Tag Archives: Quicksand and Passing

Five Rediscovered Classics I’ve Read

Cover imageI could devote this post (and many more) to the classics I read decades ago but I’ve not reread them for some time so that would be cheating. Instead, I’ve decided to stick with five reissued, lesser known books that thoroughly deserved the burst of renewed attention they attracted. Here are five rediscovered classics, four with links to full reviews on this blog.

I’m starting with John Williams’ Stoner, originally published in 1965 and reissued here in the UK in 2012 when it became that thing publishers yearn for: a word of mouth bestseller. It’s about an ordinary man who leads an unremarkable life. Born on a small Missouri farm in 1891, Stoner discovers a love of literature and becomes an academic, his success hard won. He finds himself in a loveless marriage, his unhappiness briefly lifted by a relationship with a young woman before academic rivalry intervenes. Williams quietly draws this understated, poignant novel to a close with Stoner’s death.

First published in 1967, the reissue of Thomas Savage’s The Power of the Dog comes from the same publishers who brought us Stoner. Set in 1924, the novel tells the story of the Burbank brothers, owners of one of Montana’s biggest ranches and rich beyond reckoning yet still sharing the same bedroom. When George brings home a wife, Phil sets about quietly undermining her until she no longer trusts her own judgement. Savage unfolds his story in a straightforward unfussy narrative, contrasting Phil’s calculated cruelty with his brother’s open-hearted kindness and leaving the reader to infer what lies at the heart of his scornful contempt. His descriptions of the sweeping Montana landscape, gruelling winters and the daily business of ranching are all wonderfully cinematic. It’s a fine novel, entirely worthy of the inevitable Stoner comparisons made when it was reissued in 2016.Cover image

William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer was originally  published in 1962 at the height of the Civil Rights movement although, sadly, it still resonates today. In 1957, the descendent of a slave destroys the farm he bought from the family of a renowned Civil War general in whose home he grew up, before departing with his pregnant wife. Within hours the black population begins heading north leaving behind bewilderment until the white residents come to understand the repercussions of this exodus and their mood turns. The story unfolds in clean, plain prose from the perspective of a variety of characters, all white. Its ending comes as no surprise. Kelley was just twenty-four when he published A Different Drummer, an astonishingly confident piece of work for a writer so young.

I’m stretching the ‘five’ of this post’s heading a little here but both Nell Larsen’s novellas, Quicksand and Passing, were reissued in the same volume in 2014. Hard to mention one without the other. Passing begins with the memory of a chance meeting in a smart Chicago hotel. Two light-skinned women recognise each other – both are ‘passing’ in this bastion of white society but for one of them it’s a matter of convenience and mild titillation at her deception – for the other it’s the habit of a lifetime. Widely considered to be autobiographical, Quicksand, opens with a young woman deciding to give up her job as a teacher in an all-black school, risking all for what she hopes will be a more exciting future. She’s a woman who finds it impossible to settle. Each decision results in excitement, happiness then disillusion. Both are powerful, thought-provoking novellas which explore race and identity but while Quicksand is a sobering, Passing is gut-wrenching – an astonishingly brave book to have written in the 1920s

Cover imageSet largely in the ’30s and ’40s, and published in 1959, Evan S. Connell’s Mrs Bridge was reissued in 2012. Written in understated elegant prose, it follows Mrs Bridge from her newly-wed days in Kansas to her widowhood and just beyond. She’s married to a lawyer, has three children and is both deeply conservative and naively innocent. Bombshells are delivered quietly and in passing: the Bridges cut short their six-week European jaunt because Hitler has invaded Poland which seems to be more of an inconvenience to them than a shattering world event. Mrs Bridge’s greatest enemy is time: housework and cooking are taken care of by the maid and Mrs Bridge spends much of her life wishing it away or devising little projects for herself which often come to nothing. Both moving and hilarious, Connell’s novella is a gently satirical portrait of a particular time and class. Mr Bridge, its companion, was reissued a year later and is also well worth reading but Mrs Bridge remains my favourite of the two.

Any rediscovered classics you’d like to recommend?

Passing by Nell Larsen: Race, identity and the need to belong

Cover imageLast week I reviewed Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, promising that I’d write about Passing in a separate post. The novellas were written the late 1920s and have recently been reissued in a single volume. Both explore race and identity but while Quicksand is widely considered to be autobiographical there’s no suggestion that Passing is. It’s a powerful, thought-provoking book which explores the pain and dislocation of pretending to be what you aren’t and its awful consequences.

It begins with the memory of a chance meeting in a smart Chicago hotel. Two light-skinned women recognise each other – both are ‘passing’ in this bastion of white society but for one of them it’s a matter of convenience and mild titillation at her deception – for the other it’s the habit of a lifetime. Irene Redfield is a comfortably off middle class woman married to a doctor and visiting family in Chicago. Brought up by her father’s family when she was orphaned, Clare Kendry is the child of a white father – the janitor of the building in which both women spent their early years – and a black mother. Clare is married to a wealthy white man who has no idea of her parentage but she longs to move in black society. Irene wants to extricate herself from this deception but it seems that Clare’s need is too great. She will not be rebuffed, contacting Irene on her return to New York, determined to find a place for herself in Harlem society. As the novella progresses the dreadful consequences of Clare’s deception and her desperate need for kinship become increasingly apparent.

Told from Irene’s point of view, Passing explores identity, race and the overpowering need to belong in exquisite prose. Irene’s disquiet and eventual pain at Clare’s deception are vividly conveyed. The scene in which she meets Clare’s bigotted husband, unknowingly sharing his drawing-room with three black women, one of them his wife, is a darkly comic, excruciating triumph. As Passing works its way to its shocking conclusion, we’re privy to snapshots of Harlem society, glimpses into life as a black person in early twentieth-century America and the undeniable pull of racial identity in a society strictly divided along racial lines. While Quicksand is a sobering novella, Passing is gut-wrenching – an astonishingly brave book to have written in the 1920s. Bravo, Serpent’s Tail for reissuing these two gems.

Quicksand by Nell Larsen: All too relevant today

Cover imageRecently published in a single volume, Quicksand and Passing are the only two novels – well novellas, really – written by Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen. They each deserve to be treated separately so I’ll start with Quicksand and save Passing for later. Written in 1928, it’s widely considered to be an autobiographical novel – like the book’s main protagonist, Larsen was the daughter of a Danish mother and a West Indian father – knowledge that makes reading it all the more chilling.

It opens with a young woman in a gorgeously decorated room contemplating her future. She’s a teacher at Naxos, an all-black school in the American South. Tired of what she considers to be its smug superiority and emphasis on conformity, she decides to leave despite her engagement, her precarious financial position and any idea of what she might do with her life, impulsively heading for the principal’s study to tell him her decision before boarding the next train for Chicago. Helga rattles straight from her teaching job into a naïve and frantic search for work eventually landing an assignment with a Chicago politician’s widow leading to a job with a New York insurance company. Tiring of that and suddenly in possession of a small inheritance, she travels to Denmark and stays with her aunt who tricks her out in colourful clothing, offering her to Danish society as an exotic curiosity. Returning to New York ostensibly for her friend’s wedding she finds herself immersed in Harlem society despite her initial distaste for it. She’s a woman who finds it impossible to settle. Each decision results in excitement, happiness then disillusion. Eventually, Helga stumbles into a situation which seems so out of character as to be contrived. Without the knowledge of its autobiographical element, Helga’s constant restlessness would seem like a very effective literary device to convey the uncomfortable dislocation of belonging to neither one race nor another at a time when the black intelligentsia seemed to want to distance itself from white society, and I think we know what they felt about it all. It’s a sobering book, and felt even more so in the light of events playing out in Ferguson, Missouri as I read it. It seems that the ‘race question’ that so bedevils Helga has far from gone away.

There were a few sober moments at the Carolina Chocolate Drops gig I went to last week – stories of newly freed slaves cast adrift ill-prepared for freedom – but that didn’t stop us all having a thoroughly enjoyable time. They play American old-time music  – folk and blues – with a few songs of their own drawing heavily on the history of the South written by Rhiannon Giddens who is not only a powerfully gutsy singer but dances a fine jig, too. They were an absolute joy, practically raising the roof of St Georges in Bristol, the last venue of their UK tour. They’re regular visitors here and should you ever spot their name in listings get yourself to where ever they’re playing. You won’t regret it. I’m off to join their mailing list now.