Jul 082011

But we should remember that Shklovsky attributed a deeply humane and benevolent purpose to the virtuosic machinery of literature: he argued that, by unhinging our habits of cognition, literature refreshes human perception, revitalizes the experience of being alive. —Bruce Stone


Bowstring: On the Dissimiliarity of the Similar
By Viktor Shklovsky, Translated by Shushan Avagyan
468 pages, Dalkey Archive Press, $16.95


Viktor Shklovsky’s name has become synonymous with the Russian Formalist movement that he helped to found in the early decades of the 20th century. With a series of landmark papers, he taught generations of readers that, in the art of literature, content simply doesn’t matter. Form, rather, is where it’s at—the defining feature of the literary work and the singular determinant of its status AS art. He showed us that Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, for example, is structured as a series of elaborate digressions, which sabotage the narrative momentum—a principle he called retardation. He analyzed Cervantes’ Don Quixote, not to expose its roots in 17th century Spain, but to uncover its concatenating plot, with each of the Don’s new adventures linked tenuously to the preceding, something like a chain of cut-out-paper figures holding hands. He revealed the manner in which Tolstoy rendered familiar concepts, like property ownership, unfamiliar by narrating events from the vantage point of a horse: this technique he dubbed estrangement. For Shklovsky, literary works were not documents of social history or human psychology; they were neither comedies nor tragedies. Instead, they were best understood as language experiments devised to tactically derange our notions of life and of literature. To everyone except writers of fiction and poetry, this position sounds distressingly inhuman, painfully mechanical, regrettably ahistorical, perhaps even philosophically bogus. And indeed, these are some of the very charges that have been leveled against Formalist poetics from the start. But we should remember that Shklovsky attributed a deeply humane and benevolent purpose to the virtuosic machinery of literature: he argued that, by unhinging our habits of cognition, literature refreshes human perception, revitalizes the experience of being alive.

For many North American readers, this is the Shklovsky we know, a Shklovsky we remember, a literary insurrectionist who resides, under lock and key, in a narrow chamber of the past. As it happens, history has contributed to Shklovsky’s temporal incarceration. Born in 1893, Shklovsky’s intellectual coming of age coincided with the sparking of the Soviet revolution, and the Party politics of the era proved hostile to the subversive, cheerfully antisocial poetics of the Formalists. Although Shklovsky lived through both World Wars, endured two periods of punitive exile, and survived into his nineties—working steadily all the while—he essentially disappeared from view. Much of his work sat relatively idle for years, awaiting publication outside the Soviet Union. For all intents and purposes, Shklovsky has remained under intellectual quarantine, marooned on an island gulag, a casualty of Cold-War power politics that essentially retarded the course of his career and limited his role on the world stage of literary criticism and theory.

No longer.

Dalkey Archive Press has undertaken the project of publishing, for the first time in English, much of the maturing Shklovsky’s output: Knight’s Move (2005), Energy of Delusion (2007), Literature and Cinematography (2009), and now Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar (2011) have all been published in the last decade. And we greet the arrival of these works with joy, gratitude and some trepidation, as if we were welcoming home a family member long absent due to calamity, presumed dead: an Odysseus, an Elle, a Crusoe.

Bowstring was first published in 1970, and the Shklovsky writing this work bears a passing resemblance to the one we remember. But deep changes have been wrought in the man, and the book reads as a revision, inclining to a recantation, of several of his most influential ideas.  The text is strange: encyclopedic in scope, promiscuous in genre, willfully disjunctive and aphoristic in style, often frustrating and intermittently scintillating. Reading Bowstring isn’t always a thrill ride. However, for anyone interested in the legacy of Formalism—which includes everything that we conceive of as craft instruction in creative writing—the publication of this book is profoundly consequential. It shows us the evolution of Shklovsky’s thought, a momentous instance of theoretical rapprochement, reconciling the Formalist vision with the views of skeptics. Further, in aggregate, the work is a manifesto of sorts—a little wistful, a bit opaque—about the purpose and processes of literature. This alone suggests that readers of every stripe should consult Bowstring. The book allows us to take the measure of latter-day Formalism, and, like all great books, it takes the measure of us.



Shklovsky tells us directly what he’s up to in Bowstring, but he does so haphazardly, often ambushing readers with summations of purpose. In the course of a chapter titled “The Unity of Structures,” he remarks, “I am writing this book to refute the very convincing and ingeniously articulated idea of art censorship carried out by Tolstoy, and to refute his relationship and methods of crossing things out.” Never mind, for the moment, the problem of unpacking the sense of the last clause (his relationship?). Shklovsky doesn’t tell us that he is referring here, presumably, to Tolstoy’s own manifesto, “What is Art?” (1897), in which the writer cites the capacity for emotional communion as the defining feature of literature. Perhaps Shklovsky feels that clarification is unnecessary, but he also chooses not to prosecute this disagreement in a linear and explicit fashion. Rather, Shklovsky counters Tolstoy (whom he reveres, naturally, as an artist and countryman) by indirection; he mounts a cumulative assault that emerges as he careers idiosyncratically through the annals of world literature. In fact, the entire first half of the book feels evasive—it’s hard to follow the thread, despite these nudges from the author. But in the second half of the book, the fireworks start to fly, the cannons boom, and we better understand the rhyme and reason of Bowstring. Very near the end, Shklovsky writes, acknowledging the text’s chaotic nature, “I am trying to remain within the limits of a single work, but the purpose of my book is an attempt to grasp the mobility of the literary work and the multiplicity of its meanings.” We come to see that this is exactly what Shklovsky has wrought.

To capture the “mobility of the literary work,” Shklovsky casts a wide net, touching—at times glancingly—on everything from the epic of Gilgamesh to John Updike’s The Centaur, from Rabelais and Cervantes to Dostoevsky and Thomas Mann. He discusses fairy tales and parables, Shakespeare and Pushkin, ancient Hindu sacred narratives, and he also comments on techniques in painting and cinema. On occasion, we’re privy to the jotted marginalia of V.I. Lenin, reading Hegel, and of Tolstoy, on Shakespeare. It’s a dazzling array of material, all of which is relevant to his task, certainly. Yet the sheer variety and abundance of Shklovsky’s interests gives you a taste of the scattershot method of the book. The course of a page might span centuries and continents, and thus, the writer often articulates his conclusions arcanely, and not always convincingly. In Bowstring, you will encounter more one-sentence paragraphs than perhaps in any other work of literary theory since Friedrich Schlegel’s Fragments, and such paragraphs, as a rule, cohere only loosely and implicitly. For example, in a chapter on Shakespeare, one of the book’s weaker moments, Shklovsky says this about Othello:

The astonishing thing for Shakespeare is not that Desdemona fell in love with he Moor, but why the Moor didn’t trust her love. Why did he believe in Iago’s words, blindly accepting the petty rumor and its intended malevolence, yet didn’t believe in simple love?

This new meaning of inequality is Shakespeare’s own discovery.

Shylock is a villain to Shakespeare.

In this run of paragraphs, Shklovsky skips from Othello to The Merchant of Venice to, eventually, Romeo and Juliet, only grazing the evidence that shores up his assessment. To be fair, the surrounding pages help to flesh in some of the support for Shklovky’s conclusions; however, Shklovsky does very little of this explanatory work for the reader. His compositional method is one of willful juxtaposition, strategically withholding the connective tissue that binds the observations together in the manner of a conventional argument.

Astute readers will notice already that the humanistic tenor of Shklovsky’s analysis bears little resemblance to the mechanistic cerebrations of hard-core Formalism (simple love?!). For now, suffice it to say that, with regard to the book’s argumentative armature, Shklovsky knows exactly what he’s doing; he takes the trouble to “lay bare” his chosen device (a phrase Shklovsky coined) as he discusses the technique of cinematic montage, drawing on the work of Sergei Eisenstein. The montage, with its atemporal juxtapositions and its implicit logic, is exactly the figure for Shklovsky’s method in this book. He stacks his observations side by side, rapidly shifting the focus, often requiring readers to infer the connections—rather like a man laying out cards in a game of Solitaire. Conveniently and quite brilliantly, this method reflects the writer’s newfound vision of literature. For example, Shklovsky finds the technique of “vertical montage” at work in Crime and Punishment (he sketches a list of competing thematic conflicts), and he also arrives at the conclusion that what is true of the internal components of a single work is also true of the body of world literature. Near the end of Bowstring, he summarizes his position plainly: “I think that every work of art, as a link in a self-abnegating process, is juxtaposed against other works of art.”

This stylistic agenda yields a work that is disjunctive, sharply contrapuntal, even giddily discontinuous. However, readers are richly compensated for their pains as virtually every page of Bowstring contains a radiant apothegm, a one-sentence koan of arresting power. Of the fairy tale, he writes, for example, “The heroes of folklore are strewn with ashes of sorrow, they are sprinkled with the salt of difficult paths—journeys in the sea.” These accesses of poetry are also evident in the book’s Prologue and Epilogue, passages of terse, descriptive lyricism that disclose, in microcosm, something of the writer’s grand vision:

Nightingales sang below my window, or maybe they weren’t nightingales at all.

They don’t care that they have been exhausted in poetry; they don’t know that they’ve been refuted.

Then spring comes. Trees bloom one after the other, nightingales sing and crows caw.

Someone even heard the blackbirds. They imitate other birds.

The nightingales are still on their way.



Shklovsky’s sympathy for those outmoded nightingales reveals a deep vein in Bowstring, its concern with the persistence of the past. But Shklovsky himself acknowledges that this is hardly new, and in fact, Bowstring ultimately proffers conclusions that seem eerily familiar. For example, Shklovsky cites Heraclitus, offering a glimpse of his position regarding the interpretation of individual works: Many readers “do not understand how that which differs from itself is in agreement: harmony consists of opposing tension, like that of the bow and the lyre.” Here, we feel the resonance of Bowstring’s title: the power, the beauty, the functionality and the very existence of literary works depend upon conflict and contradiction, a tension between opposing elements. And later, Shklovsky writes, “Let me remind you of this book’s subject: it is trying to prove that at the basis of every artistic work, every stage in artistic construction, lie similar principles of revealing the contradictions, that the artistic processes of various epochs and nations are universal in this phenomenon and hence comprehensible to us.” This premise sounds a lot like party-line New Criticism, the British and American critical movement most closely linked to Formalism both historically and ideologically. In “The Language of Paradox,” Cleanth Brooks outlines a virtually identical set of conclusions about literary structures and their universality; he argues that irreducible contradiction (or paradox) is the structural principle that organizes all great works of art. Shklovsky and Brooks are unlikely bedfellows, even now, and Shklovsky does add some new wrinkles to this theoretical position. But since Shklovsky never cites Brooks, or references New Critics, it remains possible that he’s simply unaware of the proximity of their vantage points.

What’s new in Shklovsky stems from the remnants of his rehabilitated Formalism and his emphasis on genre conventions. Shklovsky argues, albeit obliquely, that art evolves through a process of generic mutation: genre conventions eventually grow stale, and new writers explode those conventions through a process of comparative juxtaposition. And this is the upshot of Bowstring’s subtitle, On the Dissimilarity of the Similar: new works of art preserve the outmoded genre conventions, even as they subvert them—“The similar turns out to be dissimilar.” Perhaps the clearest snapshot of Shklovsky’s revised interpretive method arrives in his analysis of Alexander Pushkin’s short poem “I Loved You Once.” Shklovsky offers a long quotation from Roman Jakobson’s Formalist reading of the poem, a paragraph dense with linguistic jargon that says virtually nothing about the poem’s ostensible content. To this interpretation Shklovsky remarks, “It seems that this analysis didn’t bring the poem any closer to the reader.” And Shklovsky goes on to show how the poetic “content” inevitably bleeds into Jakobson’s analysis, ultimately leading Shklovsky to deal more fully with the poem’s theme, its content, and its relation to matters of form and technique. He notes the way the love poem draws on the conventions of classical rhetoric to find its form, producing an unusual combination, a linguistic fusion of the public and the private, the impersonal and the personal, the high and the low, the old and the new. Shklovsky summarizes his assessment: “The poet’s forceful, imageless and as if unfinished address to the woman is an example of a unique negative form, which in this instance becomes especially powerful.”

In Bowstring, Shklovsky seriously modifies, and in some cases disavows, many of the core principles that constitute Formalist theory. Of the one-time divorcing of form and content, Shklovsky now writes, “We mustn’t separate the plot-evental structure of the work from its verbal structure. They don’t coincide but they are correlated.” Elsewhere, he puts the matter more bluntly: “A long time ago I declared something rashly. I said that a work of art is the ‘sum total of its devices.’ I said it so long ago that I can only remember the refutation.” What is this if not a direct recantation of the traditional Formalist distinction between fabula (plot-evental structure, or content) and suzhet (verbal structure, or form)? It’s a little like Prometheus renouncing the gift of fire.

Similarly, Shklovsky speaks of “the notion of estrangement,” a central tenet of Formalist theory, as if it belonged to another time: “There used to be an old term—ostranenie or estrangement.” Granted, he doesn’t turn fully or consistently apostate on this or other points. For example, he still considers the literary character—and the writer him or herself—as a “person out of place,” a person with a strained perception of the world, alienated from the ordinary, essentially estranged. And old-school Formalism still informs his analyses; at one point, he describes the plot structures of “realist” narratives as approximating a “dashed line”—that is, containing gaps in the chronology to omit irrelevant intervals (very few narratives are strictly continuous). And he sounds very much like his old self, paraphrasing his insights in “The Resurrection of the Word” (1914), when he remarks on the artistic project of poets like Pushkin, “It’s true, they use only words, but those are extraordinary words that are felt through the mouth, that renew thought and disrupt the sclerosis of concepts.” The similar and the dissimilar coexist here, too.

However, Shklovsky discusses very candidly the faulty premises on which he had founded his interpretive house. On the matter of defamiliarization, or estrangement, which he had said restores the sensation of life, he writes, “I should have asked myself: what exactly are you going to estrange if art doesn’t express the conditions of reality? Sterne, Tolstoy were trying to return the sensation of what?” In this regard, Bowstring is truly jaw-dropping. Shklovsky reflects on his early work and renders an unequivocal verdict: first-wave Formalism was terminally, almost comically, flawed.



In large part, the recuperation of fabula and the modification of estrangement require Shklovsky to account for the historicity of literary texts, their relations to their immediate historical contexts. And this he does. He discusses Don Quixote, in part, as a period piece: “the difference between the actions of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza is social.” Elsewhere, he invokes (repeatedly) a quote from Albert Einstein that asserts the primacy of experience over language, as if we can know the world and its phenomena firsthand, unmediated by words and forms. These are huge, perhaps heretical, concessions from a card-carrying Formalist, and though Shklovsky consistently writes, in this fashion, with hat in hand, his heart sometimes appears to be elsewhere, not engaged in the work. He often deals with history in the most cursory and brittle fashion, offering sweeping generalizations about places and eras. Even so, it seems that, in the English-speaking world, Formalism can never really be the same in the wake of Bowstring’s publication.

The tendency to historicize and contextualize is evident not just in Shklovsky’s textual analysis; it’s also woven more thoroughly into the fabric of Bowstring. Among the layers of Shklovsky’s textual montage, he veers twice into biography, narrating the lives and deaths of two colleagues: Boris Eichenbaum, who wrote a famous paper “How Gogol’s Overcoat Is Made,” and Yuri Tynjanov, who wrote the less-well-known Archaists and Innovators. Eichenbaum, we learn, died under absurd circumstances, immediately following the delivery of a lecture that flopped (he expires in his chair in the audience). Tynjanov died progressively of multiple sclerosis, an eerie revelation if we recall Shklovsky’s pronouncements on poetry.

In both cases, the biographies include descriptions of the Petersburg environs, of landscapes and architecture, of the exigencies of politics and war (the Decembrist uprising, the siege of Leningrad), of the city’s evolution over time. And one gets the sense that Shklovsky is here explicitly linking his theory of literature to the convulsions of history: the two domains behave analogously. Of both the literary work and the city of Petersburg, he writes that it is composed of “systems of systems.” And he might be referring both to texts and to people when he writes, “We live simultaneously in multiple temporal realms.” In the same historicizing spirit, Shklovsky frequently slides into autobiography and sketches something of the root causes that led to his revision of Formalist theory: his own experiences as a writer of fiction and memoir seem to have contributed to his change of heart. He confesses, “Back then I used to say that art had no content, that it was devoid of emotion, while at the same time I wrote books that bled, like A Sentimental Journey and ZOO.”

And it is the merging of life and art, history and textuality, that results in one of Bowstring’s most powerful and beautiful passages. Shklovsky begins the chapter “The Road into the Future and the Past (An Unfinished Story)” by summarizing a manuscript that Tolstoy had abandoned. It’s the story of a military man, a major Verein, riding toward his post on a rainy night, his overcoat “reeking of soap from wetness.” Verein envisions his ideal future, a place with “a wife in a white bonnet, children playing in front of the balcony and picking flowers for papa.” At length, Verein nods off and awakes to find himself residing in the future he had imagined. He enters his house where his wife, out of temper, insists on nursing their two-year-old child (who is too old for such nursing). Then, in a startling turn, without segue or comment, Shklovsky leaps from the story to autobiography, writing,

I have lived a long life, I have seen crowds, been on many roads, and I know what a  wet overcoat smells like.

I live simultaneously in the old world and the new.

I have been reading books by Structuralists with interest, difficulty and benefit. I am getting acquainted.

I’m not surprised to appear in the middle of a conversation. Everything is interesting, but forgive the man who has long been absent from theory.

In an instant, we recognize that Tolstoy’s story is an analogue of and proxy for Shklovsky’s own experience. And Shklovsky presses this relation farther; he writes,

Here, as before—forty years later—they are still primarily analyzing the poem; of course now they have applied mathematics to it, as it was expected a long time ago.

They still haven’t weaned the child from the breast and she’s already grown! The weather is pleasant, but everyone is walking dressed up in academic clothes.

The characters and conflicts of Tolstoy’s story supply Shklovsky with a poignant metaphorical vocabulary for describing his own plight as a theorist. The method, here, is less rigidly juxtapositional than searingly prismatic; instead of side-by-side comparison, shimmering palimpsest. And though this chapter concludes, typically, with another rapid and seemingly incongruous turn—as Shklovsky summarizes another tale, this one by Jules Verne—the strategy retains its power. The Verne story illustrates the point that human beings, including literary theorists, are bound to discover that “ideas repeat”; on voyages of discovery, without immediately recognizing the fact, we find ourselves retracing our own footsteps. The past and the present, like texts and contexts, are densely interwoven, impossible to disentangle.



Shklovsky’s ambivalent relationship to time helps to explain a comical turn in Bowstring. In a run of short chapters, he prosecutes, almost fifty years too late, a disagreement with Vladimir Propp on the structures of folkloric narratives. Even so, this impulse to grind old axes leads to perhaps the best sustained analyses in the book, as Shklovsky spars impressively with Mikhail Bakhtin and his Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics and Rabelais and His World. Ironically, the same charge that Shklovsky levels against Bakhtin’s work might well be leveled at Bowstring: “Bakhtin possesses the attributes of a discoverer and an inventor, but the scope of his generalizations sometimes turns into a sea, engulfing the already-found specificities.”

In the long view, Bowstring delivers joy and pain in nearly equal measure. Among its many beauties, this book shows us something of Shklovsky’s humanity, a kind of avuncular self-consciousness, given to lapses into faux-naif autocommentary: of one of the book’s long block quotations, Shklovsky observes, “I decided to end the quote at the ellipsis—it’s too long, anyway.” But finally, he arrives at conclusions that, while more sound, seem less riveting than those flawed propositions of his radical youth. (Sometimes being right is simply the less interesting alternative.) It might have been enough for him to conclude, as Tzvetan Todorov does when defending Structuralist poetics against the (posthumous) ire of Henry James, that the distinction between form and content, suzhet and fabula, can be a useful fallacy. It allows us to concentrate our attentions in new ways on literary works, to see new facets of their construction, and perhaps this remains the necessary first step before we can synthesize the two poles once more.

Further, in a long chapter on the failings of Thomas Mann’s monolithic Joseph and His Brothers, Shklovsky seems to break character, disappointing our expectations, as he formulates his criticisms in flimsy terms: he says of one episode that it “is treated rather conventionally. It’s inaccurate. It has been needlessly prolonged and it lacks in emotion.” More broadly, he quibbles, “the descriptions in Mann’s novel are too wordy and the characters are too eloquent”—a statement that he follows, bafflingly, with the assertion “Every epoch has its conventions of representation that must be followed.” This sentence, in isolation, is difficult to reconcile with his argument that those conventions are refreshed through subversion and violation.

Perhaps most distressingly, in the book’s penultimate chapter, titled “Return the Ball into the Game,” Shklovsky stakes out a position that is all too familiar to any fiction writer. He bemoans novelists who would write about novel-writing, poets who would write about composing poems—that is, those who make fabula of suzhet, content of form. Shklovsky compares such writers to the characters in Antonioni’s Blow-Up who play tennis without a ball. These writers, the conventional wisdom goes, sap the life from art. There is wisdom in this injunction, naturally, but coming from Shklovsky, it feels like a confession elicited under bare-bulb duress, a defeatist compromise struck between his revolutionary ideas and the precepts of Socialist art.

In the end, the publication of Bowstring is a major literary event. This book radically alters the legacy of Russian Formalism and contains abundant rewards for anyone with a vested interest in the art of literature. And it’s a testament to Shklovsky’s achievement that his own words, on Mann and his multi-volume boondoggle, best summarize the experience of reading Bowstring: “Sometimes [the book] succeeds, other times it fails. Occasionally it is hard to turn the pages. But the path that Mann chose is the path of a person who carries with him not objects but ideas, who does not want to lose the magnitude of the past.”

—Bruce Stone


Bruce Stone

Bruce Stone is a Wisconsin native and graduate of Vermont College (MFA, 2002). In 2004, he served as the contributing editor for a good book on Douglas Glover’s fiction, The Art of Desire (Oberon Press). His essays have appeared in Miranda, Nabokov Studies, Review of Contemporary Fiction and Salon.  His fiction has appeared most recently in Straylight and Numéro Cinq. You can hear him talk about fiction writing here. He teaches writing and literature at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside.

  5 Responses to “The Formalist Reformation | Review of Viktor Shklovsky’s Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar — Bruce Stone”

  1. Wonderful review of what must have been a very difficult book to ‘review.’ The scope of the piece, no less than the scope of Shklovsky’s work, is a remarkable feat. I remember the head-bashing frustration of reading Shklovsky, but the reward for endurance has been a lasting appreciation for his theories. The review provides a wonderful, stand-alone resource for refreshing the reader’s appreciation of Russian Formalism, and a launching pad for further exploration.

  2. Well, I felt as if I had to print this review in order to stand a chance at grasping the material. I’m a newcomer to Formalist theory and in fact have just begun Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose. But when I began to read the pages I’d printed, I was pleasantly surprised at their clarity and readability.

    Bruce, you did such an amazing job with the material that when I read the excerpt from Bowstring below, I felt as if I had already read it.

    I appreciate all the work that must be behind these words. And I feel as if I can go forward to reading The Theory of Prose with a much better sense of where it fits in the larger scheme of theory. And writing. And other things. Thanks.

  3. What a wonderful, complete review! Can’t wait to sink my teeth into latter-period Shklovsky – you really know how to whet an appetite, Bruce.

  4. Bruce, I imagine this review will continue to unfold in my consciousness throughout the coming weeks. Your treatment reflects a range similar to Shklovsky’s panoramic analysis itself. Counter to what Shklovsky said of Jakobson’s reading of “I Loved You Once,” this essay brings the reader much closer to Shklovsky’s work. Thank you for this immense intrigue … I look forward to exploring Shklovsky’s work.

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