Nella Larsen: Quicksand / Passing

It’s interesting to see a book reclaimed as a classic when you’ve never heard of the author. ‘Classic’ – here it’s in the Serpent’s Tail Classics range – is as much a marketing term as anything else, but I still have a weakness for such series. Like translated literature, ‘classics’ series indicate that at least two sets of editorial eyes, separated by decades, have thought the book worthwhile, and all in the absence of realistic hope of review coverage or a “highly promotable” young author. (Seeing those words in a press release always makes me think that “promote” must be a very new euphemism for a very old act.) Anyway, here we have two short novels – novellas, really, at 130 and 100 pages respectively – from an author who was entirely new to me. Yet when I mentioned the book on Twitter, there was much praise: I’m behind the curve again, this time by 80 or so years.

Nella Larsen: Quicksand and Passing (Serpent's Tail Classics)

Quicksand (1928) tells of some years in the life of Helga Crane, an American woman of mixed race (“mulatto”, as the book casually has it), who at the beginning has just jacked in her job at Naxos, a school in the South, and ended her engagement to a colleague there. “She could neither conform, nor be happy in her unconformity.” Immediately we get the sharpness of a character who is not presented as entirely selfless or humble: she had become engaged to this man partly because his family were “people of consequence”, and breaking it off will be “social suicide”. She despises Naxos and its setting, and sure enough  (“trains leave here for civilisation every day”) soon sets off for Chicago. There she looks for work but struggles, finding herself overqualified for what’s on offer to ‘people like her’ (“Domestic, mostly”): for the first time she feels “the smallness of her commercial value.” But then – sudden changes become habitual in this novel – she is offered some temporary work with a travelling lecturer: “someone who can get her speeches in order on the train.” This involves travel to New York, and Helga immediately determines to stay there. She feels lit up by the prospect – “The world had changed to silver, and life had ceased to be a struggle and become a gay adventure” – but when all these downs and ups have taken place by page 35, we can be sure that fate is not finished with her yet.

What’s impressive about Quicksand is the way it packs so much into its short extent. It does this by careful elision: at the end of one chapter, for example, the employment agency is about to give Helga some background about the lecturer, Mrs Hayes-Rore, but as we turn to the next page, all that has passed by. A few pages later, the story jumps on by a year – a year “thick with various adventures”, it teasingly tells, without sharing details. But this is enough, because it is Helga’s interior world that the book wants to illuminate. She snobbishly loves New York, both for the people – “their sophisticated cynical talk, their elaborate parties, the unobtrusive correctness of their clothes and homes, all appealed to her craving for smartness, for enjoyment” – and for the things in their homes (“brass-bound Chinese tea-chests, luxurious deep chairs and davenports, tiny tables of gay colour”), indicators to her of history, but a quality of history that distances it from Naxos and her past. Then, again, the author twitches the strings, time skips, and the next chapter opens with “But it didn’t last, this happiness of Helga Crane’s.”

These rolls continue – a delving into Helga’s fear “of herself”, a sudden financial windfall – and soon we see that her misfortune is that she feels herself to be neither one thing nor the other, not black and not white, distant from one race and looking down on the other. When, still less than halfway through her story, we read that she “let herself drop into the blissful sensation of visualising herself in different, strange places, among approving and admiring people, where she would be appreciated, and understood,” we sense that it is a promise not to be kept. Indeed, her most successful time, in some sense, comes when she travels to Denmark and lives there: far from being understood, she is “a decoration. A curio. A peacock”, but it  is happiness of a sort. Even then the story doesn’t rest, and when she reflects toward the end of the book on the names of the people who have passed through her life, I was surprised at how vividly I remembered each of them: so many characters delivered so efficiently! Helga’s final fate is apt and sobering, when she seizes “a chance at stability, at permanent happiness,” and gets exactly what she wished for – and we all know the trouble with that. It’s then that I thought back to the title of the book, and how telling it was all the way through: right from the start, really.

Passing (1929) is, if anything, even better than Quicksand. It is one of those rare books which gives a new – to me – meaning to an everyday word. Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry are sometime friends who are both light-skinned black women, capable of “passing” as white in wider society. The book is full of piercing, brutal dialogue between them and their friends which doesn’t so much as address the issue and punch a hole through it. One, Gertrude, holds forth when Irene visits Clare’s home:

“It’s awful the way it skips generations and then pops out. Why, he actually said he didn’t care what colour it turned out, if I would only stop worrying about it. But, of course, nobody wants a dark child.”

More surprisingly still – and it’s unclear to me if this was novelist’s attention-grabbing, or if it reflected Larsen’s experiences, as apparently Quicksand did – we discover that Clare has married an out-and-out racist, who believes her to be white, but because of her colouring refers to her affectionately as “Nig”. This development gradually meets with the other main plot strand – of Irene’s disdain for Clare as they grow together and apart over the years – to a fairly melodramatic but indelible conclusion. (An aside: is such an ending inevitable for stories of attempted emancipation, whether by race or sex – or, here, both? Other classics I read this year, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s La Femme de Gilles, seem to agree.)

Quicksand was Larsen’s debut, and Passing was published a year later. She lived for another 35 years, but published only a few stories and no further novels, reportedly because of a false accusation of plagiarism in one of the stories. She was the first black woman to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship for creative writing, but for the last 20 years of her life she worked as a nurse. This was, to put it gently, a loss to literature; it’s small comfort to have this short book – substantially her life’s work – available again.

7 comments

  1. I loved Passing which maybe is more known in the US- I’m sure my copy is from Modern Library or another big series like that. And as you say, reconstructs your idea of how it would have been to live then as a pale middle class person

  2. Larsen is an important author in the history of African American lit and her books are clssics within the genre. She is less read within American lit generally, but these two texts have gained attention in the past 30 years or so, as ‘recovered’ texts. Larsen reflects common fears among mixed-race people and the difficulties of being a woman caught between two races, neither of which wants her. Stories of women seeking independence for themselves started to emerge in the mid-19C and continue to be published today. American lit has many gems like Larsen who have not been read much outside the US. I hope you continue to explore!

  3. If it’s any consolation I didn’t know her work either. It sounds remarkable, both novellas sound great.

    Passing I was familiar with. There’s a good Matt Johnson graphic novel called Incognegro about the topic, and one of the Walter Mosely crime novels turns on it. The very concept illustrates I think the ludicrous nature of the racist categories then clung to, and to a significant extent still clung to.

    What strikes me here though more than that is that the prose is good, which is of course essential. “brass-bound Chinese tea-chests, luxurious deep chairs and davenports, tiny tables of gay colour” Description both of place and character through observation of place.

    Serpent’s Tail is generally a publisher to watch.

  4. Good review, as always.

    Years since I read them, but I recall being irritated by Quicksand and Passing. I thought they were interesting, informative, historically important books. But not good books. Not well-written books. If they hadn’t been about An Important Subject I doubted they’d be rated as good literature. (See also: Alone In Berlin.)

    One man’s feature is another woman’s flaw: it was precisely the ‘habitual sudden changes’ that put me off. I thought it was clunky, wooden writing. (See also: Alone In Berlin.)

    – “The author twitches the strings, time skips, and the next chapter opens with “But it didn’t last, this happiness of Helga Crane’s.”

    To me, a flaw. I get distracted whenever I notice the author twitching the strings of the parachute that is floating the story across plot holes. (See also: Alone In Berlin. The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair. The Gardener from Ochakov. And many more.)

    – “Like translated literature, ‘classics’ series indicate that at least two sets of editorial eyes, separated by decades, have thought the book worthwhile.”

    Never thought of it like that – two sets of eyes decades apart. Relevant. This is probably why (unscientific observation) the quality of translated literature is often high.

  5. Quicksand is a favorite of mine, one I both read as a student and teach as a professor. The interesting thing about Quicksand is that Helga’s experiences cover decades of issues and theories regarding race in the U.S.–and even Europe. If you’re interesting in a companion novel that covers much historical context, try Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

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