Kinks on the Kinks

Michael Wood

  • Plots by Robert Belknap
    Columbia, 165 pp, £22.00, May 2016, ISBN 978 0 231 17782 5

‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story, as E.M. Forster told us long ago. ‘The king died and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot. Another plot, a little more reticent about causality, would be: ‘The king died and the queen married his brother.’ This would include Hamlet’s version of what happened in Elsinore – my uncle killed my father and married my mother – but would not be confined to it, and this is the kind of plot Robert Belknap is most interested in. He doesn’t neglect causality, but he likes it best when it goes what he calls ‘fractal’, when narrative turns take further turns, as ‘a fractal curve has kinks, and kinks on the kinks, and smaller kinks on those kinks, and so on indefinitely.’ Unlike the curve, the plot won’t go on for ever, but all kinds of relation are possible among deaths, marriages and royalty.

‘Plots are ways of relating incidents to one another,’ Belknap says; they are ‘purposeful arrangements of experience’. There is plenty of room for causality here, although no exclusive rights are granted, and there is an interesting snag: these definitions of plot work just as well for story. Forster and many others would say the relations and arrangements are temporal in the story and causal in the plot, but this seems to be too elementary to get us far, and we may begin to see why Shklovsky, Tomashevsky and other Russian Formalists thought they needed the distinction between fabula and siuzhet. The difference is clear enough (too clear) if we think of real-life stories and plots. The fabula is what happens sequentially in actual time, the siuzhet is the narrative arrangement of the same. As in: ‘I got up, had breakfast, went to the bank,’ compared with ‘I made it to the bank although I didn’t have much breakfast, because I got up late.’ But this convenient simplicity is available only when the facts precede the arrangement. In fiction (including drama and poetry) there are no facts and we have to deduce the fabula from the siuzhet. Both are arrangements and neither has priority. Belknap expresses the problem with brilliant mock helplessness by saying ‘the best translation for fabula is “plot”: and the best translation for siuzhet is also “plot”.’ This makes perfect sense in spite of the mischief, and echoes Peter Brooks’s thought in Reading for the Plot (1984), still the indispensable book on this subject: ‘“Plot” … seems to me to cut across the fabula/siuzhet distinction … Plot could be thought of as the interpretive activity elicited by the distinction … the way we use the one against the other.’ A little later, Brooks says: ‘Deviance, detour, an intention that is irritation: these are the characteristics of the narratable, of “life” as it is the material of narrative, of fabula become siuzhet.’

This is very much Belknap’s line and he has a new, clarifying definition of the two terms: ‘The fabula is the relationship among the incidents in the world the characters inhabit … The siuzhet is the relationship among the same incidents in the world of the text.’ This formulation offers us a way of thinking about plot in general – perhaps even in some of its non-literary senses (‘a map, a plan, a scheme’, as the OED suggests). Guy Fawkes and others were planning incidents in a world other people were supposed to inhabit. And within Belknap’s book the formulation allows him to read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment as both lurid and subtle at the same time, a feat not too many critics have achieved. Raskolnikov is not living a double life; he is caught up in two incompatible plots, the one he has devised for himself, and the one Dostoevsky has devised for the reader. Or more technically: ‘The siuzhet programs the reader’s experience to track the hero’s experience in the fabula.’

Belknap, who died in 2014, was a professor of Slavic languages at Columbia University, and the author of two highly regarded books on Dostoevsky. Plots is a version of a series of lectures he gave in 2011, and Robin Feuer Miller, in a witty and affectionate introduction, describes the printed book as a last work of a special kind: ‘How typical of Belknap to produce a magnum opus that is particular, profound, original and short.’ This is a magnum opus with no pretensions to greatness or even to the status of a ponderous work; but one that does represent imaginative reading and thinking done over a considerable period of time. The note of mischief I have mentioned makes several appearances: ‘A great book is a fearsome thing, and always tempts a reader to talk about something else’; ‘If the finest modern experts agree with one another – and even with Aristotle – about a central point, it just has to be wrong.’ Not everyone would describe what Charles and Mary don’t say in their versions of Shakespeare as ‘this silence of the Lambs’, and Belknap’s reading of a book title mentioned in Rabelais recalls some of the great short masterpieces of modern literature, like Augusto Monterroso’s one-sentence tale: ‘When he (or she) awoke, the dinosaur was still there.’

The title is ‘The appearance of St Gertrude to a nun of Poissy, in labour’, a ‘small work of art’ in itself, Belknap says. It also helps us to see how fabula and siuzhet can interact in a complex and ironic manner. The fabula tells us this: ‘A nun of Poissy is in labour; she needs help; the saint takes action and appears.’ ‘The siuzhet,’ Belknap continues, ‘is more Rabelaisian: the first ten words in the English translation produce an expectation of prating piety. The last two words frustrate that expectation.’ That’s putting it mildly. One could write another short book about the literary effects hiding in the word ‘frustrate’.

Belknap puts in a good word for the despised art form of the plot summary – ‘plot summaries deserve serious theoretical attention’ – and compares it to translation and parody as ‘an instrument of literary polemic’. He has a good time too with Tolstoy’s tendentious summaries of Shakespeare and reminds us that plot summaries, like any instrument of polemic, can be used crudely, as when we assume of a movie or a novel that all we need to know is what happens in the end: who gets rewarded and who gets their comeuppance. But this is not his main topic.

Plot for Belknap takes on its richest form when it evokes, openly or not, another plot. This often occurs through parallelism, which ‘in the world of prose plots’, Belknap says, ‘plays almost as important a role as Hopkins gives it in the world of diction, but in most cases the parallel takes a form more like rhyme or metaphor rather than perfect repetition’. Shakespeare is seen as the master here, the writer who departs most thoroughly from Aristotle’s dream of causal interconnection. Of the two plots in King Lear, the one about Lear and his daughters and the one about Gloucester and his sons, Belknap suggests that ‘either … could have been omitted without radically altering the other.’ This leaves us with the intriguing critical thought that there is no plot linking the plots – or there is only the one the viewer invents by making whatever she or he can of ‘parallelism and contrast’. This making requires real attention, since as Belknap slyly says in one of his many remarks that leave us with quite a bit of mental homework to do, ‘the ability to see similarity is very hard to tell from the inability to see difference.’ There is a comment here both on common sense and on the philosophical practice of deconstruction. We pride ourselves on recognising difference, we know when the same is not the same. But do we know when it is? A parallel asks us to make connections before we start remembering distinctions.

The invitation is wonderfully problematic when the parallels, as in Dostoevsky, are sometimes reasonable and sometimes delusional, neither form being less plotted or plausible than the other. For Belknap, Crime and Punishment presents a world in which mundane sanity and wild superstition keep colliding and colluding, and he sets up this reading by proposing a very acute take on Aristotle’s idea of probability: ‘a tightly linked causal system is neither more nor less likely than a series of causally unrelated incidents,’ so that ‘probability here is not a matter of statistics, but the sense of living in an orderly universe.’ And again: ‘For Aristotle, a causal connection did not need to be real to bear verisimilitude; it needed to make the universe look well organised.’ We have only to pause over the words ‘sense’ and ‘look’ to see how easily the dream of order could turn into mania, as perhaps it already does in Greek tragedy. Coincidence is not the opposite of causality in this respect, any more than fabula is the opposite of siuzhet. It is just a crazed, alternative causality. ‘Caprice has its order, too,’ as Belknap says.

‘The grinding paradox of Crime and Punishment’, he suggests, is ‘that we care about the wellbeing of a calculating, self-absorbed hatchet-murderer.’ I’m not sure I care about Raskolnikov’s wellbeing, although that is certainly an imaginable response. I feel more like his guilty accomplice, in spite of my resistance to the idea. I’m attracted to Belknap’s claim that ‘the unconscious is deeply moral’ in this novel, that ‘Raskolnikov’s dreams and impulsive actions struggle against his rational mind’s rejection of moral values.’ It is persuasive because in his dream Raskolnikov is a sensitive child distressed by the beating of an unfortunate horse by a group of drunken men, and because in his waking life he regularly makes kindly, unthought-out gestures in response to the suffering or danger of others. But I wonder whether the unconscious is not equally present in his brutal murder of two women and in his almost automatic attempts to revoke his acts of kindness; and I wonder whether he has any moral values to reject. What if he is a person divided between a recent obsession and a clutter of old memories, neither of them rational?

This is what Belknap almost suggests when he discusses Raskolnikov’s superstition, which is precisely an instance of Aristotle’s probability gone mad. It isn’t just that Raskolnikov treats coincidences – overhearing a conversation on the exact topic that preoccupies him, finding an axe when he thought he wasn’t going to – as if they were motives or excuses for action, it’s that he believes their accidental nature gives them their special authority. ‘This coincidence always seemed strange to him,’ we read, ‘as though there were indeed some predestination, some indication in it’ (the translation is by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky). Nothing like a mystical interpretation of chance ‘to make the universe look well organised’, even if the ordinary name for this conviction is paranoia. Reason itself becomes the abettor of madness, and paranoids don’t only have enemies, they have a stolen or conscripted Aristotle on their side.

When Belknap speaks of a reader who ‘desires justice’, and of ‘novelistic justice’ as opposed to poetic justice, or of the plot itself as a ‘judge’ who is ‘to decide between the two doctrines’ – in this case the theory that a great man can do what he likes because he is above or beyond crime, and the theory that criminals are longing to be caught – he has come as far as he possibly can from the practice of plot summary and the clean, quick result. All that is left is the relation of the reader or viewer to the plot as it plays itself out moment by moment, whether single, double, or fractal. The plot can’t decide anything without us. It’s also true that we can’t decide anything without the plot(s), but we may have more liberty and responsibility than Belknap quite wants us to have. Near the end of his book he says:

The plots of all great novels and tragedies are about good and evil, but they rarely scold or threaten, and rarely lecture at us. They exercise our moral faculties by forcing us to make decisions and judgments and debate them with the characters and with our peers. The plot can, however, enable us to escape misreadings if it is used intelligently.

This is very well said, and I have doubts only about the forcing and the escape from misreading. A plot may be more like the law in Kafka’s Trial. It ‘does not want anything from you. It receives you when you come and dismisses you when you go.’