The Russian formalist critic and screenwriter Viktor Shklovsky was a joyously odd writer. He borrowed Lawrence Sterne’s deceptively whimsical digressions and diversions, yet his work anticipated both Bertolt Brecht’s alienation effects and Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction of literary authority.
Shklovsky is a casual, friendly writer of aphorisms, tales and
self-mocking anecdotes. This first English translation of Literature and Cinematography (1923) is a useful short introduction, as many of Shklovsky’s most important theories are here, expressed in his usual offhand manner. There are potted explanations of “laying bare the device”; of the necessity of “high” art to learn from “low” genres; and of ostranenie, or “making strange”, the claim that art reveals how unconscious most of life is by making the everyday unfamiliar. He also demolishes the notion that art should be moral.
Shklovsky reserves his praise for action, mocking the “psychological, high-society film”. In giving equal priority to what was considered trash in the early 1920s, this fascinating little tract usefully refutes the argument that avant-garde literature was a snobbish trick played on the public. Here the high and the low spark off each other.