THEORY OF PROSE

By Viktor Shklovsky

Translated from the Russian

By Benjamin Sher

Dalkey Archive. 216 pp. $29.95

NOWADAYS, no one of sound mind and body is ever likely to read a book of literary theory. You'd need to warm up with a general course in linguistics, a graduate seminar in Heidegger and a serious crossword puzzle just to think of peeking into a volume by deconstructionist Jacques Derrida. As the late Marvin Mudrick once observed, "When the French get heavy, they make the Germans look like ballerinas."

All this is really too bad, because people who read are constantly making judgments about books. Umberto Eco is dull; Umberto Eco is delightful. Well, which is it? Dick Francis and Robert Ludlum keep writing the same thriller again and again. So what -- and is this good or bad? Who's better: Stephen King or Thomas Pynchon? Alice Walker or Toni Morrison? A mystery "falls apart at the end." What does this mean? A certain writer's novels aren't "true to life." Should they be? The reviewer for the Times loves a new biography, the critic for The Post hates it: Is one right and the other wrong?

These are typical questions with no easily agreed-upon answers. But there are a few books -- I list five in the accompanying sidebar -- that will help an interested reader better understand the dynamics of a novel, a poem or a play. Among the best is Viktor Shklovsky's Theory of Prose, first published in 1925 but only now translated in its entirety.

Shklovsky was one of the leaders of the Russian Formalists, an association of literary theorists who flourished in the heady decade just after the Bolshevik Revolution. To a degree, the members of Opojaz (the Russian abbreviation for Society for the Study of Poetic Language) are comparable to the Anglo-American New Critics: Both groups concentrated on how works of art are made. It is this focus on construction, on the machinery of a poem or novel, that makes them so useful to ordinary readers.

In Theory of Prose Shklovsky begins with the function of art: Quite simply, art aims -- in a phrase made famous by Joseph Conrad -- to make us see. Through routine and repetition the world has grown gray and dull: People who live near the seashore no longer hear the waves. Automatization, writes Shklovsky "eats away at things, at clothes, at furniture, at our wives, and at our fear of war." "And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art."

Art's chief technique for lifting the scales from our eyes is what is called, in Russian, ostraniene. This has been variously translated as "defamiliarization" or "estrangement," though here Benjamin Sher prefers the more positive "enstrangement." Art makes the familiar strange so that it can be freshly perceived. To do this it presents its material in unexpected, even outlandish ways: The shock of the new. Literary theory studies these distortions, the divergences that create "literariness."

Most of Theory of Prose outlines the various devices that an author uses to counteract automaticized perception. Tolstoy never calls a thing by its name; he describes the world as though it were seen for the first time: To the young Natasha (in War and Peace) an opera performance appears as two fat people singing in front of some painted cardboard trees. Anything that slows our reading also increases our perceptiveness, makes us reconsider reality, gives density to the world. Shklovsky therefore focuses on such slo-mo devices as parallelism, digression, the displacement and violation of time sequence, simultaneous planes of action, step-by-step construction, framing and inset stories, and the "laying bare" of narrative tricks (this in a chapter in praise of that proto-postmodern classic, Tristram Shandy.) Along the way, Shklovsky himself details the structure of Don Quixote, Little Dorrit and Sherlock Holmes whodunits. Like the two older brothers in traditional fairy tales, Dr. Watson is necessary to impede the action, to delay the hero's triumph, by offering the wrong solutions to the mystery.

As one might expect from an esthetic based on enstrangement, Shklovsky views art as artifice, the novel as a "cluster of compositional devices." He writes that "No more of the real world impinges upon a work of art than the reality of India impinges upon the game of chess." Even more strongly, "In art, blood is not bloody. No, it just rhymes with 'flood.' " In his view a novel should be an object of esthetic contemplation, rather than the "catalyst" of any visceral emotion. This is, I think, somewhat overstated: We ought to suffer with characters, feel their hopes and fears, else we will miss the necessary enchantment of storytelling, that temporary loss of self that makes for reading bliss. Still, it is crucial to remember, after the last page is turned, that whatever else it may be, a novel is a fabrication, a machine designed to play with our perceptions. It offers not a slice, but a simulacrum, of life. Some readers -- but few writers -- may bristle at such a diagrammatic view; for these Shklovsky completes their disillusion by adding that "every novel assures us of its reality. It is a common practice for every writer to compare his story with 'literature.' "

A rambling, digressive stylist, Shklovsky throws off brilliant apercus on every page. (He writes this way naturally: Cf. Zoo, his half factual, half philosophical epistolary novel set among Russian emigres in 1922 Berlin.) In Theory of Prose Shklovsky reminds us, for instance, of the crucial distinction between plot and story: The latter contains the events that need to be related, while the former is the arrangement of those events for particular artistic ends. He remarks on the "flickering" effect of watching drama, how we move between losing ourselves in the stage action and being aware of the audience around us (actually "flickering" also characterizes reading). When Shklovksy discusses the dynamics of literary evolution -- and it is essential that fictional styles change, lest they too become "automatic" -- he notes that the movement is "not from father to son but from uncle to nephew." By this striking phrase he means that a new writer will tend to reject dominating literary fashions and take up those that have been despised or neglected. So Dostoevsky's religious-philosophic novels are built on the pattern of sensationalistic crime thrillers.

Here Shklovsky reminds us of his Soviet heritage, for what is this theory of warring styles and techniques but an image of the dialectic working itself out in literary history? But as with most of his pronouncements he never really followed this up. Boris Eichenbaum, Yury Tynyanov, Boris Tomashevsky and other colleagues elaborated and consolidated many of his insights. All of them though were neglected for decades, only being rediscovered in the 1960s when their ideas provided an anvil for the hammering out of early French structuralism.

Sixty-five years after it first appeared, Theory of Prose remains an exciting book: Like an architect's blueprint, it lays bare the joists and studs that hold up the house of fiction.

Michael Dirda is a writer and editor for Book World.