novel
  • Mayakovsky and his circle (1941, translated in 1972) - about the times of poet Vladimir Mayakovsky
  • Third Factory (1926, translated in 1979 by Richard Sheldon)
  • Theory of Prose (1925, translated in 1990) - essay collection
  • Leo Tolstoy (1963, translated in 1996)
  • Knight's Move (1923, translated in 2005) - collection of essays first published in the Soviet theatre journal, The Life of Art
  • Energy of Delusion: A Book on Plot (1981, translated in 2007)

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