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Passing (thoughts)

March 30, 2011

Since my last post, my laptop has not only had escalating power cord issues, the screen has also started going crazy, either flickering or being super washed out pretty much all of the time. You can imagine what joy this brings me. As a long term solution I’m contemplating selling my car, buying a new laptop, and putting the rest in the bank in case I need to buy a different, cheaper car at some point in the future. Really, if it weren’t for our crazy summers, I’d be onboard with this 100%, but the idea of bicycling during months when it barely drops below eighty at night has me a trifle concerned. Of course, I wouldn’t really be going car-free, since I’d be able to hitch a ride with my parents and even borrow my mom’s car on occasion; this is reassuring. Anyway, as a short-term solution, I have discovered that Chrome works great on my mom’s (Vista-running, molasses-in-January-slow) laptop. So I should be blogging again regularly, instead of watching in impotent frustration as IE crashes because I opened three tabs at the same time.

Moving on to something that’s become ridiculously rare on my book blog: a book review! While I still have grandiose visions of catching up with my backlog eventually, I thought it’d be a nice change of pace to write about a book as soon as I’d finished it. So, having been inspired by Rebecca’s post earlier this month, I’ve just read Nella Larsen’s Passing, a Harlem Renaissance novella. This was my first experience with Larsen, and I couldn’t be more pleased! Passing has that richness of a classic, with layers to sink through, details to tease out, and just some good old-fashioned brainfood. It also was a deceptively easy read; Larsen’s complexities lie with her characters rather than with her prose; they easily hold their own against the more famous Isabel Archer or Daisy Buchanan or Lily Bart. In fact, I’m quite horrified that Larsen has passed into such obscurity.

Who were these characters? Two women, both originally from Chicago and now in New York City. Both are wives and mothers from the privileged economic class (they have servants). Both light-skinned black women capable of passing for white in an era when racial discrimination was institutionalised. But while Irene, the story’s third-person limited narrator, has chosen to remain firmly in her environment, marrying a darker man and creating a life for herself amongst Harlem’s upper classes, Clare has chosen to become white, marrying a white man who hates African Americans, and cutting herself off from her black heritage. Clare is one of those fey beauties that seem everywhere in 1920s American lit. She’s charming and amoral, without any apparent ability to love someone other than herself or with any guiding morals other than satisfying her whims. Or at least, that’s how Irene presents her; the reader only sees Clare through Irene’s eyes, and I think Larsen was playing with unreliable narrators. Irene’s descriptions of Clare seem to say as much about Irene as not; her contrast between their perceived duties, be they maternal, racial, or otherwise, was especially telling. Irene is quite repressed, with a life that while outwardly successful appears to provide no real joy for her (she seems to see life as something we have to fulfill our duties, rather than as something to take pleasure in), and Clare seems the other side of the coin, all play and no work.

Really, they both feel as if they’re different halves of the same woman; Larsen even plays with their physical appearances, for Clare is a blonde while Irene is a brunette. If I were a lit major, I would adore deconstructing this one: there’s sexual repression, of both the hetero- and homo- varieties, there’s the parallel identity repression (while Clare seems in touch with her sexual side, she’s squashed her racial heritage; Irene, having embraced her blackness, is apparently unable to embrace her female-ness in its literal, physical sense), the contrast between outward appearances and inward realities, the burden of societal roles on black people, on female people, and so much more. As an amateur reader, I loved it because I could relate to both Irene and Clare, in how they go about trying to figure out the point of life, and how they should live. Ultimately, they are both extremes, and Larsen provides room for the reader to see that something in the middle is probably best for actual life, if not for compelling novellas. ;)

I also loved it for how readable it was; while I’ve made a passing reference to James and Wharton as far as psychological stuff goes, I want to reassure readers that they won’t get ‘bogged down’ in Larsen’s prose! Scenes seemed to come to life before my eyes, and while I had to fill it most of the details, that didn’t stop me from ‘seeing’ the action. I actually found myself holding my breath at a few scenes. I’ll share one of them with you; Clare has invited Irene and another very-light-skinned black woman to tea. They’ve been conversing, when Clare’s husband arrived:

“Hello, Nig,” was his greeting to Clare.
Gertrude, who had started lightly, settled back and looked covertly towards Irene, who had caught her lip between her teeth and sat gazing at husband and wife. It was hard to believe that even Clare Kendry would permit this ridiculing of her race by an outsider, though he chanced to be her husband. So he knew, then, that Clare was a Negro? From her talk the other day Irene had understood that he didn’t. But how rude, how positively insulting, for him to address her in that way in the presence of guests!
In Clare’s eyes, as she presented her husband, was a queer gleam, a jeer, it might be. Irene couldn’t define it.
The mechanical professions that attend an introduction over, she inquired: “Did you hear what Jack called
“Yes,” Gertrude answered, laughing with a dutiful eagerness.
Irene didn’t speak. Her gaze remained level on Clare’s smiling face.
The black eyes fluttered down. “Tell them, dear, why you call me that.”
The man chuckled, crinkling up his eyes, not, Irene was compelled to acknowledge, unpleasantly. He explained: “Well, you see, it’s like this. When we were first married, she was as white as-as-well, as white as a lily. But I declare she’s gettin’ darker and darker. I tell her if she don’t look out she’ll wake up one of these days and find she’s turned into a nigger.”
He roared with laugher. Clare’s ringing bell-like laugh joined his. Gertrude, after another uneasy shift in her seat, added her shrill one. Irene, who had been sitting with lips tightly compressed, cried out: “That’s good!” and gave way to gales of laughter. She laughed and laughed and laughed. Tears ran down her cheeks. Her sides ached. Her throat hurt. She laughed on and on and on, long after the others had subsided. Until, catching sight of Clare’s face, the need for a more quiet enjoyment of this priceless joke, and for caution, struck her. At once she stopped.

Suffice it to say, this was a pure treat to read, and the more I mull it over, the more impressed I become. Passing is powerful and universal and enduring; I imagine it would easily stand up to multiple rereadings. And isn’t that the sign of a true classic? I’m already thinking of picking up Quicksand, her other novella.

(P.S. I know I’m horribly behind in replying to comments; I’m so sorry! But it was too frustrating trying to do so with things crashing every few minutes. I shall reform my ways, now that I have fast internet and a reliable computer. I’ve finished replying to all of the comments you all had so kindly left on my previous posts. Woohoo!)

30 Comments leave one →
  1. March 30, 2011 5:59 am

    Use Firefox, hun. I rarely have problems now and really don’t miss IE at all.

    I put this book on my wishlist before I was even done reading your review. Wow, it sounds like an incredible read. Are you going to read any more by Nella Larsen? I’d be interested to see how her other works compare :)

    • April 1, 2011 10:12 pm

      I have Firefox on my laptop & love it, but it won’t run on my mom’s. Don’t ask me why! I want to read Larsen’s other longer fiction, Quicksand. :)

  2. March 30, 2011 7:01 am

    I’m sorry you’re struggling with computer issues. Computers are wonderful when they’re working but total frustration when they’re not.

  3. March 30, 2011 8:03 am

    I ABSOLUTELY must read this book. Your presentation of it has me itching to set down the book I’m reading now and go out and find it. What an absolutely fascinating storyline. I love the play on the differences between the two women.

    Also I feel you on the computer issues, my laptop has power chord issues too, but so far I’ve been able to make it work. Best of luck with the computers and congrats on getting all the commenting done … that had to be extremely hard work.

    • April 1, 2011 10:12 pm

      Oh yay: I hope you enjoy it! It’s a quick read. :)

  4. March 30, 2011 8:48 am

    Sorry to hear about the ongoing computer hassles. I second Ceri’s comment. Firefox runs perfectly on my beloved clunker of a laptop. Passing sounds great, I had not heard of Larsen before and am adding this one to my TBR list.

    • April 1, 2011 10:12 pm

      I don’t know why Firefox won’t work on my mom’s laptop. But Chrome is awesome!

  5. March 30, 2011 10:28 am

    Passing is an amazing work of fiction. And you’ve done it justice with your review. Thank you.

  6. March 30, 2011 3:25 pm

    I’m so glad you got to this one — and shared your thoughts right away! I too am sad that Larsen is not better known, as I’ve found with many of the Harlem REnaissance works I’ve read..

    “details to tease out” This is what I love about classics, and I think you’re right though that Larsen is not intimidating at all to read. One doesn’t have to read it in depth but can if she chooses.

    • April 1, 2011 10:13 pm

      So true re: Harlem writers. Although I think we all know why they aren’t as well known; even Hurston was lost to obscurity until pretty recently!

  7. March 30, 2011 4:23 pm

    I have Quicksand & Passing at home from the library just now. :)

  8. March 30, 2011 6:11 pm

    It was Irene’s semi-unreliable perspective that really made this novella for me, Eva, so I’m glad you bring that up. The way Irene’s thoughts reveal more to the audience than she herself realizes (the nature of her attraction to Clare, the depths of her repression & her unquestioned assumptions about race) was subtle & well-executed, I thought.

    I’ll be curious about your thoughts on Quicksand. I didn’t think it was nearly as well done, but you’re more of a fan of James than I am and Quicksand had some of the same characteristics I associate with him: endless descriptions of psychology, for example, in place of showing characters’ psychological states through behavior or indirect thought.

    • April 1, 2011 10:14 pm

      I agree Emily. And lol @ your description of James’ writing! I’ll have to get to Quicksand soon to see if it compares for me.

  9. March 30, 2011 7:57 pm

    Ugh, computer issues. My brother had some pretty ugly issues with his computer recently, and his had to be fixed right away , because he uses it for work. But when they work, they’re great. I’m glad you were able to get something to work for you.

    I just recently added Passing to my list. I’d never heard of Larsen until recently, but I keep seeing so many positive reviews of her work, that I’m looking forward to the read–eventually! I have a very long list….

    • April 1, 2011 10:15 pm

      It’s fun when an author gets grassroots popularity amongst book bloggers, isn’t it? :)

  10. March 31, 2011 6:20 pm

    Definitely use Firefox. I don’t know if it’ll necessarily make your computer run faster, but for sure it’ll be a better browser. I used Firefox on my slower-than-molasses laptop for ages and ages (until my parents so kindly got me a new laptop). I wish you very good luck with whatever you decide to do, carwise and computerwise.

    • April 1, 2011 10:15 pm

      I heart Firefox, but it won’t work on my mom’s laptop! I’m glad Chrome does. :)

  11. April 1, 2011 8:36 pm

    I hadn’t heard of this book or author before but you’ve definitely convinced me to give it a try. I don’t know how you’ve caught up with your comments already…I haven’t even been gone and I’m so far behind with them that it isn’t even funny. Ugh!

    • April 1, 2011 10:15 pm

      Thanks Samantha! I caught up with some DVRed TV while replying to them all. ;)

  12. Kathleen permalink
    April 2, 2011 11:15 pm

    Eva, I hope you will resolve your computer issue soon. I know how frustrating it is to have a computer that isn’t working properly.

  13. April 14, 2011 7:50 pm

    I’m happy I have this on my shelf to read, it sounds fantastic. Incredible review.

  14. April 23, 2011 4:20 pm

    I know I’m like a million years behind on my google reader, but I just got to this today. It’s a bit dangerous for me to browse your blog, because it always results in me adding more books to my tbr. ;) Nella Larsen is now on my radar, and I’m looking forward to reading this one.


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Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

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