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Old 01-13-2018, 08:01 AM   #1
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February 2018 Discussion • Passing by Nella Larsen



Passing by Nella Larsen is the February selection for the New Leaf Book Club.

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An important figure in the Harlem Renaissance, Nella Larsen was the first African-American woman to be awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. Her fictional portraits of women seeking their identities through a fog of racial confusion were informed by her own Danish-West Indian parentage, and Passing offers fascinating psychological insights into issues of race and gender.

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Old 02-15-2018, 12:13 AM   #2
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Let's talk about Passing. What did you think?
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Old 02-15-2018, 01:27 AM   #3
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I can't say that I enjoyed this as such, but then I'm not sure that enjoyment was intended. It was an interesting and vaguely intriguing book, and with it being so short, novella rather than novel, I had no difficulty in finishing it. I would also add that this is almost the ideal book-club book: it is chock-full of talking points, especially the ending.

I find it difficult to work out how much to say in this first post. I might try some summary points here, and then post more detail behind them in a separate post:

* The book is ambiguous, apparently deliberately so, almost all the way through.

* I thought the opening (delaying the racial aspect until well into chapter 2) was excellent.

* I don't think I ever quite "got" Clare. I wonder if that was intentional (see the first point).

* A true "chick's novel"? The interactions were familiar but not something I really understood or related to (see also the previous point).

* That Larsen was trying to say something was a little too obvious, it left the ending feeling (to me) like a bit of a cop-out.

* The title, "Passing", insists that this is a book about race, and yet without that title I would have said that race was incidental to the core of the story. Indeed, it seems to me that this contradiction was the author's intention; if so, she did very well.
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Old 02-15-2018, 01:38 AM   #4
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Feel free to treat this as tl;dr. For a summary of this see my previous post. What follows is a dump of my notes collected as I read this rather curious story.

Spoiler:

The story is told through the eyes of Irene Redfield, which allows it to paint a very personalised view of the world - and that view is far from attractive. Irene is so judgemental, and apparently so dissatisfied with her own situation in life, that it is not obvious where the reader's sympathies are expected to lie, nor how much of Irene's view we are even supposed to believe. Such ambiguity underlies much of the book.

I was intrigued to find that the opening of the story does not mention race. It's not until halfway through the second chapter that the real subject of the book comes out - and in such a wonderful manner:

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Did that woman, could that woman, somehow know that here before her very eyes on the roof of the Drayton sat a Negro?
Up to this point we had had no firm statement that Irene was a Negro (indeed, this is the first occurrence of the word "Negro" in the book), and we have yet to learn that "that woman" in the statement is also a Negro, which makes the statement all the more neatly presented: a perfect turning point.

We go on to meet Clare (nee Kendry) and eventually her white husband, Jack Bellew. We get the curious little scene in which Clare herself prompts Jack to explain why he calls his wife "Nig" (because she keeps getting darker) and thereby opens up the conversation in which Jack Bellew can demonstrate his racism. (I feel as if this was somewhat overdone, but perhaps that is a too modern perspective?) At the time I read this scene I wondered: Why does Clare do this? Is she just careless or is she trying to prove something? Is it a test of her guests? After reaching the end of the novel it seems reasonable to suppose Clare is pushing the situation with her husband because she wants to break free.

We come back from Irene's memories of that encounter, 2 years previously, to the letter that triggered those memories, and I wondered about the letter itself. When it was first described by Irene we get a sense that this letter is part of the artifice that we might expect from Clare (that even the letter is part of the "passing"), but we've learned more now and realise that a letter on European paper might well be expected of someone that has spent so long in Europe. So my distrust of Irene's perspective grew.

The story thus far felt a little too pat. One Negro woman passing as white to a very racist white man. One Negro woman able to pass as white but married to a white man who knows she is Negro. And Irene, a Negro woman able to pass as white married to a Negro man. It's almost fairytale-like in its three-part symmetry.


As the story proceeds we get to see some of the life between Irene and her husband, including this paragraph:

Quote:
It was only that she wanted him to be happy, resenting, however, his inability to be so with things as they were, and never acknowledging that, though she did want him to be happy, it was only in her own way and by some plan of hers for him that she truly desired him to be so. Nor did she admit that all other plans, all other ways, she regarded as menaces, more or less indirect, to that security of place and substance which she insisted upon for her sons and in a lesser degree for herself.
While this seems realistic and consistent with the character of Irene, I am curious about what the author wants me to see. This strained relationship between Negro wife and Negro husband is obviously deliberate, part of the message of the book, but I'm not really seeing why this matters yet.

The second chapter of part two I found quite peculiar. The writing felt stilted and awkward, beyond the intentional awkwardness, and beyond what has gone before - it made me wonder if this was the first chapter written. And the relationship between the two women is strange, almost childlike. Clare is being revealed as a passive-aggressive, adept at manipulating others. Irene is becoming even less likeable as she continues to think horrible things in the background while professing good intentions - and still not having the strength of character to stand up to Clare (or anyone) and say what she really means.

One thought I had at this point was whether this truly was a "chick's novel". Not so much in the sense normally suggested by the phrase, but because I could recognise the behaviour being exhibited by the two women, it was familiar, but I could not relate to it. This made me wonder if women may understand or relate to it better than I did.

As I read on I began to realise that the story was turning away from being only about race, and "passing", toward a personal story of Irene's life and relationships. (Yes, we might stretch "passing" to cover many of the situations, but it is stretch.) We meet more people, white and black and mixed, and see their status and relationships entirely through the eyes of Irene; and the further along we get the less reliable does Irene's view of the world seem to be. By the time Irene has the internal battle about whether Clare and Brian (Irene's husband) are having an affair the reader has no firm ground. Is there an affair or not? So many details appear suggestive, but of course they do, we are seeing them as Irene sees them; we have, earlier, seen enough of Brian's sarcastic nature to understand that he is a man that could easily be misread, and Clare's motives have been obscure (to Irene, and so also to us) right from the start.

As we approach the end, Irene is facing (or believes she is facing) that mundane personal crisis: competition for her mate. (I use "mate" deliberately since it appears that - for Irene - this is as much, or more, about Brian's position as father of her children as it is about love.) Most of the usual aspects of the dilemma arise, including the "best friend" thing (does Irene have any other/better friends?), but added into the mix is that Clare has made herself vulnerable by "passing" as white. So Irene now studies the possibility of using race as a weapon. She dismisses informing Bellew directly, but she sees various ways that she might achieve the desired result by indirect means.

For me, where Larsen really excelled in this book was in presenting race not just as an issue of external oppression, but also as a tension from within, and this use of race as a weapon in manipulating personal relationships really highlights that (though there are other examples in the text).

Then we get to where Bellew sees (and recognises) Irene with another woman who is more obviously Negro. We've been expecting something like this since meeting Clare. Irene pretends not to recognise Bellew, and fails to tell Clare or Brian of the incident. Later she understands that having Clare set free of Bellew could be the worst thing for Irene, so believes that her silence is for the best - despite what this might mean for Clare (and for Margery, Clare's daughter).

And so we hit the final scene with Bellew confronting Clare in a room full of Negroes, and Clare's fall to her death, and the ambiguity as to whether Clare fell, jumped or was pushed by Irene. It is conceivable that Bellew pushed Clare but that seems less likely, for me his final call to "Nig" seems intended to indicate affection rather than anger.

In many respects this felt like a cop-out to me - and perhaps to others, I see on Wikipedia that this situation in stories was common enough to have a name: "tragic mulatto" (or "mulatta" for women). Like many other parts of the story it's just a bit too neat, too obviously a set up (the walk up 6 storeys, "the long casement windows" etc.). I read this ending as Larsen indicating: "I've said what I came to say - the end."
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Old 02-15-2018, 02:09 AM   #5
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Well, I don't like the description of "chick's novel" which sounds like a putdown. However, I take you to mean that it is a novel about relationships, feelings, emotions, rather than a book involving a lot of action. I certainly agree with that.

For me, the book is very much about race rather than its being incidental. It made me think about the strain of living a lie, always in fear of being found out. Consider the comment Clare made that when she was pregnant with her daughter, she was terrified that the baby would show her racial antecedents. Just think for a moment about being afraid of that for an entire pregnancy.

Apparently Larsen originally intended to call the book Nig, but it was changed because the publishers were concerned about the outrange caused by a book they had published called Nigger Heaven. (This was in the Introduction by Emily Barnard in the Penguin edition.) The title she used was not as outrageous, but was just as much about racism.

Beyond the thoughts of the stress of living as one thing when you feel/know you are something else - which of course immediately makes me think of LGBTI people having to pretend they are something they are not, or Jewish people trying to survive in a Nazi regime - what does it say about a society that makes people need or want to "pass" as something other than what they are? We all like to think our society is a tolerant, open one these days and in contrast to the past it is. But only partially, and only really on the surface.

I think there is a lot more to say about the book, but I shall leave it there for now.
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Old 02-15-2018, 02:24 AM   #6
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Well, I don't like the description of "chick's novel" which sounds like a putdown. However, I take you to mean that it is a novel about relationships, feelings, emotions, rather than a book involving a lot of action. I certainly agree with that.[...]
Yes, I thought the description might garner some reaction - but I don't really mean it in a derogatory sense. It's more that the interactions between Irene and Clare are familiar to me, but I cannot say that I really understand them. It's not the emotional content, men have emotions too, it's the manner of their interaction. It may seem potentially sexist to say (and possibly is), but the interactions are familiar from what I've seen between women that I know - hence I wondered whether women may understand/relate-to this novel better than men, hence possibly a "chick's novel" in a more literal sense than usually meant by the phrase.
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Old 02-15-2018, 02:59 AM   #7
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Originally Posted by Bookpossum View Post
[...]
For me, the book is very much about race rather than its being incidental. It made me think about the strain of living a lie, always in fear of being found out.[...]
But that fear need not be race. It could have been replaced with religion or family connection or just about any secret. What I like most about this story is that Larsen places the contentious issue of race into such a mundane setting and watches it play out, not as a means of the majority oppressing a minority, but as just another weapon in interpersonal relationships.

So, perhaps it is about race, but in the sort of reversed or negative sense that it's about how the race issue gets debased even within the Negro community.
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Old 02-15-2018, 03:50 AM   #8
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I feel it's not a classic. It's rubbish. The topic sounding interesting, but the execution very poor. The writing was light so it wasn't too bad to read. I didn't like the ending. The ending just came out of nowhere.
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Old 02-15-2018, 05:48 AM   #9
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I quite enjoyed it but I felt like I was missing nuances. I wasn't sure if it was some of the dated language (what does it mean to be a "having" sort of person?") or references I was missing or the author's desire to be ambiguous.

One thing that happened a lot with minor characters was that I wasn't sure of their ethnicity. For example this passage, which begins with Irene speaking:

Quote:
“I can’t see it. I’m going to write Clare. Today, if I can find a minute. It’s a thing we might as well settle definitely, and immediately. Curious, isn’t it, that knowing, as she does, his unqualified attitude, she still—”

Brian interrupted: “It’s always that way. Never known it to fail. Remember Albert Hammond, how he used to be forever haunting Seventh Avenue, and Lenox Avenue, and the dancing places, until some ‘shine’ took a shot at him for casting an eye towards his ‘sheba’? They always come back. I’ve seen it happen
It's fairly clear that Hammond is someone dating outside his race and that's causing an issue for him but I'm really not sure if he's white or black. I presume Seventh Ave and Lennox Ave are predominantly black or white areas but I don't know which. What's a 'shine' or a 'sheba'?

I think that Hammond is a white guy who liked to frequent black dance halls and got a rough reception from a possessive boyfriend. But he may have been a black guy in a white neighbourhood.

The context is they are discussing the incident where Clare's white husband went on a racist rant with Irene present. Brian's anecdote about Hammond is supposed to illustrate the fact that "they always come back". Is he talking about Clare or her husband? Does he mean that Clare, having tried to 'pass' in white society will eventually want to return to her roots? (something which does sort of happen?) Or is he making a point about Bellew?

I'm probably being dim but the combination of the language, references and style meant I felt this sort of confusion three or four times.

Fortunately the further you get in the book the more clear it is what's happening.

I wouldn't say the ending came out of nowhere but it was definitely abrupt. It also made the whole thing feel like a long short story rather than a short novel.

I did think there was something interesting about Irene's attitudes towards her race and 'passing'. On the one hand she judges Clare quite harshly for her choice. On the other she's happy to 'pass' herself to get served in a fancy restaurant, and there's something I can't quite put my finger on about her attitude towards her husband and his desire to travel. Is it relevant that he's darker skinned than her? He's also supportive of the sons learning about sex (albeit through jokes), and about the harsh realities of racism, in a way she's not.

I kind of got the feeling she's trying to be "respectable" in a way he's happy to let go. She's not trying to 'pass' in white society, and she's heavily involved in black social events etc., but there is a almost a sense of trying to fit into a social hierarchy that's not necessarily based on race, but on class?

But again I feel like I'm groping towards something that was too subtle in the text. At least for me. Again I can't help feeling if I'd been a African-American New Yorker in 1929, rather than a British white guy in 2018 I might be "getting it" in a way I'm not.

Final thought/question: I read the Wikipedia article on this to try to de-mystify it a bit and was surprised to read they thought it was an ambiguous ending (based on the idea that Irene is an unreliable narrator).

What do you think? Was she pushed or did she jump/fall?
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Old 02-15-2018, 06:31 AM   #10
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On the "shine" and "sheba" query, here is the relevant footnote:

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“Primary streets identified with the heart of 1920s Harlem for their subway stops, theatres, cabarets, restaurants, strolling, and parades; “shine” is slang for a black man, derived from the negative notion of shiny black skin; and “sheba” is slang for a black woman, derived from the Biblical Queen of Sheba (I Kings: 10), an Arabian ruler who brought gold, spices, and precious stones to King Solomon."
So you interpreted it correctly, latepaul. I found the footnotes very useful, especially because of not being an American, but I am sure that many references would be a bit obscure for present-day Americans too.

On Irene, there was an interesting reference in the book to her wanting Brian to be happy, but in her way. It seemed she thought she knew best about every aspect of their lives, which must have put pressure on the relationship.

I think there are ambiguities all the way through, quite deliberately. Was Brian having an affair with Clare? Irene suspected it, but there was no proof. Did Irene push Clare because she feared that suspected relationship with her husband? And then there is the undercurrent of sexual ambiguity too, an attraction and tension between the two women.
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Old 02-15-2018, 06:33 AM   #11
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I assumed "sheba" was a reference to the Queen of Sheba: in Christian contexts she is generally assumed to be black (see here).

The ending is deliberately vague. My ordering of the possible solutions (in most likely to least likely) are:

Clare fell (accidentally stepped back during the confrontation)

Irene gave Clare are subtle push

Clare jumped

Jack pushed Clare
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Old 02-15-2018, 06:40 AM   #12
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Missed saying the "they always come back" referred to people like Clare wanting to be back with the people and the culture in which she grew up.

One of the difficulties of people of mixed race, which Nella Larsen herself experienced, was not being seen as belonging to either part of her family, and so always being an outsider.

That has certainly been true of indigenous Australians who were taken from their mothers because of being of mixed race. Their lives were often appalling, as many suffered abuse: physical, sexual and certainly racial. When they eventually found their way back to their indigenous families, they felt they did not belong there either, because they did not speak the language, did not know the culture and so could not "belong" in either world.
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Old 02-15-2018, 06:41 AM   #13
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[...] And then there is the undercurrent of sexual ambiguity too, an attraction and tension between the two women.
I saw reference to something like this on Wikipedia (I think it was). I can see how it might be possible ... but I think that's reading too much into it, and I don't really see that it fits all that well with the story Larsen seemed to be telling. I'm more inclined to think the language used is an expression of Irene's jealously of Clare. (Then again, with everything else being so ambiguous I could be completely wrong.)
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Old 02-15-2018, 06:52 AM   #14
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Originally Posted by latepaul View Post
I quite enjoyed it but I felt like I was missing nuances. I wasn't sure if it was some of the dated language (what does it mean to be a "having" sort of person?")[...]
I read "having" in this context as meaning: grasping, avaricious, acquisitive.
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Old 02-15-2018, 07:02 AM   #15
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Originally Posted by Bookpossum View Post
I found the footnotes very useful, especially because of not being an American, but I am sure that many references would be a bit obscure for present-day Americans too.
Footnotes would have been useful! Mine edition had none. On the other hand it was cheap.
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