December 2003

James Purdon


The Third Factory by Viktor Shklovsky

Viktor Shklovsky (1893-1984) was one of the key figures in -- and most vocal exponents of -- the critical movement that has come to be known as Russian Formalism. In this, he is notable as one of the founding fathers of twentieth-century literary criticism, and as a major contributor to the study of literature in formal, ‘scientific’ terms. It was the formalism of the twenties which gave rise, by extension or by opposition, to New Criticism, structuralism, post-structuralism and any number of other theories concerned with the ‘literariness’ of texts and the privileging of form above content in stylistic analysis. Not that its resonances were confined to critical circles: the formalist principles espoused by Shklovsky were revived mid-century in the absurdist drama of, among others, Samuel Beckett. Like Shklovsky, Beckett was one who found himself intrigued by ‘the shape of ideas, even if I do not believe in them. […] It is the shape that matters’.

But at present we are speaking of early-twentieth-century Russia, and the defence of formalism in such a context was, unavoidably, a political as well as an intellectual issue. More to the point: it was a losing battle. Richard Sheldon’s introductory essay to his recent edition of Third Factory (Tret’ia fabrika, 1926) reads Shklovsky’s short work -- part manifesto, part autobiography; storybook, collection of letters, sheaf of vignettes -- for its delicate management of what he guardedly calls capitulation. Suffering scathing attacks from Marxist critics throughout the twenties and subjected to professional pressure by Gorky’s Commission on Art Affairs, the outspoken Shklovsky has often been portrayed as having allowed (or even precipitated) the collapse of formalism under the incompatible preferences of the nascent Bolshevik government. But Shklovsky’s ‘ostensible surrender’, writes Sheldon, is a complicated formal device, a realignment of his principles on a foundation of contradictions, undermining Marxist emphases on the superstructural elements of literary production even as it acknowledges Marxist authority. Never mind the instability of politics; even weather, that reliable narrative condition, is unsettled:

It was May.
Let’s begin at the beginning.
Not with the cat, of course. It was winter.

Sheldon’s essay is illuminating. It provides a lucid and comprehensive exposition of Shklovsky’s ‘factories’: the elements of society through which he has been ‘processed’, refined or homogenized. It works hard to provide the links and passages at which Shklovsky’s work only hints, having as it does ‘no desire to construct a plot’, only ‘to write about things and thoughts’. Sheldon fills some spaces in the very way Shklovsky suggests: ‘[t]he way you assemble a film by attaching to the beginning either a piece of exposed negative or a strip from another film’. His critical exegesis provides both of these: negatives and contrasts; parallels and contextual material.

As you might expect in a work by such an emphatic champion of the formal device, the prose of Third Factory crystallizes around specific and intense descriptions while remaining oblique and shifting in its overall delivery. It rewards attention paid to the devices of opposition and digression, and a willingness to abandon reliance on continuous narrative. With its tone and style somewhere in the shifting borderlands between poetry and prose, Third Factory is a challenging read, but it is not wilfully obtuse, and it is grounded in convictions which provide a cornerstone of Western literary theory. That is not to suggest that this is just historical documentation. It is both relevant and eminently readable, by turns political, angry, sorrowful, sweet and hopeful. Shklovsky’s ‘things and thoughts’ encompass education, love, war, art, films, politics; quiet empty summers and loud, ineffectual lecturers.

When Shklovsky wrote Third Factory, it was after the narrow and equivocal official rejection of a motion by proletarian writers’ organization Oktiabr’ to have the work of the proletariat recognized as the only legitimate representation of Soviet literature. This, and the disapprobation of many formerly apolitical Futurist colleagues, now imposing their own preferences from positions of power within government, informed the subtle disagreement which Richard Sheldon finds as its key element. He writes deftly, and with conviction, and I’m willing to accept his reading. My only concern is that Sheldon’s essay is long and technical: no bad thing. But when long and technical essays preface a work, they bring either tiresome opening pages or the guilt of skipping past them. Much better as prefatory matter would have been Lyn Hejinian’s short, sweet and useful afterword. Otherwise, the edition is well-managed, with good, informative endnotes and quality printing (the fact is that American editions, in general, seem to consistently better their UK counterparts in this respect). Don’t expect a story here. Shklovsky is of that generation for whom ‘plot-oriented prose still exists and will continue to exist, but it has been consigned to the attic’. Whether or not you agree with this assessment of the state of literature -- and I must say that I don’t -- there are few writers whose work is more likely to convince.

Third Factory by Viktor Borisovich Shklovskii
Dalkey Archive Press
ISBN: 1564783170
125 Pages