Robert L. Belknap (1929-2014) was a longtime Columbia University professor and the author of two important studies of Dostoevsky’s “Brothers Karamazov.” In 2011, he presented the Leonard Hastings Schoff Memorial Lectures at Columbia, and these form the basis of this posthumous book, an analysis of plot in drama and fiction.
According to the introduction by Russian scholar Robin Feuer Miller, “Plots,” though brief, reflects many years of thought and research. A prefatory note by Belknap duly thanks “the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship Program, the Bellagio Center, the Kennan Institute at the Smithsonian Institute, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the International Research and Exchanges Board.” Not to sound philistine, but this seems an inordinate amount of money and time off, especially given the relatively small scholarly return. Foundational largesse on such a scale certainly reinforces the impression that the life of a tenured professor at a major university resembles one long holiday, some of it spent with a beautiful view of Lake Como.
This isn’t to say that “Plots” is a dud. Yet Belknap’s original lectures must have tried the patience of all but the most scholarly in his audience. When theorizing, he tends to be as terse and precislike as Aristotle in “The Poetics,” that starting point for any consideration of how works of literature function. Dividing his dense little book into three sections, Belknap first delineates his conception of plot, then looks at Shakespeare’s use of parallelism and recognition scenes in “King Lear,” and, finally, examines the structure of “Crime and Punishment,” in particular how Dostoevsky makes the reader sympathize with the ax murderer Raskolnikov.
Presumably, Shakespeare’s play and Dostoevsky’s novel function as modern equivalents to Sophocles’s “Oedipus the King” and Homer’s epics, the ancient works that Aristotle drew upon in formulating his influential views about poiesis, the art of making. Given Belknap’s expertise, it seems natural that he should look primarily to 19th-century Russian fiction to illustrate his points, just as Peter Brooks, in “Reading for the Plot,” chose many of that admired work’s examples from French literature, his field of specialization. Consequently, Belknap probes Tolstoy’s moralistic criticisms of Shakespeare and charts the influence of Gogol on Dostoevsky. All well and good — except that as “Plots” progresses, it seems to wander off topic a bit. The admittedly excellent pages about “Crime and Punishment” come across as material repurposed from some larger, never-published study of that novel.
Belknap’s actual theoretical points largely recapitulate observations by the Russian formalists, notably Boris Tomashevsky and Viktor Shklovsky. Like them, Belknap stresses one simple but easily overlooked fact about plots: In a narrative work of art, events are not always presented in chronological order. In his life history, Odysseus encounters the Cyclops before he meets the charming young girl Nausicaa, yet Homer’s poem presents the latter episode first. We only learn of the hero’s previous adventures when he relates them at a banquet given by Nausicaa’s father. Homer begins his epic “in medias res” — in the middle of things.
In short, plots regularly rearrange chronology to achieve some artistic effect. Belknap contrasts a story’s “fabula,” as he labels the incidents in their historical order, with their esthetic reconfiguration, which he calls the “siuzhet,” a term coined by the formalists. These technical terms strike me as off-putting, especially since many of us need to guess at how to pronounce “siuzhet.” Still there’s no doubt that temporal rejiggering remains central to creating powerful narrative art. What would novelists and filmmakers do without flashbacks, prefigurations and parallel subplots, this last technique immortalized in the catchphrase “Meanwhile, back at the ranch”?
Belknap actually uses that phrase himself, one indication that beneath the academic robes lies a witty intelligence. Speaking of Lucian’s “True History” and similarly titled works, he slyly notes that “here, the word ‘true’ designates the fictional nature of the text.” To my mind, “Plots” would have benefited from even more such humor, a less high-minded tone and a much wider range of reference. While Belknap unexpectedly discusses CliffsNotes and the value of plot summary, his main concern lies almost entirely with canonical literary texts. In effect, he focuses on character-driven works, especially drama and fiction dealing with souls or societies in crisis. Belknap has nothing to say about truly plot-driven fiction, where action rather than psychology is paramount. Yet I don’t see how you can write seriously about plot without close scrutiny of the formulaic romance novel, adventure stories such as H. Rider Haggard’s “King Solomon’s Mines” and John Buchan’s “The Thirty-Nine Steps,” or the intricate deceptions of Agatha Christie.
There are, in fact, several practical, down-and-dirty explorations of plot. Lawrence Block’s just published “Writing the Novel From Plot to Print to Pixel” (LB Books, paperback, $16.99) offers valuable insights into how a successful commercial novelist thinks and creates. Back in the 1930s, legendary hackmeister Jack Woodford published several similar guides, notably “Plotting for Every Kind of Writing.” As Woodford declares in this last, “conflict is the gas that keeps the vehicle moving.” Belknap does mention, albeit with condescension, Georges Polti’s once-famous “The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations.” Recently reissued in paperback, William Wallace Cook’s even more amazing “Plotto” lays out an elaborate combinatorial system for creating hundreds of story outlines.
Still, a contrarian might argue that there is, fundamentally, just a single basic plot, summarizable in five words: “A stranger comes to town.” One detects this meme in the deep structure of works as different as “Oedipus the King,” “The Great Gatsby” and “The Hobbit.” Of course, the real art lies in the superstructure, in how Sophocles, Fitzgerald and Tolkien particularize this general archetype and make it into something fresh and uniquely their own.
Michael Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and is the author, most recently, of “Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living With Books.”
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By Robert L. Belknap
Columbia. 151 pp. $30