December 2012

James Orbesen


A Hunt for Optimism by Viktor Shklovsky, translated by Shushan Avagyan

In the faux-editor's preface of The Education of Henry Adams, "Henry Cabot Lodge" says of Henry Adams's attempts to produce a work of art in the vein of St. Augustine's Confessions: "...St. Augustine, like a great artist, had worked from multiplicity to unity, while he, like a small one, had to reverse the method and work back from unity to multiplicity." While Adams was one to skewer his own work with a well-placed, self-inflicted put down, it is important to understand the power exerted by one of the standard conventions of writing and form that has become deeply ingrained in many readers' expectations, the movement from many to one. It is the motion that reigns in differing experiences, voices, and thoughts under a singular umbrella of purpose. All must yield to the center.

Yet this tendency in so much of literature is wonderfully tinkered with in the latest Viktor Shklovsky translation from Dalkey Archive. A Hunt for Optimism, translated by Shushan Avagyan, is a series of sparsely related vignettes, some of which may be more autobiographical than fictional. These fragments are joined by the occasional memoiristic interlude, direct addresses to the reader on the culture and lifestyle of those living in the popular exile destinations of the Urals and Caucasus, snippets of conversations overheard in a smoldering Soviet Union, and bits of literary commentary by the great critic. Ranging from domestic intrigues to depictions of isolation so acute that one is forced to:

...imagine that you have moved from Moscow to the moon and that it's stifling there. And then you find out suddenly there, on the moon, that you have been forbidden forever to return to Moscow and that they have rented your apartment to someone else... I can't convey the impression of reading the October [Revolution] telegrams in the East.

A Hunt for Optimism is a book where seemingly everything is permissible.

Unlike other books that may promise everything and then deliver nothing, A Hunt for Optimism comes with no promises. Shklovsky guarantees nothing. Indeed, the book lacks many of the touchstones that modern readers are familiar with. Plot is nonexistent. Characters come and go and mingle with actual personages in grubby Moscow watering holes. Setting is only briefly gleaned and the reader can be whisked from St. Petersburg to Siam at a whim. In essence, that unity of purpose and drive behind the novel or memoir has not only left the room but been sent east to the gulag, leaving only faint traces behind in an empty apartment for the new resident.

But this doesn't bother one of the fathers of Russian Formalism. Shklovsky offers these words as part warning and, it would seem, part apology:

I know what's on his [the reader] mind. He thinks: "Where is unity in this book?" Unity, reader, is in the person who is looking at his changing country and building new forms of art so they can convey life. As for the unity of the book -- it is often an illusion, just as the unity of a landscape. Browse through our works, look for a point of view and if you can find it, then there is your unity. I was unable to find it.

This rejection of unity seems odd from a critic at the forefront of the Formalist movement in Russian literary circles. Using a Formal lens, one that views works of literature as little machines a writer constructs and manipulates, a work without unity is a work without purpose or focus. But dig deeper. Is there really a lack of unity? In aggregate, the varied, seemingly ill-fitting pieces transform into so many different facets of an unevenly cut gem. The unity that connects it all is understated, almost a whisper or secret hidden away from the NKVD. Shklovsky is either playing his cards extremely close to his chest or very much protective of the work he has set in motion. Loneliness and isolation, exile and forced wanderings, these are the things that dot the landscape of A Hunt for Optimism.

Keeping in mind Russian Formalism, a school of thought championed by Shklovsky, one can see the numerous tendrils trickling back to the author and the time, 1929, in which the book was written. Although Formalism never truly cohered into a movement with a singular message, practitioners tried to construct a system of analysis that attempted to study literature through the widest possible lens and to the most rigorous, scientifically inspired standards. Yet, the movement was disparate, scattered, not unlike the components of Shklovsky's text. Indeed, the title "Formalism" was originally a slur against Shklovsky and his peers. Still, the school's areas of interest are clearly on display in A Hunt for Optimism, as if highlighted to be a primer for future students. The abundant literary contraptions employed, such as the folktale and embedded narrative, speak to Formalism's occupation with the tools devised by a writer to service a text. The wide ranging net of timely literary references, so particular and distinct that one would be halfcocked to read the numerous sections about Shklovsky's late friend and fellow writer Vladimir Mayakovsky without brushing up on one's history, scream context.

One needs look no further than Shklovsky's embedded narrative of an elderly Marco Polo languishing in Venice. The traveler's best days are behind him. He is alone. Revered, but alone. He spends his day walking along the canals, trapped in a prison of fame and haunted by the wider world that he knows exist. When a Venetian official demands Marco Polo:

Repent for the sake of your conscience that you slandered the stars. And we won't burn your books, for which you are still guilty in front of Venice, because it's not good to tell everyone about other countries and the roads that lead to them.

How else can one read this section and not see the Shklovsky who was on the losing side of Stalin's rise to power? How can one not see the Shklovsky who endured exile and was met with suspicion by Soviet officials upon his return? The book produced is the result of that intersection of context, text, and author that Formalists believed contained the key to analysis.

But is that it? Is A Hunt for Optimism just a teacher's aide for future literary critics? No. What this book does is revel in the absence of unity. It eschews the singular focus of a fixed point of view for a community of voices and styles that demonstrate the complexity of language and the often haphazard construction of texts. In a way, Shklovsky has produced a novel rich in polyphonic layers of differing speakers, listeners, and interpreters. It should be no surprise that the famous theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, a follower of Shklovsky, developed the concept of literary polyphony after studying with the famous Formalist.

While A Hunt for Optimism isn't truly polyphonic -- Shklovsky remains at the center of this work as a sort of murky conductor -- it does showcase the promise of foregoing unity in favor of diverse and diffused viewpoints. Henry Adams shouldn't have worried himself by trying to be the next St. Augustine. Moving from unity to multiplicity isn't the sign that one is a small artist, just as going from multiplicity to unity isn't the sign of being a great one. Instead, one should just write and see what happens. If more voices emerge on the paper than one intended, it just means there are a few extra bats in the old belfry that writers must always put up with.

Not everyone will like A Hunt for Optimism. It lacks so much that readers generally gravitate to that even Shklovsky's clinical prose can seem like an obstruction. But those that can tolerate the writer's embracing of polyphony and multiplicity will undoubtedly see that there is a very serious mind at work. It is a mind with the singular purpose of showcasing the disaffection and alienation of his milieu. Living in the old Soviet Union and, like Marco Polo, knowing that there are other roads to other countries is a hell of unity. Be of the system. There is no other choice. Just look at what each voice says, rather than ponder how each voice relates, and this will become clear. Not all roads lead to the center. Some are just dead ends, but, more importantly, others lead to unknown lands and unfathomable treasures.

A Hunt for Optimism by Viktor Shklovsky, translated by Shushan Avagyan
Dalkey Archive Press
ISBN: 978-1564787903
160 pages