:: Article

How Art is Made

By Anna Aslanyan.


Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar, Viktor Shklovsky, tr. Shushan Avagyan, Dalkey Archive 2011

What makes Don Quixote the forerunner of the age of the novel? Why is Tolstoy more popular today than many contemporary writers? Can Updike be considered as Thomas Mann’s disciple? Lovers of literature who have been pondering on these questions will be fascinated by the answers  Shklovsky provides in his 1970 book, Bowstring, translated into English for the first time. One of the founders of Russian Formalism, a school of criticism started in the 1910s, he invented the concept of estrangement, which celebrates the perception of art as an end in itself, treating its object as unimportant. Bowstring revisits the ideas of Theory of Prose 45 years after the publication of this seminal work.

​This is the distillate of a lifetime of a man who volunteered to take part in the First World War, opposed the Bolsheviks, fled the revolution-torn country, came back to the Soviet Russia, wrote a number of books which have since become classics; a man who was bereft of recognition abroad. All the more pleasing to see Dalkey Archive put out this volume, long overdue.

​Aspiring writers often praise Shklovsky’s oeuvre as a guide to writing fiction, but ordinary readers will be delighted too, for this book tells you how some of the greatest works of the world literature are made. Shklovsky dissects the process looking at a range of texts, from fairy tales to Kafka’s “anti-novels”. Those who remember his magnum opus, A Sentimental Journey, can also work out how this book is made: the trademark one-sentence paragraphs, seemingly stray thoughts, memories of youth, tributes to friends – all this as a backdrop to the main theme.

​Literature is not the only thing Shklovsky analyses; there are passages on visual arts, especially cinema, where Eisenstein’s and Antonioni’s films are deconstructed as deftly as Sterne’s novels and Shakespeare’s plays. Contemporary books are touched on with inevitable asides: “Perhaps my attitude toward the new literary movements resembles […] my grandmother’s attitude toward the new styles of hats.”
​Nevertheless, the lessons of Cervantes and Rabelais are enough for Shklovsky to draw insightful conclusions, as relevant today as they were in his time. Talking about printing as a  determining factor in the popularity of novels, he notes: “Literary publishing didn’t resolve anything” – the words that still ring true. It is good to be reminded of the discontinuous nature of art: “Yesterday is still there – we can hear the sound of it, but its echo should only be regarded when recording the new sound.”


Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, February 8th, 2012.