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Customer Review

on September 26, 2005
Viktor Shklovsky's epistolary novel "Zoo," written and published in Berlin 1922-1923, is one of the most remarkable and ingenuous epistolary novels ever written, for the very reason that it manages a cross-over between theory and literature as well as between fiction and life. It is rare in its combination of deep emotion and sharp reflection: a moving evocation of the pain of exile and unrequited love and, at the same time, witty metaliterary play. "Zoo" reshapes the traditional epistolary novel in metafictional style and revitalizes it by blurring the borders between documentary and poetic epistolarity. This can be taken quite literal in view of the textual genesis: the novel is said to mix fictional letters with real ones, letters that were or might have been exchanged (in a rather one-sided correspondence) between the young critic and the lady he courted, between the novelistic `I' and his beloved Alya, alias Viktor Shklovsky and Elsa Triolet (a Russian emigrant like himself and a future French writer). Shklovsky composed the little book in Berlin after fleeing from the Soviet Union, and it is a document of his own intermediary existence in the limbo of exile as well as a kind of ethnography of `Russian Berlin'. But to take the work simply from the autobiographical side would mean to under-estimate its theoretical drive. Not only does it thematize Formalist ideas (as could be expected in a text whose protagonist is a theorist), but it is constructed on such principles, or more precisely: it is performing them.

Shklovsky's "Zoo" harks back to Sterne's "Tristram Shandy" and German Romanticism and it anticipates postmodern ideas of a playful merging of criticism and fiction. Within the generic development of the epistolary novel, "Zoo" is the hallmark of modernity. As is stated in a major book on the genre, "Zoo effects a perceptible displacement on the genre; after 1923, it will never again be quite the same." (L. Kauffman)

The established view of Shklovsky's novel as an "attempt to put into practice the principles to which he adhered as a critic" (V. Erlich) repeats the division between the discourses and reconfirms the dubitable hierarchy of theory over literature. A more adequate view is gained by the concept of hybridity, that is, an equal or even indistinguish-able interaction between both poles. Object level and meta level are dissolved into one literary whole. The `I' is acting as editor and correspondent, as critic and writer and lover, and he tries to seduce not only his lady but other readers, including the state and party leaders who forced him out of Russia and who, after 'receiving' the novel's last letter, allowed him to return home (intra- and extratextual readers). With regard to the notion of a `dialogue' between theory and literature, it is highly significant that Shklovsky chose the dialogic genre of the epistolary novel for his critifictional enterprise.
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