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Old 02-16-2018, 09:54 AM   #46
issybird
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The linked article describes the books as "Two influential, if woefully under-read, American classics". I think the "under-read" aspect may well be the result of seeming immaturity in the writing. I would find it hard to recommend either of these book to others to read; they're interesting but they're not that well written.

Do you think that assessment (as it relates to Passing) is too harsh?
No, I don't think it's too harsh; I was going to post along similar lines after a bit.

Passing has that flaw of many first novels of being grossly overwritten. A good editor, or even a keen eye early on who alerted Larsen to the flaw, could have made a difference. I found the style rather off-putting from the start and then got to this:

Quote:
pouring the rich amber fluid from the tall glass pitcher into stately slim glasses
It's just iced tea; no need to make such a song and dance about it. And what the heck is a "stately glass"?

I was done for after that; I'll just mention my contention for worst of all, when Clare's dress was described as being made of "priceless velvet." Well, unless Clare stole the fabric from the Velvet Louvre, she most certainly paid for it and it had a price.

So it wasn't just the common flaw of too many adjectives and adverbs; the injudicious selection of words compounded the situation. This created a jarring note for me throughout the book.
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Old 02-16-2018, 10:10 AM   #47
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That's an interesting observation, issybird. I read this book first as an Audible book, driving down on an urgent trip to my DW's aunt. (A LONG two day trip, that we should have made a three day trip.) I really didn't get hit with the inappropriate language during that read, but came away from the book being impressed and moved by the impact of it, while thinking the actual writing was not very good. It was only later, when I had a chance to read it as an eBook that I was better able to define the problems, which are much as you describe.

The thing about this book is that despite those problems, it's impact is still powerful. Now I'm sure some of that is what I bring to the table, in that I've got some (limited) understanding of the knife-edge that "passing for white" has on an individual. And in this book we get the reminder of the risks especially for women in an era where birth control was far from universally or easily available. The isolation from family and childhood friends and community, the need to suppress the anger at the racism around you, and the constant fear of discovery or outing. It's difficult for any white American to really understand and appreciate, except in an intellectual way.
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Old 02-16-2018, 10:57 AM   #48
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If I were the editor, I might have suggested to Larsen to start the novel where it ends--Irene in distress after Clare's plunge, without giving away any of the details. Then I would have told the story in one long flashback, so the reader knows that all the scenes are leading up to something dramatic. The way the book reads now, it feels unfocused; I didn't know where anything was heading. The first two sections drone on and on, and then the last section is packed with dramatic events.

I am probably influenced by my reading of suspense and the way those novels are often structured. But I think I would have enjoyed the process of reading Passing more if I'd known there was a dead body at the end of it.
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Old 02-16-2018, 11:23 AM   #49
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But I think I would have enjoyed the process of reading Passing more if I'd known there was a dead body at the end of it.


But I'm very glad you made that comment! Until you did, it hadn't occurred to me to consider other meanings for "passing." First, I realized that the title could also refer to the death at the end; a cosmic pun even, as passing led to passing. Then, more ominously, it can also imply that passing (as a white person) represents the passing (death) of one's essential self. I had never connected the two; I thought of "passing" as being a fairly straightforward term.
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Old 02-16-2018, 12:51 PM   #50
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Originally Posted by issybird View Post
...Passing has that flaw of many first novels of being grossly overwritten. A good editor, or even a keen eye early on who alerted Larsen to the flaw, could have made a difference. I found the style rather off-putting from the start and then got to this:



Quote:
pouring the rich amber fluid from the tall glass pitcher into stately slim glasses
It's just iced tea; no need to make such a song and dance about it. And what the heck is a "stately glass"?...

I don't know. I'll see your "stately glass" and raise you one overly stimulated ocean. This is from next month's selection, The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. (I don't think spoiler tags are needed as nothing pertinent to the plot is revealed here):

"Just before it was dark, as they passed a great island of Sargasso weed that heaved and swung in the light sea as though the ocean were making love with something under a yellow blanket, his small line was taken by a dolphin."
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Old 02-16-2018, 12:56 PM   #51
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As a tangential issue, I didn't think Larsen's McGuffin, having Jack Bellew recognizing the black woman he bumped into on a winter street in New York as the same as the white woman he met in his wife's sitting room in summer Chicago, was entirely persuasive.
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I agree. It's not convincing that Jack suddenly thinks Irene is black simply because she's walking next to a black woman. I also wonder if Jack would even recognize Irene after such a long time, and in another context, after the brief summer meeting.
I respectfully disagree with you both. This is something that could still today happen in the American South. I live in a college town, and I would be willing to bet money that these sorts of assumptions based on the people you are with still happen very frequently with the young college-aged women.
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Old 02-16-2018, 01:05 PM   #52
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I respectfully disagree with you both. This is something that could still today happen in the American South. I live in a college town, and I would be willing to bet money that these sorts of assumptions based on the people you are with still happen very frequently with the young college-aged women.
Too true, and it's not limited to race. I was constantly reminded of discussions I've had with a friend who was in the Army during Don't Ask, Don't Tell era, and the tightrope she had to walk. How she had to be careful who she associated with, what she said, etc.
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Old 02-16-2018, 01:12 PM   #53
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Okay, I took extensive notes when I read this, so this might be lengthy.

Religious Themes

I am surprised that no one else has mentioned the apparent anti-semitism in the book. Irene and her friends mock the Claude "the black jew" saying that he is no longer Christian or black because he converted to Judaism. But it was more striking later on when she is speaking of those non-black folks who attend and observe the NWL events saying:
Quote:
Others to get material to turn into shekels.
This struck me as discordant when taken together with the earlier comments about Claude.

I appreciated this as merely timeless and still terribly applicable today:
Quote:
"Have you ever stopped to think, Clare," Irene demanded, "how much unhappiness and downright cruelty are laid to the loving-kindness of the Lord? And always by His most ardent followers, it seems."
Other than that, though, I was struck by the lack of any sort of religious practice in the book, as that is something deeply connected with race in the south.

Unreliable Narrator

Looking back on all the things Irene said about Clare, I wonder if from the very beginning we are not dealing with an unreliable narrator. I am not in the camp that thinks Irene pushed Clare (I think her husband did it - more on that later), but she never really had anything good to say about Clare. She was always grasping, greedy, taking what did not belong to her.

Quote:
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.
So was all of this just setting us up for the justification that Irene had to make herself when she was complicit in Clare's death? Do we really know who she was at all?

Whodunnit


As for the murder itself, I believe that John pushed Clare, but that Irene was wholly complicit in it. We were given numerous examples of Iren fearing what John would do to Clare if he discovered her secret. But it wasn't until after she believed that her husband was having an affair with Clare that she no longer saw fit to protect her from that danger. She had ample time to warn Clare that John had found out, but due to her own jealousy and conflicts, she chose not to.

I believe in the end that John pushed Clare, and Irene, knowing that she was just as responsible, has her little break at the end of the book and swears she fell. She isn't protecting John, but it seems to be she is protecting her personal relationships over her race, which seems to be a theme of the entire book. Her internal struggles on this point (I wrote down at least four different page references for this), were some of the most interesting material in the book.

I am sure I have forgotten something, so I might add more later. I am also sure, given that I had a small window of time to scribble this up, that there are mistakes. Humor me.
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Old 02-16-2018, 01:25 PM   #54
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I agree. It's not convincing that Jack suddenly thinks Irene is black simply because she's walking next to a black woman. I also wonder if Jack would even recognize Irene after such a long time, and in another context, after the brief summer meeting.
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I respectfully disagree with you both. This is something that could still today happen in the American South. I live in a college town, and I would be willing to bet money that these sorts of assumptions based on the people you are with still happen very frequently with the young college-aged women.
I didn't make my meaning clear. In fact, I don't think Jack would have recognized Irene. He had met a white woman, a friend of his wife's, months earlier; he wouldn't, IMO, have recognized her in the obviously black woman (judging by her companion) he met on the street, and who would have been dressed in a coat and winter hat as well. He wouldn't even have looked that closely at two black women. The reality is that most people have some difficulty in recognizing people out of context, even people they know quite well in other circumstances.

My point was, that I didn't believe in this chance encounter and it was the key to the denouement.
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Old 02-16-2018, 01:28 PM   #55
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I don't know. I'll see your "stately glass" and raise you one overly stimulated ocean. This is from next month's selection, The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. (I don't think spoiler tags are needed as nothing pertinent to the plot is revealed here):

"Just before it was dark, as they passed a great island of Sargasso weed that heaved and swung in the light sea as though the ocean were making love with something under a yellow blanket, his small line was taken by a dolphin."
Even the minimalists slip up occasionally. The sea as metaphor for sex is one of the most tired literary tropes out there; did Hemingway think he made it ok by reversing them?
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Old 02-16-2018, 08:53 PM   #56
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Okay, I took extensive notes when I read this, so this might be lengthy.

Religious Themes

I am surprised that no one else has mentioned the apparent anti-semitism in the book. Irene and her friends mock the Claude "the black jew" saying that he is no longer Christian or black because he converted to Judaism. [...]
I did notice the "black jew" thing, which was Gertrude's description, and obviously derogatory in context. But I wondered more about the narrator's phrasing: "he was no longer a Negro or a Christian but had become a Jew." Is that an anti-Semitic statement or a pro-Semitic statement? The implication seems to be that race is relevant to Christians but not to Jews. When said by a person that is part-Negro, part-white, might this apparent lack of racial distinction be an appealing attribute of Judaism?

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Unreliable Narrator

Looking back on all the things Irene said about Clare, I wonder if from the very beginning we are not dealing with an unreliable narrator. [...]
I agree. Unreliable and unlikeable to such an extent that very early on I was questioning what the author wanted of me. What was I supposed to believe and where were my sympathies expected to lie? I never really found an answer to that question.

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Whodunnit[/B]

As for the murder itself, I believe that John pushed Clare, but that Irene was wholly complicit in it. [...]
That's an interesting take on it. I don't think it's a likely scenario (too many in that room would have been looking for just such violence from John Bellew for him to get away with it), but it's a neat way of interpreting some of Irene's internal struggles leading up to the tragedy.
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Old 02-16-2018, 09:19 PM   #57
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Two questions.

Since the book is entirely Irene's POV, would it have worked better as a first-person narration? I think the use of third person makes Irene less unreliable than she would have been if telling the story herself.

Passing was actually Nella Larsen's second novel, preceded by Quicksand, which was apparently more successful. Has anyone read Quicksand?
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Old 02-16-2018, 09:23 PM   #58
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I wasn't at all sympathetic to Claire. She didn't have to marry someone who hates people of color. She took that risk and even introduced Irene to him. Claire took the risk and it backfired on her.
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Old 02-16-2018, 09:39 PM   #59
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I wasn't at all sympathetic to Claire. She didn't have to marry someone who hates people of color. She took that risk and even introduced Irene to him. Claire took the risk and it backfired on her.
As an impecunious mixed-race orphan, Clare may have thought Jack was the best of limited options. And at 18, I don't think she could be expected to understand the psychic toll of passing. In some ways, Clare is a cross between Melania Trump and Princess Di.

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Old 02-16-2018, 11:13 PM   #60
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As an impecunious mixed-race orphan, Clare may have thought Jack was the best of limited options. And at 18, I don't think she could be expected to understand the psychic toll of passing. In some ways, Clare is a cross between Melania Trump and Princess Di.
Now there’s an interesting thought!

Clare’s options would have been very limited, AND she wanted to escape from her aunts. Career options would have been zero, and quite possibly any sort of work, as we are talking of a book written in 1929. No mention of the crash and the Great Depression, but perhaps that was still in the future at the time of writing.

I must admit I had not read the references to Jews as being derogatory, but I intend doing a quick reread, so will bear that in mind, astrangerhere.
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