[ A short excerpt from A Sentimental Journey: Memoirs, 1917-1922. Viktor Shklovsky, a leading figure in the Russian formalist movement of the 1920s, borrows the title from Laurence Sterne. In the book he describes the travels of a bewildered intellectual through Russia, Persia, the Ukraine and the Caucasus during the period of Russian Revolution. A Sentimental Journey is also an important experimental literary work–a memoir in the form of a novel.]
I took my milk home. I walked through the park. The foliage, the cool of the shade, the lawn, and –the sun. I walked along and thought absent-mindedly about my past.
About Opoyaz. “Opoyaz” means “The Society for the Study of Poetic Language.”
About something as clear to me as numerators and denominators. When you think, you get absent minded. I blew myself through absent-mindedness. This is how it happened.
We didn’t have enough primers.
And primers are indispensible. We needed them in case of retreat and we needed them to destroy the bombs that the Whites were dropping on us. Those bombs didn’t always explode.
I had brought from Nikolaev some little white cylinders of German origin that I thought were primers. Mitkevich tried to assure me they weren’t. They actually did seem to have an aperture for a safety fuse, but it was too wide. You could stick your whole little finger in it and it was constructed in such a way that it was impossible to make the opening narrower.
I asked one of the men to make me a safety fuse out of a smoke bomb and I went to the edge of the ravine to try it out.
It was a nice day. The grass was green, the sky blue. In the distance there were some horses and a little boy. There were old trenches all around with dark holes at the bottom. What was inside those holes I don’t know—probably just darkness.
I started to insert the fuse into the cylinder, which looked like a first-grader’s round metal pencil case—about the circumference of a three-kopek piece and about six inches long. The fuse was too small: it wouldn’t stay in the aperture.
I wound paper around it and measured it to go off in two seconds.
So I wouldn’t get tired of waiting.
I lit a cigarette. A safety fuse is lit with a cigarette, not a match. Everything according to the rules. I puffed on the cigarette, picked up the cylinder and bent over it with the cigarette. What happened next I don’t remember in detail.
Probably I accidentally lit the paper wrapped around the safety fuse.
My arms were flung back; I was lifted, seared and turned head over heels. The air filled with explosions. The cylinder had blown up in my hands. I hardly had time for fleeting thought about my book Plot as a Stylistic Phenomenon. Who would write it now?
It seemed as if the explosion were still resounding, as if the rocks still hadn’t fallen back to the ground. But I was on the ground. And I saw the horses galloping in the field, the little boy running. The grass all around was splashed with blood.
Blood is remarkably red against green.
My arms and clothes were all in shreds and holes. My shirt was black with blood and through the straps on my sandals I could see how twisted my feet were. The toes were out-of-joint and stood at various angles.
I lay on my belly, shrieking. The exploding bomb had already finished its shriek. I clawed the grass with my right hand.
I think the soldiers came running right away. They heard the explosion and said, “There it is. Shklovsky’s blown himself up!”
They brought up a wagon. Fast. This was the wagon they used for potato expeditions. The men were badly fed, so they bought potatoes and cooked them at night.
The platoon leader and Matveev, the big fellow, came running and started to lift me into the wagon. I was already coming to.
The student named Pik came up, absolutely stunned.
They put up in the wagon and stuck my linen hat with the soft brim under my head for a cushion.
Mitkevich came up, as pale as when the bridge caught fire. He bent over me all out of breath.
There was still a ringing in my eras. My whole body quivered. But i know how to behave. I doesn’t matter if I don’t know the proper way to hold a spoon at the dinner table.
I said to him: “Take a report: the object given to me for purposes of experimentation proved to be too powerful for use as a primer. The explosion took place prematurely, probably because the outer covering of the safety fuse had been removed. Use regular primers!”
Everything was done according to the rules, as in the best of families.
There are rules about how a wounded man should behave. There are rules about what a dying man should say.
I was taken to the hospital.
One of my soldier students sat at my feet and kept feeling them to see I were getting cold.
We got to the infirmary. After some trouble with the orderlies, everything proceeded in customary fashion. I lay there and sadly began to recognize things. I was put on a table and soaped.
The flesh on my bones was quivering. Now that I hadn’t seen before.
A fine tremor agitated my body. Not just the arms, not just the legs—no, the whole body.
A woman came up—the doctor.
I knew her from Petersburg. Hadn’t seen her for eight years. We started to divert each other with conversation.
I was already being shaved, which is essential for the bandaging.
I talked to her about the great Russian poet Velimir Khlebnikov.
They bandaged me up to my waist and put me in bed.
My wife’s sister came to see me the next day. I had told them not to disturb anybody until morning.
She looked at me, touched me with her finger and calmed down a little.
She went to tell Lusya that I still had my arms and legs.
Everyone already knew that I would blow myself up one day.
Actually, by living, maybe I’m helping fulfill some sort of unknown industrial quota.
I was severely wounded, with fragments of metal in my legs and chest.
My left hand had a hole clear through it, my fingers were mangled and there were fragments in my chest.
I was scratched all over, as if by claws. A chunk of flesh had been torn off my thigh.
And my toes were smashed.
It was impossible to remove all the fragments. To remove them, the doctor would have to make incisions and the scars would have tightened up the leg.
The fragments came out by themselves.
I’d be walking along and something would sting. Something would scrape against my underwear. I’d stop and take a look and there’d be a small, white fragment sticking out.
I’d pull it out and the wound would heal right away.
But enough about wounds.
I was lying there and I didn’t smell like fresh meat. It was hot.
The soldiers came to see me. They looked at me tenderly and diverted me with conversations.
Mitkevich came and said that he had written in his report to headquarters: “…and received numerous wounds all over his body, approximately eighteen in number.”
I approved the report. That was the right number.
The soldiers brought me green apples and sour cherries.