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the Complete Review
the complete review - interview

Shklovsky: Witness to an Era

Serena Vitale

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To purchase Shklovsky: Witness to an Era

Title: Shklovsky: Witness to an Era
Author: Serena Vitale
Genre: Interview
Written: 1979 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 193 pages
Original in: (Italian)
Availability: Shklovsky: Witness to an Era - US
Shklovsky: Witness to an Era - UK
Shklovsky: Witness to an Era - Canada
Shklovsky: Witness to an Era - India
Testimone di un'epoca - Italia
  • Italian title: Testimone di un'epoca
  • Translated by Jamie Richards
  • Includes a Timeline of Works (by Shklovsky)

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Our Assessment:

B- : interesting glimpses from fascinating life, but all over the place and fairly limited

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Nation . 25/2/2013 Ben Ehrenreich
The NY Rev. of Books . 24/4/2014 Keith Gessen
Publishers Weekly . 3/9/2012 .
Wall Street Journal . 18/1/2013 Benjamin Lytal

  From the Reviews:
  • "Anyone not steeped in the Russian avant-garde may want to brush up on the period and personalities; the text assumes a familiarity with Russian literature, history, and figures. Though Vitale provides a brief list of names at the back, more extensive, integrated annotation would make this multifaceted dialogue more attractive to a broader audience." - Publishers Weekly

  • "For an introduction to Shklovsky's ideas, read his Theory of Prose. But to understand the man in his era, read this volume. (...) Shklovsky speaks not with nostalgia, but with a tough energy, a need to persuade. Listening to the great Russian critic talk, it seems that what the Soviet Union robbed him of wasn't just his intellectual freedom." - Benjamin Lytal, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Serena Vitale visited Viktor Shklovsky in Russia around Christmas, 1978, and in Shklovsky: Witness to an Era presents a version of her conversations with this fascinating man of Russian letters (and theory). A new Preface now also describes Vitale's visit and the circumstances of the conversations -- as well as how the KGB remained on her tail throughout, to the point of actual confrontation --; disappointingly, she admits she: "never asked to see my file when the Lubyanka opened its archives" (despite offering a tantalizing bit from Shklovsky-neighbor Vladimir Voynovich's dossier which mentions her).
       Vitale notes already in her original Preface that:

the dominant feature of Shklovsky's style -- no matter the form or genre -- is digression, where his old love for Sterne intertwines with the unpredictable fitfulness of a feverishly exhausted memory.
       This recorded version of their conversations, even in this obviously edited form, certainly manage to retain that digressiveness. It's part of the charm of the book -- but also makes it somewhat frustrating, as there's far too little probing and depth.
       One thing that is conveyed nicely is the bustle of activity around during the revolutionary and then early Soviet times, with Shklovsky in the middle of so much of it, and knowing so many of the prominent artists of the day. As he nicely puts it:
Look, I'll try to explain it this way: there was a train headed for the future and we were pushing and shoving one another to get on. But we were convinced that it would come ...
       There are some nice little titbits:
Yes, there's one thing, actually two things, that I've never written: poetry and denunciations.
       His passions are nicely conveyed, too:
Bulgakov is a wonderful, incomparable writer. When I read, for example, The Master and Margarita ... I fell apart like clothes in the rain and humidity.
       And one has to appreciate admissions such as:
Do you watch television, Viktor Borisovich ?

No, I don't. I just like talking about it.
       The sometime-screenwriter does have some insights into television -- and much else, as Vitale's questions and his answers cover much of his work and life, but whether about theory or experience, conversation tends to skim at the very surface. Shklovsky did really seem to know them all, but given so little space offers only brief bits about most -- only occasionally more than the simply anecdotal.
       Some of what he suggests -- such as his closing claim for Khlebnikov as being the writer who has done most for the Russian language ("The lesson to be learned from Khlebnikov's prose hasn't yet come to fruition, but its time will come, and writers will be reading him") -- are tantalizing, but as throughout one wishes for more in-depth discussion. (In fact, Shklovsky does paint a nice little portrait of Khlebnikov -- "If men live in houses, he lived out the window. If men live in the woods, he walked on branches", etc. -- but this too is more digression than a true closer consideration of his work.)
       While there's a fascinating mix in Shklovsky: Witness to an Era, with its many references and jumps it is also something of a muddle. A fairly extensive (if not thorough) 'Glosssary of Persons' mentioned is welcome (though, oddly, Khlebnikov does not make the cut here) as does a 'Timeline of Works' by Shklovsky, both helping to situate some of the material better, but both only offer a bit more foundation to the very loose text.
       Worthwhile for the fascinating glimpses into Shklovsky and his era(s), and with some nice insights into a variety of cultural (and the occasional anti-cultural) figures (Tolstoy to ... Zhdanov, for example) Shklovsky: Witness to an Era should be of considerable interest to Shklovsky-fans and those interested in Soviet culture -- but it does not quite make it to general-interest level.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 October 2012

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Shklovsky: Witness to an Era: Reviews: Viktor Shklovsky: Books by Viktor Shklovsky under review: Other books by Serena Vitale under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Italian author Serena Vitale is a professor of Russian language and literature at the University of Pavia.

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© 2012-2021 the complete review

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