“Passing” was practiced by some light skinned African-Americans during the early part of the twentieth century. It forms the basis of Nella Larsen's classic, Passing.
Nella Larsen (1891-1964) was an American novelist, of mixed race parentage. Her father was Afro-Caribbean and her mother a Danish immigrant. Larsen published two novels during her lifetime, Quicksand(1928) and Passing (1929). A plagiarism controversy in 1930, surrounding one of her short stories, “Sanctuary”, sapped Larsen of all literary creativity. She never published fiction again.
At a Chicago restaurant Irene Redfield runs into an old childhood friend she hasn’t seen in many years, Clare Kendry. Clare is described as stunningly beautiful, almost dangerously so. She has done well for herself, marrying a white man, Jack. There are serious problems for Clare, though, as she hasn’t told her husband – a racist – that she is actually black. If he were to find out, who knows what he would do?
Irene is also married to a white man, a doctor, who knows she is not white, although she will often “pass” for the sake of convenience – at restaurants and the theatre. Irene doesn’t want for material comforts. She has two maids, a nice house and lives elegantly. The revived friendship with Clare, however, is bringing her problems she doesn’t need. Clare keeps popping up, insisting she wants to accompany Irene on trips to Harlem as she misses the people of her own race. Irene sees this as dangerous. What if Clare’s husband, Jack, were to find out?
Clare’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic and Irene does all she can to avoid her. Things come to a tragic head, however, at a New York party.
Passing tackles key American questions of race, status and class. Both women wish to be financially secure and respected, and the only true route to achieving such status is by “passing” as white. Yet this carries an enormous psychological toll. Both women suffer great anguish and discomfort. This is highlighted in the scene where Irene meets Clare’s husband, Jack, and must hold her tongue while he spouts all types of racist nonsense. Although we learn one sharp lesson from this, explicitly stated in the text: black people know more about whites than they know about them. They know how ignorant and short sighted whites are, unable to even pick up clues that would alert them to the fact these women are “passing”.
There are a few minor drawbacks with the text. Larsen writes in a stilted and self-conscious prose that can sometimes appear a little dated. Some sections can demand extra attention to figure out what is going on. That said, Passingis undoubtedly an important literary work and cultural document. It reveals the enormous stress and burden that race imposes on African-American citizens and the peril involved in negotiating that dangerous world of prejudice.
Passing, by Nella Larsen. Published by Restless Classics. RRP: $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Two early novellas capture with clarity the often strange and cruel world of childhood.
Dutch author Gerard Reve (1923-2006) has only recently come to the attention of English readers. His 1947 novel The Evenings was translated to much acclaim in 2016. Now translator Sam Garrett brings two of Reve’s early novellas together in a single volume called Childhood.
In "Werther Nieland", eleven-year-old Elmer describes his neighbourhood world. He invents secret clubs, recruits then drops members, invents rudimentary science projects, helps friends (unsuccessfully) explode homemade bombs and fires malfunctioning guns at defenceless birds. It’s very much a boy’s world, full of cruelty, creativity, spontaneity and ritual. Elmer’s friendships with the boys Dirk, Werther and Maarten are as much about play as they are about competition and exploitation.
The second, shorter novella, "The Fall of the Boslowits", chronicles the cruel fate of the Boslowits family as the Germans occupy Amsterdam during the Second World War. Narrated by teenage family friend Simon, the Boslowits, whom we presume are Jewish, are already in a vulnerable position. The father, Hans, cannot walk and the son, Otto, has an intellectual disability. Slowly but surely the beatings and disappearances start, family assets are stripped, until the full nightmare reaches its ghastly conclusion.
Gerard Reve’s evocative language and extraordinary recall of the stranger details of childhood gives these two novellas a realism that is unerring and unforgettable.
Childhood, by Gerard Reeve. Pushkin Press. $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Susan Orlean examines every aspect of the library in this entertaining and humane book.
On April 29, 1986, a terrible fire broke out at the Los Angeles Public Library. It caused great devastation. Some 400,000 books were destroyed; another 700,000 experienced smoke or water damage. It took the fire department seven hours to put out the flames. The rebuilding took years and cost millions of dollars.
Journalist and writer Susan Orlean stumbled across these facts only recently, amazed that the fire wasn’t better known. A reason could be that the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster occurred a few days before the library fire, eclipsing it in newsworthiness.
How did the fire start? To this day it remains a mystery. The prime suspect was an attractive young man, Harry Peak, a fantasist and compulsive liar who dreamed of being an actor. He was seen at the library on the day of the fire, and he even told friends he had lit it, but then chopped and changed his story so much it was impossible to know what to believe. He was imprisoned for three days, but then the charges were dropped as it was felt the case against him wouldn’t stand up in court.
The eccentric Harry Peak is just one character among many in this multi-faceted, kaleidoscope-like book that looks at the history, development and workings of the Los Angeles Library. Orlean also chronicles the broader story of the library, from its early American pioneers (there were many eccentrics and true originals in this class) to today, where the library incorporates the latest in technology and sometimes struggles to remain an institution that is open to all, including the city’s many homeless seeking warmth and comfort.
The Library Book is a deeply satisfying book, explaining in entertaining language every aspect of how a big, modern library works. It’s also a story with heart and soul, the library being a vital and humane place, somewhere to find refuge from a world of ceaseless troubles. It’s also a book that pays due homage to the work of the librarians, those precursors to the Google search engine, ever ready to answer questions.
The Library Book, by Susan Orlean. Atlantic $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba