Mission

Bibliophiliac is the space where one passionate, voracious reader reflects on books and the reading life. You will find reviews, analysis, links, and reflections on poetry and prose both in and out of the mainstream.
A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. Franz Kafka

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Literary Blog Hop: November 11-14

What is the most difficult literary work you've ever read?  What made it so difficult?

That is the question for this week's Literary Blog Hop, a fantastic new weekly event hosted by Ingrid and Connie at The Blue Bookcase.  If you are interested in joining in, please hop over to their site and join in on the linky.

This question is difficult!  Questions including "best" "worst" and "most" are always challenging for me.  I'd rather say "one of the" thus hedging my bets.

There have been books at which I've had to launch more than one attempt, like a climber defying a particularly vertiginous cliff.  In this category I include Crime and Punishment and Moby Dick.  And it often seems that a very long book is, by virtue of length, difficult.  But I've decided to talk about Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes, a slender but challenging novel.
Nightwood is a highly experimental novel.  At least with Crime and Punishment and Moby Dick, there is always the narrative pull of the plot.  Even with all of its tangents of nautical know-how, Moby Dick is a book with a traditional plot structure and an easily identifiable conflict.

Nightwood, not so much.

I first encountered Nightwood in a graduate class in Experimental Literature.  I absolutely loved everything about the class; I found, however, that my tastes in literature are really much more traditional than I had thought.  Plot is deeply satisfying to me, and Nightwood is virtually plotless.  Still, I persevered, probably because of my extremely high tolerance for confusion and ambiguity.  I am one of those readers who will ride the narrative wave for long stretches, not really worrying that I don't actually understand everything I am reading.  That's what rereading is for.

So, while I find plot deeply satisfying, it is not actually necessary.  What I do find necessary is very fine writing, and my preference is for poetic prose.  Therefore I love Faulkner, Morrison, and Woolf.  Stream of consciousness narrative is fine with me--I just jump right into the stream.

What kept me reading Nightwood is the highly poetic prose, as well as the challenging ideas presented in the novel.  Barnes violated nearly every social taboo of her time:  her characters were explicitly lesbian and bisexual, and their actions violated social norms.  Extremely self-destructive and often unlikable characters contributed to the difficulty of Nightwood.  Yet the poetry and the courage of the novel make Nightwood a worthwhile if challenging read.

If you are here on the Literary Blog Hop, sponsored by The Blue Bookcase, welcome!  Take a look at my The Story on Thursday post on "The Yellow Wallpaper," if you are so inclined--it is right below this post....

38 comments:

IngridLola said...

An Experimental Literature class sounds AMAZING, I wish they offered that at my university!

bibliophiliac said...

@IngridLola-it was a fantastic class-and the professor came up with really creative assignments. It was one of my favorite classes in grad school.

Brenna said...

This sounds like a really interesting book, one that is probably best read with a class/instructor. Without that it sounds like it may be over my head! I've also got to agree with Ingrid, I wish I had an Experiential Lit class at my university!

bibliophiliac said...

@Brenna-I agree, having an instructor is helpful--but with the help of Google and such, difficult literary works are probably more easily conquered without instruction that we might realize. Anyway, we can always ride the wave of not understanding!

winstonsdad said...

this sounds very interesting lisa ,not heard a lot about it will be googling and reading up more ,all the best stu

Short Story Slore said...

Interesting - I've never heard of that book. Mine would be Lolita - I've started it 3 times and never finished. The writing is beautiful, despite the subject matter, but I can't bring myself to read 300 pages of a guy who's into preteen girls (despite it being a classic)and it's all from his POV. It's interesting, but I never find myself wanting to read the whole thing.

readerbuzz said...

I love hearing about books that are little known. Thank you for sharing this one with us.


Here's my post:
http://readerbuzz.blogspot.com/2010/11/enchante-from-literary-blog-hop.html

NancyO said...

Oh my! I have Nightwood only tbr pile! Maybe I'll have to push it down a bit lower!

JoAnn said...

Fascinating! I've not heard of this, and plan to do a little more investigating...

bibliophiliac said...

@Stu-I'll be stopping by soon to see what you are up to--always something interesting!

bibliophiliac said...

@ShortStorySlore-to my everlasting shame, I have not yet read Lolita! Soon, very soon...
@readerbuzz--thanks for stopping by! I'll be over soon to see what your difficult book is!

bibliophiliac said...

@NancyO--yes, Nightwood is definitely worth the effort.
@JoAnn--thanks for stopping by!

Kelly said...

Lol I see we've both written about books we had to read for school :)

This books sounds kind of interesting, as long as I took the time to really read it and pay attention.

Amy said...

I really enjoyed this post. I can really relate to your reasoning for selecting a difficult book. (Crime and Punishment happens to be my favorite book of all time, so I would never call it my most difficult). Anyway, I hope to keep up with your future posts as well!

Jillian said...

*An Experimental Literature class sounds AMAZING, I wish they offered that at my university!*

Me too!!

I've never heard of this novel. Thanks for sharing. :D

gautami tripathy said...

I have read a lot of classics in my school and college years. And some still remain my favorites. However, there are a few I could never get into..


Here is my Literary Blog Hop post!

Red said...

I tried to post a comment and I think it failed. If 2 show up from me, apologies!

This looks like a very interesting read but like Brenna said, it's probably best read in a class where you have someone guiding you through it. I'd like to check it out and skim through it but I'm not sure I'd be able to get myself to read the whole thing.

Dan Cafaro said...

Your insight about the importance of plot vs. no plot is thought provoking, as it adds to the debate of what many think remains a critical problem with postmodern literature. It takes a bit of wherewithal and trust in the author to stick it out without feeling there's a thread to the narrative. Your willingness to take such a class and slog through muddy waters is admirable.

Loni said...

I also wish I had an experimental literature class when I was in University... maybe they would have offered it if I had gone to grad school.

Christopher said...

Fascinating post, Lisa. "Nightwood" sounds interesting, but I fear I'd probably founder on the rocks. I am getting set to tackle "Moby-Dick" in a two-month group-read in early-2011. I am very much looking forward to it. I probably read it 35 years ago, and know that I truly missed a lot that time through.

Have a great weekend! Cheers! Chris

bibliophiliac said...

@Jillian--it was a great class-we had a very creative professor
@Gautami-thanks for stopping by...

bibliophiliac said...

@Kelly--Nightwood takes some stamina to read!
@Amy--I love Crime and Punishment too! I manage to mention C&P or Dostoyevsky in approximately 1/3 of all of my posts!

bibliophiliac said...

@Red--reading a book for a class gives you some assurance that you will "get" it eventually....
@Dan Cafaro--very fine writing does give the reader a sense of security--that the writer must know where she is going, or that the reader will make sense of the narrative in the end...

bibliophiliac said...

@Chris--Moby Dick is perfect for a reread--you can't possibly get it all on a first read. I love returning to favorite books...

kinnareads said...

Nightwood sounds like the kind of book that I would want to grapple with. I'm looking to read more experimental fiction. Wonderful response.

parrish lantern said...

Yet the poetry and the courage of the novel make Nightwood a worthwhile if challenging read. This sounds a fantastic read & one I'll have to track down.
Thanks
Parrish

Marie said...

sounds intriguing. I admit I don't read a lot of experimental lit, being more a traditional-narrative person but i'm interested. i love the idea of a whole college class devoted to it- probably would help me to get more out of it!

bibliophiliac said...

@Kinna-thanks for stopping by-I'm heading over to see what your difficult read is...
@parrish lantern--sometimes a dense, poetic novel is just the thing!

bibliophiliac said...

@Marie--I found that I really love a traditional narrative structure myself. But I also really love poetry and poetic language. A book like Faulkner's As I Lay Dying comes to mind: it is stream of consciousness, which keeps the reading working to orient herself, but there is a clear narrative structure: the characters are on a journey.

leeswammes said...

I think I'm in the minority here not particularly wanting to read experimental literature.

Good writing: yes please. A plot: is nice.

http://leeswammes.wordpress.com Leeswammes (Judith)

bibliophiliac said...

@Leeswammes-I agree, a plot is very nice! I like experimental literature more in theory than in practice, but I'm willing to give all good writing a try.

Aisle B said...

I read through Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence and wanted to die from the overkill of adjectives. Normally love Rushdie, especially Imaginary Homelands & midnight Children but Enchantress was a moment of lobotomy for my poor brain.

have you read it??

bibliophiliac said...

@PK--I never even heard of that Rushdie novel! Too many adjectives does sort of stun the brain! I've always meant to read Midnight's Children, but haven't gotten to it yet.

Suzanne said...

Ooh, experimental literature! Sounds so interesting! I would think that it is the kind of class that shows you how traditional you are even though you may have thought differently!

I'd say one of the more difficult classics was Anna Karenina. A beautifully written book, except for the political ramblings and some of the Russian farming passages. I got through it, but it was slow going. I really wanted to understand all of it, even though it was boring as anything.

bibliophiliac said...

@Suzanne--exactly! I found how how much I love plot and narrative! But I'm still glad I took the class.

Rose City Reader said...

Oh no, "highly poetic prose" are never words I want to see describing a book currently sitting on my TBR shelf. I don't share your tolerance for SOC, I'm afraid. I can put up with it and actually like Faulkner, et al, but I don't go searching it out.

bibliophiliac said...

@Rose City Reader--you make that sound so terrible! ;) My taste definitely runs toward Faulkner, Woolf and Morrison--but I do appreciate a very simple style like Hemingway, too. In college I even had a taste for Henry James--he's brilliant, but those long sentences! Do today's readers have the patience? I fear not!

Dreambeast said...

How wonderful to encounter a review of Nightwood. I read it in graduate school too and was awed by the writing.