In his Art as Technique, Viktor Shklovsky argues that the function of poetic language is “not to make us perceive meaning, but to create a special perception of the object” (Shklovsky 18), an impeded perception, which forces us to linger on the object and see it as it actually is, not as we expect it to be through years of automatic recognition. For art to be art it must teach us to see, often by making the familiar unfamiliar, allowing us to see it for what it is. In the short story “A Family Journey,” Teffi impedes the reader’s perception so that the reader might see that, despite appearances, what lurks under the surface of this apparent family comedy is a family tragedy. However, while she employs modes of defamiliarization to achieve this slowing, they are not identical to those Shklovsky discusses. While Shklovsky emphasizes the presentation of the world through unfamiliar eyes—the eyes of a child to whom everything is new and wondrous, Teffi does almost the exact opposite, presenting her world through the eyes of a canny narrator, who, rather than making the ordinary seem extraordinary, renders the extraordinary—the absurd, the tragic—ordinary. Thus, the absurd and tragic are defamiliarized to the reader because, initially, they read as nothing out of the ordinary whatsoever. In this process, it is the purposeful hastening of the reader as the narrator passes by certain moments in the narrative which causes impeded perception and slowing as the reader is forced to pause and reread with a more careful eye. To borrow Shlovsky’s metaphor of the stone, rather than making the stone stony by directing the reader’s attention to its various components, Teffi passes over the stone speedily, forcing the reader to look harder at the stone by her assurances that it is not, in fact, a stone at all.
Teffi’s story is full of labels—labelled people and labelled actions—which pass judgement upon the story as it is told and, by their ironic distance from the actuality of the story, force the reader to consider and reject their judgements. This is perhaps most evident in the behavior of the grandmother, whose comments are usually preceded by an announcement of her “intention” according to the narrator—an intention which is generally saintlier than the one contained in her words. The narrator tells us that “to bring about peace” in the household—an admirable aim—she would “intervene on behalf of her son-in-law with conciliatory words.” However, what actually comes out of her mouth is “Well, what do you expect from the fool?” (Teffi 195). A reader going too fast might not initially notice the disjunction; the narrator’s tone, labelling, and ironic application of unfit words might go unmarked and miss the tragedy of the cowed man and domineering women they mask. In calling the grandmother’s action something which it isn’t, the narrator and Teffi defamiliarize the action, forcing the reader to do a double take. As the reader attempts to match the grandmother’s words to the narrator’s interpretation of them, their perception is slowed as they are forced to interpret it for themselves and confront the weight and tragedy of the situations presented, which are so carefully glossed over by the narrator.
The narrator’s tone, though, governs more than the story’s interpretations of dialogue. When Strokotov’s attempt to hang himself is described (in its allotted half a sentence), the act of hanging is named (as it might not be in Tolstoy, as it wasn’t in Bergelson), but the presence and dominance of the grandmother’s crumpled coat in the sentence distracts the reader from the attempted suicide. Teffi’s tone defamiliarizes the action of hanging; we do not expect to hear of it in such an offhand way, relegated to the last phrase in a sentence. We are still worrying about the crumpled coat when we reach the attempted hanging and are forced to pause, go back, reread. The coat functions much as the episode of the Vichy water does in the whole story. We are so distracted by the coat, by the quest for water, by the water bottle’s absurd defenestration, that it is easy to miss the unease, the tragedy, and the displacement which lurk beneath it in the distrust and abuse between the family members and Strokotov’s attempted suicide. As the story ends, labels are once again applied: “Well, it’s been a wonderful journey!” (Teffi 199) Katye exclaims, placing a bright mask of ordinariness over the proceedings. And, just as with the other labels, once the gap between it and reality are exposed, it becomes an ironic comment on the story’s events: what a wonderful journey, indeed—forcing the reader to reflect on how far from wonderful it was; constructing the stone in opposition to the claim that it isn’t stony.
Shklovsky, Viktor. “Art as Technique.” Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays. Trans. Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965. 3-24. Print.
Teffi. “A Family Journey.” Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida. Ed. Robert Chandler. New York: Penguin, 2005. 194-199. Print.