Re-reading Nightwood

I finished re-reading Djuna Barnes’s novel Nightwood a week or so ago, and the experience was … not particularly remarkable. I’ve been hesitant to write about it because I wasn’t sure I had much to say, and I thought the experience should have been more significant than it was. It feels a bit like a reading failure, as though I should now have major new insights into the book, when I simply don’t. I understood more of it on the second go-round, but not a hugely significant amount more. I appreciated the language once again, and perhaps a bit more the second time around, but I didn’t have any new revelations about it. The experience of reading the novel the second time around wasn’t exactly the same as the first, as I felt much more confident in my reading the second time since I knew what to expect, but it was distressingly similar.

Now I wonder if this is the book’s fault or mine. Or perhaps I was expecting too much? I’m thinking it’s at least partly my fault, as others have loved this novel and praised it highly and taught it and published articles on it, and so there must be a lot going on that I’m not getting. But I’m also thinking that perhaps I’m simply reading it the wrong way (or the “wrong” way) — that I’m still struggling for logical meaning when that isn’t what the book is offering me. I’m not saying that the book doesn’t make any sense, because it does, at least in places, but there are many sentences that leave me puzzled. In my re-reading, I was hoping to make sense of more of those sentences, which would then, I hoped, lead me to more insights into the book’s ideas and themes. But perhaps I would have been better off re-reading for the poetry of it, or to get a deeper sense of character (which, I will say, I got). And I don’t mean to imply that reading mainly for logical meaning is superior to reading mainly for the beauty of the language (see this post for a discussion of that issue), simply that reading for language wasn’t my emphasis.

Maybe, though, I should have let more time elapse before a re-reading. Perhaps the first reading was still too fresh in my mind and I needed some time away from the book to let it simmer and stew in my brain for a while.

Is there an optimal amount of time that should elapse between readings of a novel? It seems that if you wait too long, you’ll forget the first reading, so that the second reading is really exactly the same as the first. And maybe if you re-read too soon, the book will be too familiar and the first reading too heavy in your mind to allow you to see new things. Hmmm … I’m not sure.


Filed under Books, Fiction

9 responses to “Re-reading Nightwood

  1. I think if you reread a book like Nightwood, it has to be a directed reading, a reading for some specific feature of the novel (like character or literary style) or a reading that tries to assemble evidence for a particular point of view or question. I don’t know, I’m not a good rereader myself and can only suggest this as a possible route forward. The difficult books I’ve reread in the hope of understanding them in their entirety have generally sounded exactly the same to me on a second try as well!


  2. verbivore

    I wonder about that too. I love re-reading but I always wait at least a year (often several) and so I have nearly forgotten a lot of the book and reading it is a new experience. I might try what you did and see what changes for me…


  3. I tend to be a linear sort of straightforward reader–meaning I don’t take a lot of chances, or I don’t get on really well with books that are, well, like Nightwood sounds. So I appreciate that you’ve read this not once, but twice. I wonder if giving it time between readings, having perhaps read something else by or about the author, or another book in some way related would help. Maybe the experience of other books in between would help shed light on the book later? Not being a big rereader myself, though, I’m only guessing. I sometimes will read something and then later read something else written in the same period and then have an epiphany on the previous book. I wonder if all her books are written in this manner?


  4. LK

    I have had similar experiences, and for me, I think the reading experience has much to do with where I am emotionally, personally, and mentally in my life. Some books always resonate — the best resonate differently at different times — but often, lesser novels will not hold up to a rereading, because whatever it was that affected me at the time has changed.


  5. musingsfromthesofa

    I read ‘Nightwood’ on the strength of your first review and it left me entirely baffled. I think I would leave more time before re-reading, because right now I feel that exactly the same elements would baffle me if I approached it again. It needs more distance. I do admire you for re-reading so soon.


  6. Litlove — I think you’re right that a directed approach would work best, to have a “problem” to solve, so to speak. And I’m glad I’m not the only one to re-read a book and find the same thing all over again!

    Verbivore — it’s an interesting experiment, isn’t it? To re-read and see what happens. I doubt I’ll re-read Nightwood again in a year, but it would be interesting to see what might happen if I did.

    Danielle — criticism would definitely have helped, I think. I was feeling lazy, though, and didn’t hunt any down, and I also wanted to see if I could figure out any more of it on my own. If I were more motivated, I’d hunt down criticism now, but I’m still feeling rather lazy!

    LK — yeah, I agree that the interest of re-reading is when the reader has changed, which makes the experience a different one. I wonder if there will ever be a point Nightwood would become more meaningful for me.

    Becky — well, I’m glad I’m not the only one baffled! Those speeches by the doctor! You really had to stop expecting each and every sentence to make sense.


  7. Too bad the re-read wasn’t as successful as you had hoped. I don’t re-read often but when I do I like there to be a nice stretch of time in between to allow me to ponder a bit before I try again. Do you think you are done with the book, or do you think in a few years you might try again?


    • Richard Taylor

      I re-read books. Not as much as I should (sometimes I forget the books altogether so re-read them, and of course I have read a lot of Shakespeare and other playwrights several times as well as seen the plays or movies of). I read Nightwood and found it fascinating. There is a review / study of it somewhere which is interesting, I forget who did it but it was a great expication. I love that deliberately overwritten language…there is a “priest” who pours out this huge kind of tirade that is clearly not meant to be followable. There is an almost dream like aspect to Nightwood. It has been argued it is not poetic but I think the best writing has a “poetic” aspect. That is the language is excellent. This is what makes Nabokov or Malamud or Faulkner, Bellow, Updike, Pynchon, Cheever or say Joyce Carol Oates and Alice Munro such great writers. Not to mention other writers outside the US and Canada.

      I re-read Lermontov’s (first part of) A Hero of Our Time. That is worth a read. It is very different from Barnes. It has something in common with Tolstoy’s book about his days in the Caucasus and the Crimean War. Lermontov is also known as a poet. Like Pushkin, sadly, he died at a young age in a duel. But that aside Lermontov’s book is good.

      I re-read stories and usually I still like them. I went back to reading some of Hemingway’s stories and I liked them more than when I first read them, although we are talking nearly 50 years in my case. And I read almost all of Dickens’ books before I got to High School so I want to re-read them. I have read some more recently I hadn’t read then. Some books that I don’t like so much as I write, “grow on me” after I’ve read them, in memory. The book ‘Tristram Shandy’ was like that for me. I liked it almost more in recollection. Gulliver’s Travels, Heart of Darkness, and The Secret Agent by Conrad I have read quite a few times. One book I couldn’t connect with after several readings was ‘The Great Gatesby’. Although I liked a lot of it,especially some of the descriptions. I will read it again!!


  8. Pingback: mid-read thoughts on Mrs. Dalloway « Incurable Logophilia

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