Posts Tagged ‘Nella Larsen’

A few years ago, I read Passing by Nella Larsen with my book group, I was blown away by it. However, despite having this convenient edition containing both Larsen’s famous novellas I never managed to get around to Quicksand. When I read The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett recently, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Passing – and I decided I would re-read it, but not before I read Quicksand as well.

Nella Larsen did not produce a large body of work which is a shame, these two short novels and a few short stories appear to be it – yet what she has produced is extraordinary in its discussion of race in the United States in the early part of the Twentieth century. The heroines in these two slight novels are complex, their desires and frustrations palpable.

Quicksand was the first to be published – it appears to be particularly autobiographical. Helga Crane is an attractive, genteel young woman, the daughter of a white Danish mother and a black West Indian father. When her mother died, Helga at fifteen years old was thrust upon the mercies of her mother’s relatives, who objected to having the child of a black man reliant upon them. Only one uncle; Peter was ever kind to her.

As the novel opens Helga is teaching in a black boarding school in the South and is engaged to be married. Yet, Helga is far from satisfied, strongly disagreeing with the philosophy of the school where she works, Helga decides to leave, and head back North to Chicago where she grew up and where her mother’s family still live.

“This great community, she thought, was no longer a school. It had grown into a machine. It was now a show place in the black belt, exemplification of the white man’s magnanimity, refutation of the black man’s inefficiency. Life had died out of it. It was, Helga decided, now only a big knife with cruelly sharp edges ruthlessly cutting all to a pattern, the white man’s pattern. Teachers as well as students were subjected to the paring process, for it tolerated no innovations, no individualisms, Ideas it rejected, and looked with open hostility on one and all who had the temerity to offer a suggestion or ever so mildly express a disapproval. Enthusiasm, spontaneity, if not actually suppressed, were at least openly regretted as unladylike or ungentlemanly qualities. The place was smug and fat with self-satisfaction.”

This is just the first of several journeys Helga will embark upon in a bid to find the life she is comfortable with. Helga has never felt a part of the black communities that she has encountered in her life, but neither is she entirely comfortable in white communities. Over time, Helga begins to think the way that race is viewed in America is the problem.

Rejected by her Uncle Peter’s new, bigoted wife – Helga takes the opportunity to travel to New York where she later gets a job as a secretary to a black woman who is enormously concerned with the ‘race problem.’ Helga’s restlessness takes her to Copenhagen, and the home of her maternal aunt, in Denmark, she discovers she is treated entirely differently, a woman of colour she is desirable suddenly and exotic. Eventually, Helga begins to miss the black people she once thought she was anxious to go away from, and she returns to America. The decisions she makes thereafter are questionable – and the novel’s ending is far from optimistic.

Passing was published just a year after Quicksand, for me it is just on another level – absolutely brilliant, unforgettable, and quite heart-breaking. It portrays what the realities were for middle-class African-Americans in the United states of the 1920s. Irene Redfield and Clare Bellew are two light-skinned black women who grew up together and were childhood friends.

“The trouble with Clare was, not only that she wanted to have her cake and eat it too, but that she wanted to nibble at the cakes of other folk as well.”

They meet by chance in a restaurant – where neither of them would be allowed to go, were the management aware of their heritage. While Irene is ‘passing’ for mere convenience – to have tea somewhere elegant and refined near to where she was shopping – Clare spends her whole life passing as a white woman. Married to John Bellew – a bigoted white businessman, she also has a daughter – neither of whom know of her heritage.  Irene is married to a black doctor – with whom she has two sons.

“She wished to find out about this hazardous business of “passing,” this breaking away from all that was familiar and friendly to take one’s chance in another environment, not entirely strange, perhaps, but certainly not entirely friendly.”

Having met again, the lives of the two women become entwined again – rather against Irene’s better judgement. Irene realises that Clare is living a dangerous existence – and deep down wants no part of it. When she is brought face to face with Clare’s husband and his sneering racism and hears the vile nickname he has for his wife – Irene vows to have nothing more to do with her childhood friend. So, when Clare turns up at Irene’s door and invites herself to a charity event Irene has been arranging – we sense that this will not end well.

Two slight novels with big themes, Quicksand and Passing are still enormously relevant today. I found these two novels made for fascinating companions to some of the modern novels which explore similar themes – notably of course The Vanishing Half.

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quicksand and passing

Passing was chosen by my second book group (a lovely new feminist group) for our most recent read, we discuss it on Wednesday evening. It was my suggestion – because I already had the book and it seemed it would make a great book for discussion. In 2014 Serpent’s Tail produced an attractive edition of Nella Larsen’s two short novels, Quicksand and Passing in one volume. These two novels (novellas actually might be nearer the mark) are the only ones Nella Larsen wrote, however, despite this, Larsen was highly regarded by her contemporaries and became a part of what was known as the Harlem Renaissance.

I have chosen to read and review each novella separately – spacing out the pleasure of reading Larsen’s work – the writing is absolutely brilliant –such a shame there is so little of it.

“Everything can’t be explained by some general biological phrase.”

passingPassing is a difficult book to review – partly because it is quite short, but partly because there is in fact so much packed into this hundred page novella that the danger is I say too much. The novel concerns itself with race, identity and the middle-class African-American society of Harlem in the 1920’s. Some of the characters in this novel have a clear racial identity, while others, cross the lines of racial identity as they existed within that society.

Irene Redfield is a woman with a good life, she works hard at organising charity balls, is a big part of local society, married to a doctor with two sons her life is complete. The only shadow on her horizon so far has been her husband’s desire to take the family to Brazil so he can work amongst the poor there. Irene is very pale skinned, although she only chooses to ‘pass’ as white when it is convenient to do so – to get a table at a restaurant that would otherwise be barred to her – Irene identifies as a black woman and is satisfied with her life, her position in Harlem society and her marriage.

All of this is threatened when Irene meets Clare Kendry an old childhood friend. Clare has what Irene calls a ‘having way’ – Irene had lost sight of Clare for more than a decade, and in the years since they last met Clare has spent her life ‘passing.’

“The trouble with Clare was, not only that she wanted to have her cake and eat it too, but that she wanted to nibble at the cakes of other folk as well.”

Now Clare is lonely for the life and the people she has left behind her. Married to a wealthy racist businessman who has no idea of her true racial identity Clare has been playing a dangerous game. Clare begins to insert herself into Irene’s life, taking more and more risks as she walks the tightrope between two societies. Clare is captivated by the community she once turned her back on, her life outside it has been a tense, colourless existence, and she quickly embraces the world of middle-class Harlem society. Clare is a very beautiful woman, irrepressible and immediately popular with many of Irene’s friends and even her cynical husband, soon Irene realises that her old friend could ruin the respectable, fulfilling life that Irene has worked so hard to build up around her.

“The old fear, with strength increased, the fear for the future, had again laid its hand on her. And, try as she might, she could not shake it off. It was as if she had admitted to herself that against that easy surface of her husband’s concordance with her wishes, which had, since the war had given him back to her physically unimpaired, covered an increasing inclination to tear himself and his possessions loose from their proper setting, she was helpless.”

As a novel, Passing might be slight, but it is huge in its themes, it’s finely and subtly plotted, building to an astonishing, unforgettable climax. It is a novel which offers us a fascinating glimpse of this society in pre-civil rights America.

It will not be long before I read the first novel in this collection, Quicksand which I have heard is outstanding and apparently very autobiographical.


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