13 May 2008

Zoo, or Letters Not About Love by Victor Shklovsky

This is a lovely little book. To call it a novel, even an epistolary novel, seems inappropriate - it's a collection of letters. I always thought you had to be a pretty hardcore dork to really sit down and read someone's letters, but I guess I've become one in the past few years. The thing about reading someone's letters is, for the most part, they're pretty dull. They're generally mundane everyday stuff that happens to be written by a gifted writer. So you have to be prepared to slog through a lot of tedium, and the payoff is a ultimately a few paragraphs that contain some really nice observations or some good anecdotes. If this is the kind of thing that sounds somewhat appealing to you, but you're not quite ready to dive into tomes of Conrad or Kafka (both marvelous letter writers), then this is a good place to start. Well, maybe you should begin with a few proper epistolary novels (why not pick up CLARISSA, Richardson's 1,500 page doorstop? Just kidding. Not that I regret having read it, actually.) to get in the swing of the whole letter-schtick in a more plot driven enterprise. But this book is a good transition point from there, because, inasmuch as it's a novel, there's less tedium, but inasmuch as it's not _really_ a novel, but rather an aesthetic organization of thematically centered letters, there's not plot so much as character development and mood. Shklovsky was a theorist of literary form, so the man knows what he's doing. 

ANYHOW. What attracted me to this book is its curiously lovely conceit - it's a collection of letters written by a man to a woman who does not love him. He wants to write her love letters, and she, appreciating that the man is a genius, wants him to write her, but NOT about love.  So he writes about other things - the life of a Russian exile in Berlin, ideas about literature, thoughts on exile, descriptions of people he knows, all of which are indeed quite fascinating - but of course, the letters are actually all about love. It's marvelous, how descriptions of the weather and the zoo can be so saturated with longing. Elaborate metaphors are constructed so as to write about love without writing about it - absolutely incredible. There's a nice touch, too, of a few included letters written by the lady herself (apparently she was "discovered" and went on to a somewhat successful literary career as a result). They have a subtle way of pointing to the arrogance of the unrequited lover that is an excellent counterpoint to Shklovsky's gorgeous anguish ("This book is being written for you, Alya; writing it is physically painful."), which would otherwise prove so persuasive that the reader might end up thinking of the beloved as a cold-hearted monster - to quote, "You write about me - for yourself; I write about myself - for you."

So while it would seem to be a rather esoteric book, it's actually more accessible than one might imagine. Like letter collections in general, the payoff is more minimal than what you'd get in a good novel, but it's also a pretty short book and worth the effort.


Elijah said...

excellent Kasia I myself involved in same way with a lady in St.Petersburg she gave me the link to you and now we discuss the Zoo excellent review we are not characters and we openly discuss our strong feelings for each other its safe clear unhidden and joyful yes we talk about parks,crows,ducks,rain,seabirds and Literature We both love 20s Soviet Literature Akhmatova's Guest fascinated us and my other other St.Petersburg contact we love Gumilyev and so many others.

m said...

I just finished reading Shklovsky's novel, and went to the web to find what others have said about it. Thus, I stumbled upon your blog. I like your discussion quite a bit.

Are you familiar with Shklovsky's notions of ostraneniye or "defamiliarization"/"making it strange"/"estrangement"? The basic idea is that good art, according to Shklovsky, makes us see the world anew by defamiliarizing what has become so familiar and cliched in our daily lives. Art makes the stone "stoney" again, to paraphrase his famous maxim. It seems that this novel follows this premise; by "not" writing about love, he actually makes love become more palpable and alive.

In any case, I'm happy that I found your blog. Thanks for the interesting notes.

culture_vulture said...

Oh wow, I somehow missed that initial comment. So to Elijah, I hope all is still well with your lady and I'm glad you enjoyed the review.
m - yes, I am familiar with Shklosky's idea of estrangement. It's obviously been awhile since I read Zoo, but as I recall, it wasn't exactly a model of estrangement per se, but more a kind of indirect or oblique way of getting at love. As I understand it at least, estrangement generally involves describing an object in an estranged way - so for example, The Persian Letters, or lots of Voltaire, or an everyday object described from the perspective of a space alien who knows nothing about it, thereby forcing you to see it in a new way. Shklovsky, in NOT talking about love, does implicitly get at what love is like, but the technique seems somewhat different to me. But perhaps I am mistaken or not remembering the text correctly?