Zoo, or Letters Not About Love by Victor Shklovsky
Translated by Richard Sheldon

I took the unusual step (for me, anyway) of doing a little polyreading recently. I used to be able to do this regularly, but more recently have struggled with more than one volume on the go, preferring to devote all my energies to one book at a time. However, the nature of the books I was reading leant themselves to polyreading, and one of them was this unusual and fascinating volume from Dalkey Archive Press.

Victor Shklovsky (1893-1984) is possibly best known as a theorist (his “Theory of Prose”, published in 1925, is considered a seminal work). However, he was also a critic and pamphleteer; his critical writings on film were amongst the first to take the form seriously, and as he was a close friend of the great Eisenstein, I wish Shklovsky’s book on the filmmaker had been translated… I initially came across Shklovksy during the madness of my first flush of obsession with Mayakovsky; he was a friend of the poet and his book “Mayakovsky and his Circle” was one I picked up (I think) in the wonderful Collets International Bookshop on the Charing Cross Road. As well as all this, it transpires that Shklovsky also wrote fiction; so I felt I really needed to read one of his books and “Zoo” sounded just fascinating. A little purchase receipt from the lovely LRB Bookshop (how I miss it…) tells me I bought it in 2016; yet another case of me buying a book and then losing it somewhere on the TBR for ages…

Then I was mesmerized by you.
I know your mouth, your lips.
I have wound my whole life around the thought of you.

Anyway! “Zoo, or Letters Not About Love” (first published in Berlin in 1923) is an unusual beast and probably needs some context. Ostensibly, it’s a epistolary novel, with the author writing to the woman of his dreams, Alya. The latter, however, has forbidden him to write to her about love and so instead he’s forced to fill his missives with anything from Boris Pasternak to the Grand Order of Monkeys. Alya replies occasionally, and unfortunately it does seem that the banned subject *will* keep creeping into the letters…

All well and good, but there’s a lot more going here than might first be seen. The book was published while Shklovsky was living in exile in Berlin (alongside many other Russian creatives) and the ‘Alya’ figure is actually Elsa Triolet; an author in her own right, and the sister of Lily Brik, Mayakovsky’s great muse. Wikipedia states of Shklovsky that he wrote a number of semi-autobiographical works disguised as fiction, and they’re not wrong!

To live in any real way is painful.

So the book obliquely tells the story of Shklovsky’s love for Elsa (who would go on to later marry French poet Louis Aragon, as well as having a distinguished literary career and becoming the first woman to win the Prix Goncourt, in 1944). However, it also offers a vivid glimpse of Berlin in the 1920s and the lives of the Russian exiles. All manner of them flit through its pages for the author to ruminate upon; and he also meditates on any number of theories about art and literature, and the characteristics of the Hispano-Suiza sportscar! It’s an entertaining and unusual mix, and really not like anything else I’ve read.

The content of this letter obviously escaped from some other book by the same author, but perhaps the compiler of the book deemed the letter indispensable for reasons of variety.

Producing this issue of “Zoo…” was not a straightforward matter, as translator Richard Sheldon reveals in the detailed commentary and notes which accompany the book: it went through a number of editions from 1923 to 1964, and each seems to have contained different versions of the contents. The Dalkey Archive edition contains everything, including the author’s prefaces from the later editions and all manner of elided text; a real achievement of scholarship.

My other Shklovsky book…

Stylistically, Shklovsky’s prose is perhaps unusual too. The letters are often written in a declamatory style which reminded me very much of Mayakovsky’s poetry, and the lines between forms were obviously being blurred at the time. The narrative is sometimes fragmented and digressive, and the experimental nature seemed to me to reflect the development of modernist literature of the times. The meta elements are fascinating, with Shklovsky even at one point in the book referring to a book he’s currently writing, called – “Zoo, or Letters Not About Love”!

My whole life is a letter to you.

“Zoo…” was a fascinating read; discursive, evocative, and unexpectedly full of the love for Alya which the author has been forbidden to express, it really did capture a lost time and a place. I’ve seen comment online that the book is best read for the first time without constant reference to the notes, and that’s probably good advice; they *are* copious and useful, but distract a little from the narrative flow. I’m not sure if I actually ever read Shklovsky’s book on Mayakovsky, but having experienced his writing in “Zoo…” I do feel very inclined to pick it up soon!