Following the plot

Penelope Fitzgerald

Suppose I were to try to write a story which began with a journey I made to the North of Mexico 27 years ago, taking with me my son, then aged five. We were going to pay a winter visit to two old ladies called Delaney who lived comfortably, in spite of recent economic reforms, on the proceeds of the family silver mine. They had lived in Fonseca ever since they were girls – one was sister-in-law to the other. Their relations in Ireland had died, they were alone in the world, and it was hoped that because of some distant friendship they might take kindly to my son and leave him all their money. Indeed, if I had understood their letters correctly, they had suggested the idea themselves.

The old ladies lived in a shuttered mansion in the French style, surrounded with pecan trees; the house was always cool because of the double height of the rooms. In the half-darkness of these rooms, as I discovered the very first evening I arrived, they were drinking themselves steadily to death. For two hours or so every morning there was a lucid period, and that was the time for callers. The manager of the mine came then, and so did everyone in Fonseca who was interested in the Delaneys’ wealth and therefore wanted to get rid of me and my son as soon as possible.

If I got as far as this, I should have to stop. The details are accurate, these things happened in Fonseca, and many more were to follow. I take it that the novel proceeds from truth and re-creates truth, but my story, even at this stage, gives me the impression of turning fiction into fiction. Is it the legacy, or the silver, or the Latin American background, testing ground of so many 20th-century writers? I know that in any case I could never make it respectable (by which I mean probable) enough to be believed as a novel. Reality has proved treacherous. ‘Unfortunate are the adventures which are never narrated.’ And I am sorry to let it go, because of what seemed to me the natural energy of the plot.

Watching a good plot is like watching something alive, or if it is adroit and sinuous enough, something struggling for life. Between the once-born and the twice-born plot (which makes the reader, even if he is reading it for the twentieth time, want to interfere at every stage), the difference, of course, is great. But I am easily satisfied in this respect. The test lies in the plot’s independence of characters, and even of names: only relationships are necessary, as in rhythm without music. I would place very high – irrespective of whether they were borrowed or not – the plots of Chaucer’s ‘Clerk’s Tale’, Godwin’s Caleb Williams, Galdos’s Miau, W.W. Jacobs’s short story ‘Head of the Family’, and Somerset Maugham’s still shorter one, the servant who went to Samarra. Thinking of these, I can remember how I became an addict.

I was brought up in a journalist’s home and in a family where everyone was publishing, or about to publish, something. We children also tried to write, and our elders were resigned to this. Being dipped in ink began for us, I suppose, at about six or seven when we were first allowed to use it, and we were given the back of old galley proofs to write on. What was more, although my father once pointed out that there was no difference between journalism and literature, except that journalism is paid and literature isn’t, we expected to become rich by writing novels, or, if not novels, then short stories, for it was still the heyday of the railway magazines – the Strand, Nash’s, Pearsons’s, the Windsor.

For these stories, which were also called ‘tales’, and even ‘yarns’, the author had to find a plot, rather as the academic painter once had to look for his annual subject. It was the main thing. But writers, temperamentally less hopeful than painters, have always suspected that the supply is not inexhaustible. Gérard de Nerval put the entire number of dramatic situations at 24; his calculations were based on the seven deadly sins, ruling out Sloth and Lust as not likely to produce significant action. Goethe, quoting the author of Turandot, suggested 36, but added that Schiller, who set to work methodically on the problem, hadn’t managed even to get as far as that. All this looks unpromising, but the ‘yarn’ business was so important in the late Twenties that the magazines offered, so to speak, their own remedy. Among the back pages there were advertisements for Plotfinders. They could be ordered by mail and sent in plain envelopes, presumably because writers in those days were thought to live in boarding-houses where they would not want their affairs known.

The Plotfinders consisted of revolving cardboard circles with three concentric rings of slots. Through these, you could read off characters and action and vary and recombine them until the donnée made its appearance. Seaside landlady, landlady’s daughter, hero, hero’s friend, jealous rival or enemy, vicar, elderly lady or aunt, practical joker (the influence of Kipling here), comedy foreigner, censorious neighbour, returning husband or foreigner, mysterious lodger. All, of course, were interchangeable, ready both to act and to be acted upon. Many years later, when I heard Lévi-Strauss lecture on his Mythologies, he told us to do what amounted to the same thing – plier et replier le mythe – with King, Queen, Mother, Father, Brother, Sister, Sister-in-Law, and, among the Pueblo and Algonquin Indians, the Ceremonial Clown and the Ancestor of Owls.

Since our Plotfinder was for ‘sunshine stories’, the action suggested was largely romantic, but the main object, in every case, was the ‘turn’, introduced by the linking words after all, suddenly, to the general astonishment/consternation, unexpectedly, little realising that, through an absurd misunderstanding. More expensive models, I suppose, would have produced a double or multiple effect. I have sometimes wondered since who should be considered the presiding genius of the ‘turn’ – perhaps Mark Twain, who wrote a 60,000-word novel to lead up to the surprise in the last sentence. But even the greatest novelists, those who stand in the way of all subsequent comers and threaten them with bankruptcy, use it at times. Ulysses ends with the returning husband climbing into his house, only to find that the door, after all, is open; he introduces a mysterious lodger/son into the home, little realising that his wife has taken a fancy to him. This is quite within the capacities of the Plotfinder, and I am sure Joyce meant it to be.

The short stories I wrote at the age of eight and nine did not bring me the success I hoped for, and years of formal education in English literature gradually taught me the uneasy moral status of plots. If they were of the extravagantly ingenious kind, they had to be ‘forgiven’ or ‘overlooked’ on behalf of the writer. They were ‘strained’, and, worse still, they strained the reader, or ‘made demands’ on him. Dickens and Hardy were overlooked in this way. Clearly, the acceptable story was imposed by life upon fiction without hope of appeal. By the time I reached university the final ‘turn’ was not much in favour either. Indeed, the novels I admired most at that time, Afternoon Men, The Root and the Flower, Confessions of Zeno, A Passage to India, all avoided it, although for Forster this must surely have been a considerable sacrifice.

When at last I tried to write fiction again, I was more cautious. Everyone has a point to which the mind reverts naturally when it is left on its own. I recalled closed situations which created their own story out of the twofold need to take refuge and to escape, and which provided their own limitations. These limitations were also mine. I knew that I hadn’t the capacity to relate the wide-spreading complications of the Mexican legacy, however well I remembered them. As time went on, more pretenders had arrived, even one who claimed to be a Delaney, and moved into the house. On the other hand, the manager was eliminated. Seeking to extend his sphere of influence, he began to drink level with the old ladies, slipped on the polished French Provincial staircase, and cracked his skull. My son and I were blamed for these and other disasters, and we left on the long-distance bus without a legacy, but knowing what it was to be hated. We had been characters in a yarn, and I am only sorry not to be a yarn-spinner.

In the novel’s domain, plots were the earliest and the poorest relations to arrive. For the last two hundred years there have been repeated attempts to get them to leave, or, at least, to confine themselves to satire, fantasy and dream. Picaresque novels, however, both Old and new, are a kind of gesture towards them, acknowledging that although you can easily spend your whole life wandering about, you can’t do so in a book without recurrent coincidences and, after all, a return. And the readers of books like plots. That, too, is worth consideration.