The #1929Club: Passing and Letters to a Young Poet

A year club hosted by Karen and Simon is always a great excuse to read more classics. I appear to be getting in training for Novellas in November – both of these were notably short at under 100 pages, particularly the Rilke, which is little more than a pamphlet. (Both: )

Passing by Nella Larsen

By the time of her death in 1964, this Harlem Renaissance author had mostly fallen into obscurity, but she has received renewed attention in recent decades. I learned about Passing in connection to Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, which it partially inspired.

Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry grew up together in Chicago. Both are light-skinned African American women, their features described as “olive” or “golden.” Irene has remained within the Black community, marrying a doctor named Brian and living a comfortable life in Harlem. However, she is able to pass as white in certain circumstances, such as when she and Clare meet for tea in a high-end establishment. Clare, on the other hand, is hiding her ancestry from her white husband, Jack Bellew, who spews hatred for Black people. “It’s such a frightfully easy thing to do. If one’s the type, all that’s needed is a little nerve,” she insists.

Clare and Irene’s relationship could be characterized as that of frenemies, though critics have posited repressed homoeroticism based on how Larsen describes Clare’s beauty from Irene’s perspective. This is very subtle – I only spotted potential infatuation in the letter from Clare that Irene reads in the opening pages. Most of the time, Irene appears to disapprove of Clare for her recklessness, knowing that there could be dire consequences if Jack discovers her deception. She also starts to suspect that Clare is having an affair with Brian, and for these reasons, as well as her own discomfort and guilt, she avoids Clare as much as possible.

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.

Things come to a head in the final six pages, turning what had for much of its length been an ambling read into something of a shocker. Apparently scholars feel that Larsen flubs her endings, but I thought this one was fantastic, giving a Gatsby-esque tragic weight. Comparing Black women’s strategies of coping with a white world was also fascinating. My experience with African American classics is limited, so I was happy to increase my repertoire.

My secondhand copy – a dual volume with Quicksand, which I’ll plan on reading next November – came from the much-mourned Bookbarn International.

 

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

[Translated from the German by Charlie Louth]

I’d long wanted to read this and couldn’t find it through a library, so bought a copy as part of a Foyles order funded by last year’s Christmas money. I’m not clear on whether the Penguin Little Black Classics edition is abridged, but the 1929 preface by Franz Xaver Kappus, Rilke’s correspondent, only mentions 10 letters, which is how many are printed here, so I have at least gotten the gist. Most of the letters were sent in 1903–4, with a final one dated 1908, from various locations on Rilke’s European travels.

Kappus sent Rilke his early poetic efforts and received in reply a frank letdown – “the poems are not yet anything in themselves” – but also much kind, general advice about creativity, confidence, post-faith life, and thriving in spite of suffering. Even so tiny a book is almost endlessly quotable, with many self-help-oriented phrases I’d read in other contexts and found wonderfully reassuring:

Go into yourself. Examine the reason that bids you to write; check whether it reaches its roots into the deepest region of your heart, admit to yourself whether you would die if it should be denied you to write.

To be an artist means: not to calculate and count; to grow and ripen like a tree which does not hurry the flow of its sap and stands at ease in the spring gales without fearing that no summer may follow. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are simply there in their vast, quiet tranquillity, as if eternity lay before them.

be patient towards all that is unresolved in your heart and … try to love the questions themselves


I also got this 1929 autobiography out from the library. While I much admire the tone in the first paragraph and final pages (especially that last word!), I find I don’t have enough interest in the WWI poets to read what’s in between. It put a Sufjan Stevens song in my head, though.

I’ve previously participated in: 1920 Club, 1956 Club, 1936 Club, 1976 Club and 1954 Club.

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11 responses

  1. I took an amazing African American Narratives course in grad school, and we read Passing. I can’t remember the ending now, though, so I must go back and read it again!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That sounds like an excellent class. I always think I’ll remember twist/surprise endings, but then never do! So I usually describe them in a Word file where I also take down notes and quotes from what I’ve read in the year.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s a great idea. I’m terrible about taking notes (unless I review or blog on a book).

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      2. I only reliably take notes towards paid reviews. For blog stuff, it kind of depends how complicated a book is!

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  2. An interesting pairing! I read Passing too for this week and thought it was a wonderful and very powerful story.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Passing was very good! So glad it’s gotten more attention the past couple of years. I have yet to watch the Netflix adaptation.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This was an interesting pair of books to read. I enjoyed Passing and read it before The Vanishing Half, so could make the comparison chronologically. Both have twists and are hugely interesting. I managed to have the only edition in the world that isn’t paired with Quicksand!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t necessarily feel I was missing anything by not having read Passing before the Bennett, but both were great in their own way. I was pleased with the bargain of a 2-in-one book for £2.

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  5. […] by Nella Larsen Becky’s Book Reviews Brona’s Books Bookish Beck Kaggsy’s Bookish […]

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  6. I loved the shock ending – it may me go back and reread the first chapter!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I went back looking for signs that Irene was secretly in love with Clare and did find a fair few instances of blushing.

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