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Roman Jakobson, linguistica e poetica

Edoardo Esposito
Stefania Sini
Marina Castagneto

Jakobson e il formalismo russo

World literature, war, revolution: the significance of Viktor Shklovsky’s Sentimental Journey

Galin Tihanov

Texte intégral

  • 1 All quotations are to the English translation: Viktor Shklovsky, A Sentimental Journey: Memoirs, 1 (...)

1The publication history of Viktor Shklovsky’s Sentimental Journey in Russia is indicative of the turmoil Shklovsky captures in his memoir. Written and published in parts between June 1919 and January 1923, it is a book begun in Russia and completed in emigration. A book about war, revolution, literary theory, and world literature. In its entirety, it first appeared in January 1923 in Berlin; the many Russian editions since 1923 would omit various portions of the book (deemed to be incompatible with official dogma), all through to 2002 when the Berlin edition was eventually republished in Moscow.1 Thus Sentimental Journey is also about exile and the long journey home, which sometimes comes to an end only posthumously (Shklovsky had passed away in Moscow in December 1984).

  • 2 Shklovsky, A Sentimental Journey, cit., p. 156.

2On first reading, Sentimental Journey is a book about two revolutions (the February and October revolutions of 1917) and the ensuing civil war that engulfs Russia and its empire. It starts with memorable passages about Shklovsky’s life before the revolutions: dullness, dreariness, and constant oppression through the tedious passage of time make up the dominant mood in the opening paragraphs. The beginning is thus mutely suggestive of cataclysm and estrangement waiting to happen, mitigating this unbearable sense of flatness. Estrangement is very much Shklovsky’s master technique in Sentimental Journey: he often reshuffles chronologically the episodes he narrates, leaves entire semantic entities dangling without resolution, and resurrects the tradition of wit and paradox in order to present the reader with an exposition of the war and the two revolutions that is not linear and, ultimately, eschews taking sides, working instead across political dividing lines. (In an extraordinary passage on the death of his brother, Evgeny, Shklovsky states: «He was killed by the Reds or the Whites. I don’t remember which – I really don’t remember. But his death was unjust»;2 rarely can one find a better example of political withdrawal in favour of a strong ethical judgment; only Kolya, Gazdanov’s protagonist from An Evening with Claire, rivals this reluctance to commit politically when he says that joining the Whites was mere accident – he could have just as easily joined the Reds.)

  • 3 On this, see more in Galin Tihanov, The Politics of Estrangement: The Case of the Early Shklovsky, (...)
  • 4 Shklovsky, A Sentimental Journey, cit., p. 133.

3While the concept of estrangement in Shklovsky may have had a number of sources in various scholarly and philosophical traditions, with which he may have been (often indirectly) familiar, the crucial formative factor that contributed to the rise of this concept was undoubtedly World War One.3 The war was the propitious ground on which a materialist, substance-orientated view of the world grew strong and flourished amidst and out of – ultimately as a protest against – the cacophony and chaos of annihilation. Facilitating a return to the pristine nature of things seemed to be for Shklovsky, Ernst Jünger, and so many other writers of the war generation the greatest gift that the progress of technology, industry, and warfare, so evident on the eve of the war and during it, could give back to a frustrated Europe. Estrangement was a technique designed to assist this process by equipping the reading public with the required acuteness of perception. The time is ripe to place the early Shklovsky – even more forcefully than this has been done on occasion in the past – in his proper context, that of the First World War, and to see him as an author participating in the larger constellation of brilliant European essayists, whose work and ideas were rooted in their war experience. At the same time, we need to be aware of the role the October Revolution played in Shklovsky’s evolution after 1917. The revolution no doubt added to his war experience, amplifying and throwing into relief his main dilemma, that of aesthetic innovation (ambiguous and at times shaky) vis-à-vis social and political conservatism which led him to reject the October Revolution as a member of the Socialist Revolutionary party – but also to highlight its attractiveness, its sheer incommensurability, scale, and purifying force. The October Revolution superimposed a new political dynamic which, while not cancelling the dispositions of the war experience, demanded different responses; in other words, in Shklovsky’s memoir the War and the Revolution are to be thought together without being conflated. Remarkably, Shklovsky’s memoir weaves into these powerful narratives a third one: an examination of Jewish identity and anti-Semitism during the war (in the East, in Persia, Shklovsky notes the absence of anti-Semitism as a factor that helps his reconciliation with, and acceptance of, the locals). A Sentimental Journey is thus a book that straddles intense self-reflection and unmitigated self-abandonment to fate (Shklovsky refers to Spinoza’s famous falling stone in order to quip, self-ironically, that «a falling stone does not need to think»4).

  • 5 See Galin Tihanov, Cosmopolitanism in the Discursive Landscape of Modernity: Two Enlightenment Art (...)

4Shklovsky’s memoir, however, is not just about war and revolution; it is also about world literature. Shklovsky’s involvement in the emergent Russian debate on world literature was direct and, as often with Shklovsky, marked by commitment and distance in the same breath. He joined Gorky’s project World Literature (the Russian vsemirnaia literatura can be translated as both world literature and universal literature) in 1919. Gorky’s was a large-scale publishing project, educational and socially ameliorative at its core. Gorky’s idea was for a new, expanded canon of world literature to be established in post-revolutionary Russia, including – for the first time – not just works from Western literatures, but also from the literatures of Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. These works had to be translated (in some cases retranslated to replace earlier poor translations), equipped with proper introductions and apparatus, and made available in scholarly reliable but cheap editions to those previously disenfranchised: the workers, peasants, and soldiers, in short, the classes of the oppressed. The project was centered in Petrograd, and its infrastructure included a publishing house which, at its zenith, would employ around 300 editors and translators (something totally unthinkable today), and a translators’ studio which was meant to familiarize younger translators with translation theory, literary theory, and other cognate fields. It is to this studio that Shklovsky was recruited by Gorky in 1919 to give lectures in literary theory. One has to recall that at that time Petrograd was a city ravished by famine and civil war, in the grip of dire poverty and utter insecurity. In his Sentimental Journey, Shklovsky laconically notes the death of his aunt of hunger; it is in this atmosphere that he threw himself into Gorky’s project. The paradox at the heart of this project was, of course, not the fact that Gorky set out to redress decades of social injustice; he regarded his project as an instrument of radical social transformation, in which previously disadvantaged layers of society would be offered access to the greatest works of Western and non-Western literatures (Gorky established early on an editorial committee on Oriental Literatures chaired by his friend of long standing and dean of Russian Indology, academician Sergei Oldenburg; the committee also included the brilliant sinologist Vasilii Alekseev, the renowned arabist Ignatii Krachkovskii, the already famous archeologist and linguist Nikolai Marr, journalist and writer Aleksandr Tikhonov, and Gorky himself). But this radical social transformation, meant to facilitate upward mobility for millions of people, was to be achieved through the most conservative of methods: by invoking a secure (if augmented) canon of, to recall Matthew Arnold’s definition of culture from Culture and Anarchy, «the best that has been thought and said». Gorky’s radical project was thus tempered by his humanist notion of world literature as a canon of texts and a tool of inculcating the virtues of civility and erudition (or ‘learnedness’, in the language of that epoch). This understanding of ‘world literature’ goes back to the late 18th-early 19th c. when Wieland (not by accident the author of the first important German novel of education), some 25 years before Goethe, talked about world literature as an instrument of self-improvement that teaches us to better communicate with others and supplies knowledge of the world we would otherwise not have access to.5

  • 6 Shklovsky, A Sentimental Journey, cit., p. 186.
  • 7 Viktor Shklovsky, O teorii prozy, Moscow-Leningrad, Krug, 1925. Second edition: Moscow, Federatsiy (...)

5The translators’ studio established in 1919 had some of the best contemporary Russian writers and translators contributing to its work: Evgeny Zamyatin, Nikolai Gumilev, Kornei Chukovsky (one of the best translators of literature from the English language who had already been publishing translations of Walt Whitman’s poetry); of the Russian Formalists, Boris Eikhenbaum was also invited to contribute. Shklovsky notes in his memoir that the studio quickly evolved into a ‘literary studio’, where drafts of literary works were discussed and literary theory and criticism were on the agenda. «I never in my life worked the way I did that year»6, he writes. Before a young audience, Shklovsky was teaching Don Quixote and Sterne, writing, in conversation with his students, his chapters on Cervantes and Sterne which were to be included in his book On the Theory of Prose.7

  • 8 For these two positions, see, respectively, David Damrosch, What is World Literature?, Princeton, (...)
  • 9 This argument is more fully developed in Galin Tihanov, The Location of World Literature, in «Cana (...)
  • 10 Shklovsky, A Sentimental Journey, cit., p. 192.

6It is very important at this juncture to place Shklovsky’s commitment to the idea of world literature in the broader context of our present debates on the subject. To understand ‘world literature’ as a specific construct, we must ask the unavoidable question about the location of ‘world literature’ vis-à-vis language, which has important consequences for how we interpret the dispersed legacy of modern literary theory (founded, undoubtedly, by Shklovsky and the Russian Formalists). This question appears to be banal at first sight; yet, there could not be a more fundamental question when it comes to how we think about literature than the question of language. Here we need to confront the issue of translation and recognize its legitimacy, not just with reference to current debates (between those who champion the beneficial role of translation and those who treasure the idea of untranslatability as a way of opposing politically dubious equivalences8), but by going to the very origins of modern literary theory and the work Shklovsky himself was doing in 1919/1920, some of which he succinctly captures in his Sentimental Journey. My contention here is that we need to begin to understand the current Anglo-Saxon discourse of world literature, in which the legitimization of reading and analyzing literature in and through translation plays a pivotal role, as an echo of, and a late intervention in, a debate that begins in the early days of classic literary theory.9 By ‘classic literary theory’ I mean here the paradigm of thinking about literature that rests on the assumption that literature is a specific and unique discourse, whose distinctiveness crystalizes around the abstract quality of ‘literariness’. This way of thinking about literature begins around World War One –with Shklovsky and his fellow Formalists – and is largely dead by the 1980s. (In Sentimental Journey, Shklovsky rages against those who think of literature primarily as a conveyor of political ideas and civic values rather than as a specific, self-sufficient use of language: «How strange to substitute the history of Russian liberalism for the history of Russian literature».10) But it does not disappear without leaving behind a dissipated legacy consisting in rehearsing, in various ways, the question of the centrality – or otherwise – of language in how we understand literature. The current debate on ‘world literature’ is part and parcel of this dissipated legacy of classic literary theory, reenacting the cardinal debate on whether one should think literature within the horizon of language or beyond that horizon. It is important to insist on the current Anglo-Saxon discourse of ‘world literature’ being an extension of these earlier debates on language and literariness originating in classic literary theory, not least because, like so many other discourses of liberal persuasion, it, too, often passes over in silence its own premises, leaving them insufficiently reflected upon, at times even naturalizing them.

  • 11 On Shklovsky’s uses of, and debt to, Sterne’s prose, see Emily Finer, Turning into Sterne: Viktor (...)
  • 12 On the political and cultural baggage of English (and hence its inapplicability as a seemingly tra (...)

7As is well-known, the Russian Formalists agreed that what lends literature its specificity is literariness. But we tend to forget that they disagreed on what constitutes literariness. Roman Jakobson (mentioned once in A Sentimental Journey, but more frequently in Shklovsky’s only slightly later memoirs Zoo, or Letters not about Love and Third Factory) believed that literariness is lodged in the intricate and fine-grained workings of language. To him, only the language of the original matters, as this intricacy cannot be captured in translation. Not by chance does Jakobson spend his entire career (when it comes to his work as a literary scholar) analyzing texts written in verse, basing these analyses on the language of the original. Shklovsky, Eikhenbaum, to some extent also Tynianov, on the other hand, believed that the effects of literariness are also (and, in a sense, primarily) produced on levels above and beyond language. In a striking difference to Jakobson, Shklovsky, in particular, chose to analyze prose rather than poetry, and to do this in translation. This is precisely the work he was doing in the translators’ studio in Petrograd, of which he reminisces in his Sentimental Journey. It is the level of composition, rather than the micro-level of language, that claimed Shklovsky’s attention when trying to explain the effects of literariness. His famous distinction between plot and story, for example, works with undiminishing validity also when we read in translation; we do not need the language of the original to appreciate the transposition of the material and its reorganization through retrospection, retardation, etc. (techniques Shklovsky, sometimes following Sterne,11 himself abundantly employs in A Sentimental Journey). Moreover, Shklovsky and Tynianov proved that even on the level of style the language of the original is not the only vehicle of literariness. The parodic aspects of Don Quixote, for instance, can be gleaned and grasped also in translation, provided we have some background knowledge of chivalric culture and its conventions. Thus the Russian Formalists’ internal debate on what constitutes literariness had the unintended consequence of lending today ammunition and justification to those who believe in the legitimacy of reading and analyzing literature in translation. The current discourse of ‘world literature’ is an iteration of this principal question of classic literary theory: should one think literature within or beyond the horizon of language? This specific iteration recasts this question, while retaining its theoretical momentum. Shklovsky (who was blissfully monolingual and taught in the translators’ studio Cervantes and Sterne in translation), together with Eikhenbaum (who, despite being a reader of English who could – and did – work with texts of fiction in the original, would also often highlight the fact that literariness materializes on the level of composition rather than solely on the micro-level of language), was facing the foundational conundrum of literary theory: how to account for literariness with reference to both individual languages and language per se; if his response was to be seminal in terms of theory, it had to be a response that addresses both the singularity of language (the language of the original) and its multiplicity (the multiple languages in which a literary text reaches its potential audiences in translation). No claim to theory would lawfully exist unless literariness could be demonstrated to operate across languages, in an act of continuous estrangement from the language of the original. The Anglo-Saxon discourse on world literature, foremost in the work of David Damrosch, has proceeded – so it seems to me – in the steps of Shklovsky by foregrounding the legitimacy of working in translation. Damrosch has implicitly confronted the tension between the singularity and multiplicity of language by concluding that studying literature in the languages of its socialization is more important than studying it in the language of its production, not least because this new priority restricts and undermines the monopoly of methodological nationalism in literary studies (the languages of creation and socialization can, of course, coincide, and the implications flowing from this, especially where this coincidence involves a global language such as English, is something worth thinking about12).

  • 13 For a more detailed discussion of these concerns, see Galin Tihanov, On the Significance of Histor (...)

8Shklovsky’s Sentimental Journey is thus not just a monument to the February and October revolutions and the ensuing civil war; it is also a monument to one of the most seminal moments in classic literary theory which still reverberates in our current debates on world literature. The wide-ranging implications of Shklovsky’s highlighting the legitimacy of reading and analyzing literature in translation mitigates, at least to some extent, concerns by some of his contemporaries, that the Formalists’ concept of literariness was based on the discussion of an overwhelmingly Eurocentric (and thus certainly relatively narrow) corpus of texts.13

9Yet one should not assume that Shklovsky embraced Gorky’s project unreservedly. In a splendid passage from Sentimental Journey, Shklovsky ironically distances himself from what he was clearly perceiving as a project on too grand a scale, and one that sought to revolutionize culture through the conservative educational tools of the canon. In the passage Shklovsky refers to both Gorky’s world literature project and the eponymous publishing house:

  • 14 Shklovsky, A Sentimental Journey, cit., p. 189 (translation modified).

“World Literature”. A Russian writer mustn’t write what he wants to: he must translate the classics, all the classics; everyone must translate and everyone must read. Everyone will read everything and will know everything, absolutely everything. No need for hundreds of publishing houses; one will do – Grzhebin’s. And a catalogue projected to one hundred years, a catalogue one hundred printer’s signatures long; in English, French, Indo-Chinese and Sanskrit. And all the literati and all the writers will fill in the schemes according to rubrics, supervised by none other than S. Oldenburg and Alexandre Benois, and then shelves of books will be born, and everyone will read all the shelves and know everything. No heroism or faith in people is needed here. […] But for the Russian intelligentsia, Gorky was [a true] Noah.14

  • 15 Cf. Katalog izdatel’stva “Vsemirnaia literatura” pri narodnom komissariate po prosveshcheniiu. Vst (...)

10This is Shklovsky at his best: both passionate and restrained, ironically distanced and committed. He clearly objects to Gorky’s project of world literature, as he sees in it a coercive instrument of imposing a non-negotiable canon («the classics»); Shklovsky seems even to suggest that Gorky’s project is a form of censorship, and of contempt for the freedom of expression. There is also a dormant nationalism in Shklovsky’s indictment of Gorky’s implied criticism of Russian literature as provincial compared to the canon of world literature. The enumeration of languages into which the overambitious catalogue of the “World Literature” publishing house was to be printed is – without a shadow of a doubt – only half-serious («Indo-Chinese» is Shklovsky’s way of referring to a non-extant, hybrid language of the East; «Sanskrit» is by that time essentially a dead language – endowed with huge cultural capital accumulated over centuries, but nonetheless largely out of use). As a matter of fact, Gorky’s World Literature publishing house published two catalogues (both in 1919): one containing a list (intended and ‘provisional’, as the catalogue put it) of translations of literary works from Europe and North America, and one of (intended) translations from non-Western literatures (titled The Literature of the Orient); the first catalogue featured an essay by Gorky and editorial apparatus, both also translated into French, English, and German, whereas the second catalogue had an unsigned brief introduction and editorial apparatus, both available in the catalogue solely in Russian and French.15 With his references to Indo-Chinese and Sanskrit, Shklovsky thus openly mocks Gorky’s project, preferring instead to preserve his own autonomy as writer and thinker. (Shklovsky sold the rights on all his future books to the powerful Grzhebin publishing house, which he also mentions in his list of institutions, whose ambition and scale endanger competition; while collecting the money, he never delivered the manuscripts.)

  • 16 Shklovsky, A Sentimental Journey, cit., p. 177.
  • 17 More on this see in Galin Tihanov, Pamiat’ teorii: o nasledii russkogo formalizma, in Russkaia int (...)

11The fascination of Sentimental Journey for today’s reader lies in its idiosyncratic, sometimes even whimsical, portrayal of war and revolution – a memoir which zig-zags through five years of history, from Russia to Galicia to Northern Iran to Russia, then to Ukraine, back to Russia, back to Ukraine, and then on again to Russia, to Finland and Germany, capturing acts of profound transformation through the ephemera of daily life; a memoir displaying Shklovsky’s blissful disregard for dates (he cannot recall whether he married in 1919 or 192016), and his playful employment of compositional techniques of estrangement à la Sterne. But Shklovsky’s Sentimental Journey is also a valuable piece of engagement with literary theory through fiction: an early – and at the time pioneering – attempt to practice theory without a theoretical meta-language. This daring attempt, which begins with Sentimental Journey, intensifies in the next two memoirs written by Shklovsky (Zoo, or Letters not about Love and Third Factory); it foreshadows post-structuralism’s own endeavor (especially visible in Roland Barthes’ later work) to amalgamate fiction and theory and set out on an unchartered journey of, sometimes painful, jouissance. Paradoxical, ironic, difficult, at times soberly pessimistic, Shklovsky’s greatest achievement in his Sentimental Journey is the realization that one has to confront and test the language of (Formalist) literary theory against the language of fiction by staging their symbiotic existence within a single work. Through Shklovsky’s early memoirs – including his Sentimental Journey – Russian Formalism comes into its own by realizing that the most significant Other of literary theory is literature itself.17

12It is this twofold relevance of Shklovsky’s text – as a quirky document of its time and as an intervention in consequential debates on literary theory and on world literature - that extends its life and helps it travel across time and space.


1 All quotations are to the English translation: Viktor Shklovsky, A Sentimental Journey: Memoirs, 1917-1922, trans. by Richard Sheldon, Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 1970; the translation is modified on occasion for the sake of accuracy. For the first full republication of the 1923 Berlin edition in Russia, see: Viktor Shklovsky, Eshche nichego ne konchilos’, edited by Alexander Galushkin, Moscow, Propaganda, 2012, pp. 15-266.

2 Shklovsky, A Sentimental Journey, cit., p. 156.

3 On this, see more in Galin Tihanov, The Politics of Estrangement: The Case of the Early Shklovsky, «Poetics Today», XXVI, 4, 2005, pp. 665-696.

4 Shklovsky, A Sentimental Journey, cit., p. 133.

5 See Galin Tihanov, Cosmopolitanism in the Discursive Landscape of Modernity: Two Enlightenment Articulations, in Enlightenment Cosmopolitanism, edited by David Adams and Galin Tihanov, London, Legenda, 2011, pp. 133-152: 143.

6 Shklovsky, A Sentimental Journey, cit., p. 186.

7 Viktor Shklovsky, O teorii prozy, Moscow-Leningrad, Krug, 1925. Second edition: Moscow, Federatsiya, 1929.

8 For these two positions, see, respectively, David Damrosch, What is World Literature?, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2003, and Emily Apter, Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability, London, Verso, 2013.

9 This argument is more fully developed in Galin Tihanov, The Location of World Literature, in «Canadian Review of Comparative Literature», 2017, 44, 3, pp. 468-481.

10 Shklovsky, A Sentimental Journey, cit., p. 192.

11 On Shklovsky’s uses of, and debt to, Sterne’s prose, see Emily Finer, Turning into Sterne: Viktor Shklovsky and Literary Reception, Leeds, Legenda, 2010.

12 On the political and cultural baggage of English (and hence its inapplicability as a seemingly transparent medium of translation), see, e.g., Aamir Mufti, Forget English: Orientalisms and World Literatures, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2016.

13 For a more detailed discussion of these concerns, see Galin Tihanov, On the Significance of Historical Poetics: In Lieu of a Foreword, «Poetics Today», XXXVIII, 3, 2017, pp. 417-428, esp. pp. 426-427.

14 Shklovsky, A Sentimental Journey, cit., p. 189 (translation modified).

15 Cf. Katalog izdatel’stva “Vsemirnaia literatura” pri narodnom komissariate po prosveshcheniiu. Vstupitel’naia stat’ia M. Gor’kogo/Catalogue des éditions de la “Littérature mondiale” paraissant sous le patronage du Commissariat de L’Instruction Publique. Préface de M. Gorky. Pétersbourg, Peterburg, Vsemirnaia literatura, 1919; Katalog izdatel’stva “Vsemirnaia literatura” pri narodnom komissariate po prosveshcheniiu. Literatura Vostoka/Catalogue des éditions de la “Littérature mondiale”. La littérature de l’Orient. Pétersbourg, Peterburg, Vsemirnaia literatura, 1919.

16 Shklovsky, A Sentimental Journey, cit., p. 177.

17 More on this see in Galin Tihanov, Pamiat’ teorii: o nasledii russkogo formalizma, in Russkaia intellektual’naia revoliutsiia 1910-1930kh godov, edited by Sergei Zenkin and Elena Shumilova, Moscow, Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2016, pp. 58-63.


Queen Mary University of London: g.tihanov[at]


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