“Zoo” is the literary experiment that resulted. The letters between Triolet and Shklovsky, reprinted in “Zoo” with some minor fictionalizations, avoid addressing love directly. Instead, they delve into topics as far-ranging as Tahiti, wet nurses, “Don Quixote,” internal combustion engines and the Russian avant-garde. These “letters not about love,” perhaps precisely because they are not about love, achieve an unmistakable intimacy and in doing so, upend our assumptions about what it means to convey affection through language. Through its digressive register, “Zoo” makes the case that our ultimate desire in love is to share not our romantic feelings, but rather our sense of the world, our impressions of life — from the mundane to the poetic — with another person.
Elsa’s prohibition proved to be a creative boon, both for her (the editors loved Triolet’s letters best and encouraged her to publish a novel) and for Shklovsky. “You gave me two assignments. 1.) Not to call you 2.) Not to see you,” he wrote her. “So now I’m a busy man.”
Shklovsky, one of the most brilliant literary theorists of his era, used Elsa’s ban as an occasion to think through and expound upon some of his ideas about art. His famous theory of “estrangement” — the act of representing ordinary events in strange, unexpected ways to jolt the reader into recognition — finds fresh expression here: Art “must be changed, ‘estranged,’” he insists to her. He also voiced his frustrations with censorship in their home country, telling Elsa/Alya about a Russian publisher in Berlin whose books were continually blocked from entering Russia: “Writing about love is forbidden, so I’ll write about Zinovy Grzhebin, the publisher. That ought to be sufficiently remote.” However, Shklovsky cannot help comparing his romantic fate to Grzhebin’s literary one — each is a “rejected suitor.”
Occasionally, though, Shklovsky falls short and breaks the rules, sometimes merely in spirit — telling Alya, “You have turned my life the way a worm screw turns a rack.” Other times, he utters the forbidden word itself. When a flood hits Berlin, he writes a letter containing a dialogue between the water he imagines rushing into Alya’s bedroom and the slippers at the foot of her bed:
“Slippers: O, water, you have flowed into the wrong mill. That’s not nice. In matters of love, might does not make right.
“Water: Not even a mighty love?
“Slippers: No, not even a mighty love.”
Elsa/Alya chastises him for his clear violations of their code, telling him, “You certainly don’t know how to write a love letter.” She tells him to “quit writing about how, how, how much you love me, because at the third ‘how much,’ I start thinking about something else.”