Q&A with Alexandra Berlina

By | December 15, 2016

Alexandra Berlina answered a few questions for us about her new book, Viktor Shklovsky: A Reader, a collection of Shklovsky's key criticism taken from the major theoretical writings as well as from letters and memoirs, and presented in new translations with introductory material and commentary.

Tell us a bit about a significant piece in the collection and why you selected it.

Well, I have to name “Art as Device”, the ground-breaking essay that first describes ostranenie — the cognitive renewal of the habitual, the re-experience of life via art. The essay that is turning 100 in 2017 and still remains young. It’s Shklovsky’s key text; there was no question of not including it. It had been translated twice before, and I don’t mean to disparage the previous versions by offering a new one. However, I do immodestly believe that mine captures all the naughty things better. Shklovsky wouldn’t be Shklovsky if he didn’t finish an academic argument with examples from pornographic folk tales…

What made you realize this kind of collection was missing from the field?

I was writing an article and decided it would be more sensible to cite an existing translation than to re-invent the wheel — and then I discovered that this particular wheel was still uninvented. Shklovsky spent 70 years of his long life writing: no wonder that much is untranslated. Still, some of the missing texts were, to my mind, gems. Besides, exactly because he wrote so much, I felt that an overview would be of great help to students and everyone who might be interested.

Did you begin compiling essays with a certain piece or pieces in mind?

I started out with more pieces I wanted to include than we had space for; however, there was one text that just wouldn’t leave me alone, and it wasn’t by Shklovsky. It was the jocular hymn of the OPOYAZ — the circle of young people headed by Shklovsky, who, in heady revolutionary times, believed they had invented a new literary science. I kept humming it. Their energy, the fun they had (despite a very harsh life): I wanted the early parts of the reader to mirror it. And I ended up translating the hymn for the introduction. Imagine the young formalists in hungry Petrograd singing this:

Love, just as any other object,
is known to us with all its vices.
But passion, from a formal viewpoint,
is the convergence of devices.

No matter if the boa constrictor
of our detractors is a mutant—
still “ave Shklovsky, ave Viktor,
formalituri te salutant!”

What do you think is the most unusual piece in the collection?

Most of them are rather unusual, this is the fun of it. A great deal of what Shklovsky wrote were strange hybrids: articles shading into essays into autobiography into short story and back… If I have to pick one, I’d name Zoo, or Letters not about Love (an excerpt is included in the reader), which ends up talking about love by means of keeping silent about it. They are real letters — Shklovsky’s correspondent, Elsa Triolet, went on to become a writer, too. But the final one is addressed not to the woman he loves, but to… Well, see for yourself. It’s quite a surprise.

What are the benefits and challenges of editing a collection?

Main benefit: you get to decide things. Main challenge: you get to decide things.

Given unlimited space, what would you have added to the collection

Oh it’s already much longer than the contract permitted!  I’m very happy that Bloomsbury was tolerant of the excess. As Tsvetaeva put it, “I like books and babies much better if they are fat”. But yes, one could add so much more! A screenplay, more early book reviews, more letters to fellow formalists…

Tell us one new thing you learned from editing this volume.

Funnily enough, the importance of the index! Or rather, what you can learn from corpus work. You see, if someone asked me which writers Shklovsky mentions most, I’d say: Cervantes, Sterne, Tolstoy. These are his three great loves. Pushkin? Nah. But while compiling the index I saw that he actually mentions Pushkin just as often. I guess he is just in the air for a Russian reader, so that you don’t notice until you start counting…

What do you hope readers will take away from this collection?

Many fascinating ideas about literature, film, culture and the human mind — and a desire to argue with Shklovsky. This is what he liked most.


VikShkAlexandra Berlina is Postdoctoral Researcher in Literary Studies at the University of Erfurt, Germany. Her translations of Brodsky's poems "Dido and Aeneas" and "You can't tell a gnat…" have won awards from the 'Willis Barnstone Translation Prize' and the 'The Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender Prize'. She is also the author of Brodsky Translating Brodsky (Bloomsbury, 2014).

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