The Hamburg Score.

The mail brought an Amazon package containing an item I only recently added to my wishlist (because it’s only just been published), Shushan Avagyan’s translation of Viktor Shklovsky’s Гамбургский счет, The Hamburg Score (with a very touching note from the generous reader who ordered it for me — thanks from the bottom of my heart, Clay). I have been unreasonably fond of Shklovsky’s writing ever since I read A Sentimental Journey, his memoir of “the travels of a bewildered intellectual through Russia, Persia, the Ukraine, and the Caucasus during the period of the Russian Revolution,” to quote the Dalkey Archive description (Dalkey Archive Press has been issuing all of Shklovsky’s work as fast as they can get it translated, just one of the outstanding services they provide the world of literature — go buy books from them!). I don’t know what it is; those quirky sentences arranged into tiny paragraphs that constantly leap in unexpected directions are like catnip to me. I don’t even care if he’s right or wrong (and I’m quite sure he’s wrong about Velimir Khlebnikov being “the champion” of early-20th-century Russian literature — the Formalist critics had a passion for the Futurist poets in general and Khlebnikov in particular that mystifies me), I could listen to him deliver obiter dicta and crack obscure jokes for hours.

I haven’t had time to do more than glance at this beautiful, compact paperback yet (work! work!), but I’ve already learned something. I ran across the expression «гамбургский счёт» [Hamburg calculation/reckoning/score] years ago, learned that it meant ‘objective measurement of who’s better than who,’ and assumed it had been around since, say, the early 19th century (when Russians habitually went to Germany for education and culture). But it turns out Shklovsky was the one who publicized it, after hearing an anecdote at the Herzen House restaurant in Moscow (and got in trouble for it after World War II, when he was accused of unpatriotic leanings for favoring a German city); his preface to this book begins:

The Hamburg score is a very important concept.

All wrestlers cheat in matches and fall on their shoulder blades at the behest of the entrepreneurs.

But once a year wrestlers gather at a pub in Hamburg.

They wrestle behind closed doors and curtained windows.

It is a long, hard, and ugly fight. But this is the only way to determine their true worth — to prevent them from getting corrupted.

We need a Hamburg score in literature.

As I say, he calls Khlebnikov the champion, but I say Shklovsky is the champion of Formalist critics and Dalkey Archive Press is the champion of literary publishers.


  1. Herzen House restaurant in Moscow

    Mandelstam, Fourth Prose:
    Все произведения мировой литературы я делю на разрешенные и написанные без разрешения. Первые — это мразь, вторые — ворованный воздух. Писателям, которые пишут заранее разрешенные вещи, я хочу плевать в лицо, хочу бить их палкой по голове и всех посадить за стол в Доме Герцена, поставив перед каждым стакан полицейского чаю и дав каждому в руки анализ мочи Горнфельда.

    Translation (mine, sorry):
    All works of world literature I divide on allowed and written without permission. The first are trash, the second are stolen air. As for authors who write with prior permission, I want to spit in their faces, I want to beat them over the head with a stick, and sit them all at a table at the Herzen House, putting in front of each a glass of police tea, and giving everyone Gornfeld’s urine sample.

    Mikhail Bulgakov disliked the place so much that he made it a place of a pandemonium in Master and Margarita (there were several of them).

    So, maybe if you don’t put all writers at a single table and don’t give each one a glass of police tea, there would be no need for Hamburg score and we can enjoy their works without counting who is better.

  2. Indeed. “[…] Blake says that “Real Poets” have no competition: the primary impression that the real poet makes on the reader is not one of comparative greatness [which comes later, if at all], but of positive goodness or genuineness. And this sense of genuineness is the sum of the positive impressions we receive. We are back at Blake’s doctrine that “Every Poem must necessarily be a perfect Unity,” with which we began. When we try to express the “quality” of a poem we usually refer to one of its attributes. Blake teaches us that a poem’s quality is its whatness, the unified pattern of its words and images.” —Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry

    “Poet” in Frye means “maker of hypothetical [as opposed to factual] verbal structures”, whether in prose or verse; he uses “poet” and “poem” because they are, as he says, shorter and less cacophonous.

  3. Blake is, of course, correct, but you’re never going to stop people from making comparisons, however invidious.

  4. (If anyone’s curious about what the question in the Tamil trackback means, Google Translate sez: “We can deceive the city, can we deceive ourselves?”)

  5. Well, now you know at least one of your posts has been translated into Tamil, Hat. And by an honest fellow who cites you, too.

  6. Yes, I was impressed!

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