Shklovsky and Rozanov, beyond and on this side of time

There are books that are islands in the middle of the sea, objects that tend to remain closed in on themselves; others which are islands in archipelagos, autonomous, but somehow communicating. I think that Rozanov by Viktor Šklovsky belongs to the second category, despite being the highly distinctive product of a cultural climate that was characterized by necessary extremisms and inevitable limitations. But who or what does he talk to? Rozanov?

Let’s go in order and start from the beginning, that is, from the title of this agile booklet, Rozanov From the book “Weaving as a phenomenon of style”, published by Wojtek (2023), as the fourth volume of the Ostranenie series, which in Russian means estrangement, a concept theorized, not by chance, by Shklovsky. At first glance there is a lot of information that the reader feels he has to recover, but excellent support is provided by the accurate paratextual apparatus: from the preface of the editors, Federica Arnoldi, Luca Mignola and Alfredo Zucchi, and above all from the notes and bio-bibliographic notes of Maria Zalambani, who translated the essay.

The biographical information on Vasilij Rozanov (1856-1919), writer and religious philosopher, author and thinker controversial for his ideas on marriage, carnal relationships and orthodoxy is certainly necessary for many. One of his first writings, The legend of the Grand Inquisitor (1891), has become a non-marginal text among studies on Dostoevsky, with which Rozanov has various points of contact. One of these is, curiously, a woman, Apollinarija Suslova, who had had a stormy relationship with Dostoevsky and whom Rozanov married in 1880: he was twenty-four, she was forty. «It is to be assumed that the possibility of knowing Dostoevsky’s woman in a carnal way sent him into ecstasy» wrote Mark Slonim in this regard, in a comment not even among the most malicious of all those reserved for Rozanov. In the testimonies of contemporaries he is described as a greasy, drooling, soggy, unpleasant man. Angelo Maria Ripellino compares him to a Dostoevskian character, to a man from the underground, indifferent and devoid of will, with his «desire for self-flagellation, his skittishness, his petulance, his need to confess and flaunt his own shortcomings», as he wrote in his essay, Rozanov: reconnaissance of its subsoil (which can be read in V. Rozanov, Fallen leaves, Adelphi, 1976, p. 414).

Beyond his physical appearance and personality, Rozanov attracted numerous criticisms for the ambiguity of the positions he took. Despite openly declaring himself conservative, anti-Semitic and monarchist, for example, he collaborated in the same period with both the conservative magazine “Novoe Vremja” and, under a pseudonym, with the liberal “Russkoe Slovo”, without considering it inappropriate, rather with the conviction of being right in the one and in the other articles, as he himself stated in Fallen leaves (p. 160). He was thus accused of double dealing, as well as pornography, and three years after his death, in September 1922, an article by Trotsky published in “Leningradskaya Pravda” began the official Soviet ban on his works.

During his lifetime he had detractors and admirers, and above all he aroused interest among symbolists, acmeists and futurists. In a 1913 review of his Fallen leavesthe critic Pavel Percov defines his work as «strange», «but which the ‘friends of Rozanov’ will immediately recognize as a his book”. It is precisely the strangeness, the unconventionality of Rozanov, both on a formal and thematic level, that made him an interesting object of analysis for Viktor Šklovsky who, in the context of formalist criticism, was studying the procedures and mechanisms of functioning of literary works.

In the afterword to the volume, Maria Zalambani, a fine scholar of the period in question and not only and former translator of Shklovsky’s epistolary novel, Zoo or non-love letters (Sellerio 2002), reconstructs the genesis of the essay and the various elaborations it underwent. The first full version was published in Collections on the theory of poetic language (1921), but the essay had already been partially published in the magazine “Žizn’ iskusstva” (1921) with the title Theme, image and plot in Rozanov. That same year, on April 3, Rozanov was the subject of a conference that Shklovsky held at the Moscow Linguistic Circle. Later the text took the title of Literature without plot and entered in an abridged form in the first and second editions of Prose theory (1925 and 1929).

In RozanovShklovsky starts from the general theory on the coexistence and alternation of literary schools in the various eras, a theory that soon proves to be functional for the analysis of the Rozanov case, whose works are examined Lonely And Fallen leaves (basket 1 And 2). Shklovsky notes that in them Rozanov introduces new themes concerning in particular the prosaic nature of everyday life and the family, thus creating a new genre that canonizes a minor line of literature, «at a time when the previous one was still powerful» (p. 42) . In the three works, Rozanov divides the literary material into fragments which nevertheless form a compositional unity similar to the novel (Sklovsky defines it as a “novel without motivation” p. 38).

From a formal point of view, Shklovsky recognizes procedures in Rozanov’s works that are in line with his sensitivity as a critic. I’ll give a couple of examples without the discussion becoming too technical. A procedure that Shklovsky focuses on is contradiction, which he exemplifies with various quotes. Rozanov in particular creates contrasts regularly, both between action and location of action and by placing literary material in unusual places. Then there is the concept of estrangement, which the formalist critic had elaborated in the famous essay Art as a process (1917), and to which he also returns in Rozanovreporting the following extract from Lonely: «Children differ from us in that they perceive everything with such a strong realism that it is inaccessible to adults. This is why children they enjoy the world much more than us” (p. 47). It is clear that both Rozanov and Shklovsky care about how we look at and perceive objects.


And here we return to the initial question: who does he talk to? Rozanov? It seems to me that I can identify three levels of dialogue. The first is the one between the two writers, Shklovsky and Rozanov, not only for the contents, but also for a certain way of writing, fragmentary and composite, which draws on different sources, incorporating multiple materials. In a similar way to Rozanov, Shklovsky writes a subversive novel, a “formalist anti-novel”, as Zalambani defines Zoo or non-love letters (ibid., p. 10). One could speak of influence, and there are those who have done so, referring in particular to that exercised by Rozanov on Sentimental journey by Shklovsky, but I prefer the idea of ​​dialogue, which in addition to not being hierarchical, can be effectively extended to the essay itself and its communication with other studies by Shklovsky. In fact, it is the author himself who mentions and refers to works or authors treated more extensively elsewhere, such as Tristram Shandyto whom he dedicates an essay (“Sterne’s Tristram Shandy” and the theory of the novel), published in 1921 and then merged into Prose theory. Here, then, is the second level of dialogue.

Finally, I have the impression that the Rozanov of the three works analyzed has the ability to weave a dialogue also with contemporaneity. His fragments refer to our writing on social media which, despite being fragmentary, often follows “a certain constancy in the procedure” (p. 21). In our posts we indicate where we are, like the information Rozanov gives about where he is writing. And then maybe, really, Rozanov he manages to stay inside and outside his time, on both sides of it, to use the words with which the editors present the volume; she seems to be placed in a limbo, similar to that metaphysical antechamber of the cover from which a blinding light can be seen.

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