Viktor Shklovsky

By: Jacob Mikanowski
January 24, 2015


VIKTOR SHKLOVSKY (1893–1984) did for literary criticism what Malevich did for painting and Tatlin did for sculpture – he transformed it into a revolutionary art, obsessed with transcending its own limitations. A founding member of the Russian Formalist school, Shklovsky believed that literature was ultimately always about itself: Works of art didn’t comment on the world, they indulged in innovation and stylistic play. Seen in this way War and Peace isn’t about the Napoleonic Wars; it’s about parallelism. King Lear isn’t about madness; it’s a series of opportunities for making puns.

Advocating the divorce of life from art got Shklovsky in trouble with Soviet authorities, who accused him of being “an enemy of the real world and [of] socialist realism in literature.” It was also ironic, giving the remarkable life Shklovsky led. He joined the Futurists while still a schoolboy, fought in WWI, first in Galicia and then in Persia, where he stopped a pogrom. He had a bomb exploded in his hands, and learned how to take apart an airplane engine and use a carpet as a fuse. He greeted the Revolution as a new dawn, only to lose two brothers to it. He was hunted by the Cheka and exiled to Berlin. Through it all he wrote: works of theory, art reviews, memoirs, love letters, novels that are part nonfiction and part self-reflexive criticism, all of them branching, digressive, and brilliantly aphoristic.

Perhaps it was this disconnect in Shklovsky’s life, between the cold rigor of theory and his full-blooded engagement in politics and love, that gave rise to his most famous idea: ostranenie, translated into English as “defamiliarization” or “estrangement.” Literally, though, it means simply to “make strange,” Shklovsky’s name for the power of art to break through received perception and make the world new. It remains a watchword for literary criticism, but it belongs rightly as a credo for a world in turmoil, a call for revolution on every page.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Robert Motherwell, John Romita Sr., Michael Chapman, Vito Acconci.

READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the Modernist (1884–93) and Hardboiled (1894-1903) Generations.