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A Sentimental Journey : MEMOIRS, 1917-1922 by Viktor Shklovsky, translated from the Russian by Richard Sheldon (Cornell: $9.95, paperback; 352 pp., illustrated)

May 12, 1985|HARRY TRIMBORN | Trimborn is a Times assistant foreign news editor who has reported from the Soviet Union. and

"A Sentimental Journey" has been published about half a dozen times in Europe and the United States since it first saw print in Berlin in 1923. The latest offering was presented in January, a month after Shklovsky died in the Soviet Union at age 91.

Yet, despite its long history, this intriguing, maddening book continues to read like a first draft by an author who could not make up his mind about what he wants to say or how he wants to say it. The book is a jumbled, fragmented work in which elements are torn out of sequence and scattered throughout its pages. It is riven by what translator Richard Sheldon aptly calls in the introduction "stylistic and compositional anarchy."

All this is deliberate, the reader is told. For Shklovsky was an exponent--before he came to terms with Soviet social realism--of the Russian literary movement called formalism that held that form and structure were more important than content. Shklovsky uses this means to sustain attention, a sort of literary whack on the head to keep the reader from passively letting himself be carried along with the flow of the narrative.

The deliberate chaos of the presentation is unnecessary for the chaotic events that Shklovsky writes about. They require no gimmickry to sustain interest. For the book, laced with irony and gallows humor, deals with the tumult, brutality and carnage of revolutionary Russia in the midst of World War I, the Russian occupation of Persia (Iran) and the civil war that followed, as seen through the eyes of a sardonic intellectual caught up in its conflicts.

There are other blemishes and what in retrospect seems like a parody of Hemingway. Take, for example, the following: ". . . right under a bush lay a dead man; he lay still." Then there is the hillside so steep that a man "and a horse can only plow on all fours."

Perhaps this is intended as humor, and should be forgiven, considering Shklovsky's confession: "As for me, I can't make any sense out of all the strange things I've seen in Russia."

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