Let’s continue reading Viktor Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose (1925/9), seeing what lessons it contains for those of us writing and reading today. To quickly recap the previous installments: Shklovsky posits that all art is built from devices (priem), which get put together in patterns. Those patterns can adhere to normative conventions, or they can be somehow disrupted; Shklovsky calls that disruption “defamiliarization” (ostranenie). We, the audience, can perceive those disruptions because we have some expectation of the conventional ways in which artworks are patterned; for more on this, see my discussion of “differential perception”.
One type of defamiliarization is deceleration: the artist uses one or more devices to delay a pattern’s familiar (and therefore anticipated) resolution. I’ve already discussed how artists can use repetition and tautologies to do that. Today I’d like to look at one more example of deceleration, a very pure example that I call “atomization.” I will demonstrate it using an example from Yuriy Tarnawsky’s novel Three Blondes and Death (FC2, 1993), which also happens to be one of my favorite books of the past 20 years.
What follows is the entirety of Chapter 3 of that novel’s first part: “Hwbrgdtse Makes a Portrait of Alphabette.” I think you’ll quickly understand why I’m quoting it in full; remember, we’re looking for how Tarnawsky delays the resolution of the very simple plot that structures the chapter. All you need to know at this point is that the novel’s protagonist, Hwbrgdtse, has just met and become enamored with the first of three blond women, Alphabette:
Hwbrgdtse was at a bus terminal. He was going on a long-distance trip. He was waiting for his bus. He was in the terminal bar. He was having a drink. He sat at a table. The door of the bar was open. It opened onto the terminal. Through it one could hear the arrivals and departures being announced. The announcer was a woman. The public address system wasn’t very good. The announcer’s voice was badly distorted. It was almost impossible to tell what she was saying. The announcements were made at faily short intervals. Hwbrgdtse was engrossed in his thoughts. He was barely aware of the announcements. For some reason he became aware of one of them however. He could actually understand the woman speaking. She said a particular bus was arriving at some gate. Hwbrgdtse then got an image in his mind of a bus pulling up to a platform. It was big. It had an aluminum shell. It looked brand new. It sparkled in the overhead lights of the terminal. The image of the bus then became replaced in Hwbrgdtse’s mind by that of Alphabette. What made Hwbrgdtse think of Alphabette was the size of the bus, its shell being made from aluminum, it looking brand new, and it sparkling. Hwbrgdtse then got a tremendous urge to see Alphabette. He realized he couldn’t satisfy it. The realization produced an almost physical pain in him. He almost cried out from the pain. He didn’t know what to do. Hwbrgdtse’s drink was in a glass. There was a cherry in it. It also had a swivel stick in it. The stick was plastic. It was blue. The glass stood on a mat. The mat was rectangular. It was paper. It was white. There was a napkin lying next to the glass. It was also paper. It was also white. Hwbrgdtse suddenly got an idea. He thought of making Alphabette’s portrait out of the things in front of him. In an instant he realized exactly how he was going to do it. He realized it would work perfectly. He thought great artists must feel that way getting an idea for their masterpiece. He felt proud to have had the same experience. He could almost see the portrait before him. He almost felt he didn’t have to make it. He pushed the thought out of his mind however. He wanted to make the portrait. He immediately set to work. He pushed the glass and the napkin off the mat. He picked up the mat. He started tearing pieces off of its edges. He worked fast. He tore out a roughly oval shape. It was to be Alphabette’s head. The head was represented in a three-quarter profile pose. Alphabette’s left cheek was turned to the viewer. Hwbrgdtse was pleased with what he’d done. He felt the shape looked very much like Alphabette in that pose. He felt it was very good the mat was white. He felt the color conveyed well Alphabette’s complexion. Hebrgdtse gathered the torn-off pieces of paper in his fist. There was an ashtray on the table. Hwbrgdtse put the torn-off pieces in the ashtray. He didn’t want them to interfere with his composition by lying next to it. He felt they could be interpreted as being part of the composition. They didn’t belong to it however. Next Hwbrgdtse took the napkin. He proceeded to tear it up into small pieces. He made sure they came out fluffy. He placed them over the upper part of Alphabette’s head. He made sure they were distributed evenly over the whole area. He used up all of the napkin for this purpose. The torn pieces of the napkin covered the area completely. They represented Alphabette’s hair. Hwbrgdtse was again pleased with what he’d done. He felt the color of the paper conveyed excellently that of Alphabette’s. He didn’t feel the fluffiness of the pieces clashed with his intentions. That is he didn’t think it mattered Alphabette’s hair was combed smooth in reality. This was probably because of his feeling the hair didn’t have to be combed that way. Next Hwbrgdtse took the swivel stick out of the glass. He broke off a piece of it. It was short. It was about a third of the length of the stick. Hwbrgdtse placed the piece about a third of the way from the left side of the head toward the center. He placed it halfway between the top and the bottom. The stick represented Alphabette’s nose. Hwbrgdtse again was pleased with what he’d done. He felt the piece of the swivel stick represented well Alphabette’s nose. This was both due to its shortness and relative thickness. Hwbrgdtse didn’t feel the blue color clashed with his intention. On the contrary he felt it was appropriate. He felt the color conveyed the color of Alphabette’s eyes. This was because of the proximity of the nose to the eyes. Next Hwbrgdtse picked up the glass. It was about half full. Hwbrgdtse emptied it in a gulp. He didn’t swallow the cherry. He took it out of the glass. He placed it to the right of the piece of the swivel stick and close to its top. The cherry represented Alphabette’s eye. Hwbrgdtse again was pleased with what he’d done. He felt the shape of the cherry conveyed excellently the shape of the human eye. He didn’t feel the red color of the cherry clashed with his intention. He felt it should be dismissed as obviously irrelevant. The only thing left for Hwbrgdtse to represent then was Alphabette’s mouth. Hwbrgdtse hadn’t thought of how to do this. He’d forgotten about the mouth. For an instant he became worried. He didn’t think he’d be able to represent the mouth. He felt he wouldn’t be able to carry out his plan. Then he saw a solution in a flash. He saw it was both the only and the best solution. He decided to put his mouth on the spot where Alphabette’s mouth should be. He felt this would represent both Alphabette’s mouth and his kissing it. He was elated with the idea. He bent down. He closed his eyes. He pressed his mouth in the particular spot. He imagined himself kissing Alphabette. He almost dissolved with pleasure. (17–8)
… Yes, the entire novel is written in this style. Everything, every description, therefore becomes what Shklovsky calls “laborious”—which is also his synonym for poetry (“impeded speech,” as opposed to prose, which is “straight speech”; the idea is that poetry delays perception). (Mind you, I’m not calling the novel “laborious”; I think it’s sheer pleasure. And one aspect of its pleasure is how thoroughly it deforms certain expectations of what a novel should be.)
Beyond his masterly use of atomization, Tawnawsky defamiliarizes several other aspects of the novel in Three Blondes and Death:
- For starters, the protagonist is named Hwbrgdtse, hardly a conventional name. (Other than its odd look, however, it functions exactly the way a character name “should,” making the contrast all the more perceptible.) And Hwbrgdtse isn’t alone; other characters in the book include Alphabette, Bethlehem, Chemnitz, Ten, and Thirty-three.
- Tarnawsky also spends more time relating the characters’ dreams than their waking actions.
- Furthermore, he takes a few liberties with the narrative’s chronological ordering—although these days, many readers don’t find that all too unusual.
- More unnerving however is the fact that Tarnawsky delays the revelation of what is usually standard exposition until very late in the book: he doesn’t physically describe Hwbrgdtse until the start of Part 4, on page 317, and he doesn’t reveal when the novel is set until the very last page (where, precisely because of that inversion—we’re finally given a mundane detail that we usually get in a novel’s opening sentences—it assumes almost epiphanic force).
Again, any conventional feature of an artwork—any device or pattern—can be defamiliarized: it can be slowed down, removed, substituted for, or otherwise made strange. But the violation, the defamiliarization, must be perceived against some other more conventional employment. We must have some norm, some set of standard conventions, to contrast the difference against.
OK, next time, we’ll move past deceleration, and Chapter 2, to discuss other ways in which stories are structured, and can thereby be defamiliarized. Until then—
—experience with joy or otherwise take pleasure when you look carefully at a book in order to understand its meaning, or compose and produce in words or characters duly set down.