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Viktor Shklovsky and the 5 paragraph essay

March 14, 2012

Darling Viktor Shklovsky, founder of Russian formalism, has a tome on Tolstoy’s War and Peace that I’ve been using in writing my thesis. The damn thing has never, as far as I can tell, been translated into English, which means that it takes me hours to read a few pages. Here I provide my translation of a few particularly salient (!) paragraphs, which, astonishingly, take the form of a sixth-grader’s attempt at a five-paragraph essay: all huge block quotes, no analysis. The thesis of the essay is: “Tolstoy corrupts historical details (on purpose?!)” Amusingly, the text called “Perovsky’s notes” is almost certainly misattributed, and my research has left me with the growing sense that Shklovsky entirely invented the enigmatic “Doctor Roos.”

(From Material and Style in the Novel “War and Peace,” chapter 5: “The Details of War and Peace.”)

Tolstoy’s details are often directed, reversed. Eikhenbaum noticed some especially deliberate Tolstoyan moments in the “Sevastopol” stories: when people are wounded, they think they’ve been killed, and when people are killed, they think they’ve been wounded. This is one of the devices of Tolstoyan directiveness.

It is curious to place Tolstoy’s process in relation to a passage from Perovsky’s notes:

War and Peace:

… Horsemeat was tasty and nutritious, the saltpeter bouquet of the gunpowder they used instead of salt was even agreeable, there were no great cold spells, and walking in the daytime always made him hot, while at night there were campfires; the lice that ate him warmed his body pleasantly.

Perovsky’s notes:

The meat of the dead, long-ago killed horses, finally became our sole food. Blackened from time and frost, it was harmful to our health, especially because we ate it without salt, only half-cooked. Pale, in rags, shoeless, we prisoners presented a terrible, repulsive picture.

As you can see, the whole passage is practically repeated, but Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy has changed the taste of the meat. He couldn’t have done this on the basis of Perovskii’s evidence, nor could he have done it on the basis of other materials of his. Here is what Mikhailovsky-Danilevsky writes on the taste of meat seasoned with gunpowder:

It rarely happened that the foragers were able to bring home any horned cattle or sheep, and so the army was forced to live on the horse carrion that was lying around along the fields and in the camp. There were terrible shortages of salt, and they used gunpowder instead, but this method of salting brought on unquenchable thirst and diarrhea, and they were compelled to refrain from gunpowder. There was no animal fat or oil at all; they applied candle tallow to their food, which they would slip out beforehand from their Matins.

Doctor Roos, whom he cites, writes the following:

There had been salt shortages earlier, but never as much as now. So sometimes gunpowder was used instead. When cooked, the gunpowder would decompose into its constituent parts, and the coal and sulphur would float to the top in black stains, and the saltpeter itself would dissolve into the stew. The saltpeter was sharp, acrid, unpleasant; it precipitated thirst and diarrhea; thus it became necessary to make do without salt at all. There was never any oil: animal fat was used instead, and sometimes even candle tallow.
… Even the king’s guard was finally fed exclusively on horsemeat. We drank the melted fat from sheep and horsemeat as though it were tea or coffee.

Thus, according to the opinions of eyewitnesses whom it is easy to trust, we can see that horsemeat seasoned with gunpowder is not tasty.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 14, 2012 12:44 am

    But what about Mikhailovskii-Danilevskii? Did Shklovsky invent him, too?

    • linebrick permalink*
      March 14, 2012 12:47 am

      nope! those sinning foragers really existed, too!

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