The Key to Rereading

Martin Parr - Lock.jpg

Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

Quality Locks, Walsall, England, 2011

Let’s reread Nabokov on rereading. On first approach to a novel, Nabokov claimed, we are overwhelmed with too much information and fatigued by the effort of scanning the lines. Only later, on successive encounters with the text, will we begin to see and appreciate it as a whole, as we do with a painting. So, paradoxically, then, “there is no reading, only rereading.”

This attitude, I recently suggested in this space, amounts to an elitist agenda, an unhappy obsession with control, a desire to possess the text (with always the implication that there very few texts worth possessing) rather than accept the contingency of each reading moment by moment.

“Wrong!” a reader objects. “Isn’t it true,” he invites an analogy with music “that the first time we hear a new song we can’t really enjoy it? Only after two or three hearings will it really begin to give us pleasure.” He then adds this intriguing formulation:

When we perceive something new for the first time we cannot really perceive it because we lack the appropriate structure that allows us to perceive it. Our brain is like a lock maker that makes a lock whenever a key is deemed interesting enough. But when a key—for example, a new poem, or a new species of animal—is first met, there is no lock yet ready for such a key. Or to be precise, the key is not even a key since it does not open anything yet. It is a potential key. However, the encounter between the brain and this potential key triggers the making of a lock. The next time we meet or perceive the object/key it will open the lock prepared for it in the brain.

It’s an elaborate theory and in fact the reader turns out to be the philosopher and psychologist Riccardo Manzotti. Intriguing above all is the reversal of the usual key/lock analogy. The mind is not devising a key to decipher the text, it is disposing itself in such a way as to allow the text to become a key that unlocks sensation and “meaning” in the mind.

Is Manzotti right? And if so, what does it tell us about reading?

Certainly we have all had the experience he describes on first encounter with difficult texts, poetry in particular. My first reading of The Waste Land, in a high-school literature class at age sixteen, was hardly a reading at all. It would take many lessons and cribs and further readings before suddenly Eliot’s approach could begin to awaken recognition and appreciation, before “April is the cruellest month,” that is, genuinely reminded me how difficult life and change could be in contrast to hibernation. The mind had conjured a lock that allowed the poem to function as a key; it fitted into my mind and something turned and swung open.

Two reflections. This Waste Land lock also seemed well suited to or easily adapted for a range of other keys. My mind could now be opened by other modernist poems far more quickly. Eliot’s other poems, in particular, all activated the senses smoothly enough. And while one would never perhaps reach the point of satisfying all one’s curiosity for a new poem in a single reading, still the lock-making process was now infinitely faster, to the point that there would sometimes be a sense of déjà vu: Oh, it’s this sort of lock the key wants to open. Or even: Oh not this again, how disappointing! Which perhaps explained why poets now no longer wrote in this way and had moved on.

This prompts a second reflection. With a certain kind of reading the pleasure lies in the lock-making process, the progressive meshing of mind and text. Once we are familiar with the kind of experience the text opens up in our minds, we will be less excited. Or at least, the pleasure will be of a different kind, offering the reassurance of the known, or simply a happy reminder of that more strenuous lock-making period. Such a distinction might help us tackle the old chestnut of the difference between genre fiction and literary work. There is no continuing learning process with genre fiction. We know how to read a Maigret and would never dream of rereading one. It always prompts the same reactions. But with a literary novel, we would expect the pleasure of an effort of adjustment, of new vistas being opened in the mind.

So Nabokov was right perhaps, or at least for complex novels, which for him were probably the only ones he was interested in. We have to reread.

Of course the poem can afford to be impenetrable, at least initially, because it is brief. You can read The Waste Land in twenty minutes. Not so Finnegans Wake. My feeling is that a novel that is really novel will generally get us through, or fairly far along in the lock-making process in the opening pages, where we may very well find ourselves rereading a paragraph or two in order to get our bearings. This one on the opening page of Mrs. Dalloway for example. Curiously enough, in the preceding paragraph Woolf has used an analogy if not of locks then of hinges; Clarissa Dalloway is expecting some workmen to come and remove the doors from their hinges in the ground floor of her house to facilitate the party she’s planning later that day. Then, as she goes out into the street, we have:


What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said, “Musing among the vegetables?”—was that it?—“I prefer men to cauliflowers”—was that it?

What is the experience, or disposition, that this text is seeking to unlock in us? One where past and present are co-present as thoughts of various kinds are allowed to spread out in extended syntactical convolutions, until someone comes along to interrupt them, with a cynical quip and a pocket knife. The formula will be repeated a hundred times in the book, the mind reaching out in reverie and then being abruptly brought back to the present by some intrusion. Uninitiated readers may indeed need to read this a number of times before the text awakens and opens a freshly-made lock in their minds.

But not all readers are the same. Not all are the same age. As Gregory Bateson observed, in his Steps to an Ecology of Mind, humans distinguish themselves not so much by their ability to learn, but their ability to learn how to learn, to recognize that a new situation requires a learning process and to facilitate that process in every way. So the experienced reader coming to Woolf senses at once that the reference to removing hinges and plunging out of doors is telling them something about how the book is to be read. By the time we get to this paragraph twenty pages in, where a man distributing sectarian pamphlets feels the seduction of the mother church, at least this aspect of the method will now be so obvious as to be risking mannerism:

Then, while a seedy-looking nondescript man carrying a leather bag
stood on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and hesitated, for
within was what balm, how great a welcome, how many tombs with
banners waving over them, tokens of victories not over armies, but
over, he thought, that plaguy spirit of truth seeking which leaves
me at present without a situation, and more than that, the
cathedral offers company, he thought, invites you to membership of
a society; great men belong to it; martyrs have died for it; why
not enter in, he thought, put this leather bag stuffed with
pamphlets before an altar, a cross, the symbol of something which
has soared beyond seeking and questing and knocking of words
together and has become all spirit, disembodied, ghostly—why not
enter in? he thought and while he hesitated out flew the aeroplane
over Ludgate Circus.

Certainly, by the end of Mrs. Dalloway, this play between the individual mind’s wanderings and the world’s intrusions, between the isolated human being and the community is all too clear. You hardly need to go back and reread except for the pleasure of seeing the ‘t’s crossed. Which can be a great pleasure. Or perhaps years later, with the lock now rusty, you might want to go back and dip in, to clean it up, to remember, in fast replay, the experience that Woolf’s writing evokes. “Ah yes,” you say after a couple of pages, “those are the cogs and wheels Mrs. Dalloway turns.”

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David Levine: Vladimir Nabokov

This is my own experience of rereading. I don’t go back and read a whole novel in the Nabokovian project of feeling I have to possess it all and pin down every butterfly nuance. I dip in again, read a chapter or two, or even just a page here and there, quite at random. To remember the excitement of feeling that particular lock turn in my mind.


So recently, I opened my old copy of Beckett’s Watt and found a passage I couldn’t remember having read at all, but which recalled all of the techniques that make this particular lock-in-the-head one of the most baroque and splendidly complicated to turn of all. If it does turn. For funnily enough the passage talks, precisely, about the problem of perception, and of objects that, in Watt’s case, never quite manage to make sense:

Watt was beginning to tire of running his eyes up and down this highway, when a figure, human apparently, advancing along its crown, arrested, and revived, his attention. Watt’s first thought was that this creature had risen up out of the ground, or fallen from the sky. And his second, some fifteen or twenty minutes later, that it had perhaps gamed its present position by way of first a hedge, and then a ditch. Watt was unable to say whether this figure was that of a man, or that of a woman, or that of a priest, or that of a nun. That it was not that of a boy, nor that of a girl, was shown, in Watt’s opinion, by its dimensions. But to decide whether it was that of a man, or that of a woman or that of a priest, or that of a nun, was more than Watt could do, strain as he might his eyes. If it was that of a woman, or that of a nun, it was that of a woman, or that of a nun, of unusual size, even for this part of the country, remarkable for the unusual size of its women and its nuns. But Watt knew too well, too too well: of what dimensions certain women, and certain nuns were capable, to conclude, from those of this night-wanderer, that this night-wanderer was not a woman, nor a nun, but a man, or a priest…

What so agitated Watt was this, that in the ten minutes or half an hour that had elapsed, since he first became aware of this figure, striding along, on the crest of the road, towards the station, the figure had gained nothing in height, in breadth or in distinctness. Pressing forward all this time, with no abatement of its foundered precipitation, towards the station, it had made no more headway, than if it had been a millstone.

Watt was puzzling over this, when the figure, without any interruption of its motions, grew fainter and fainter and finally disappeared.

The whole of Watt might be described as a sadistic savoring of key and lock never quite meeting, as if Beckett were discouraging his readers from ever imagining that any text of his might ever result in a smooth clunk in their literary brains.

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