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.
It’s been a long time since I attended a literary festival in person rather than online. Four of us from my book club went along yesterday evening to the headline event of Marlborough Literature Festival. Marlborough is a pleasant market town in Wiltshire about 40 minutes from Newbury, and I’d like to get back to it sometime soon when things are open so I can explore its secondhand and plastic-free shops.
Patrick Gale closed the festival by speaking about his new novel (his 17th), Mother’s Boy. I knew it was a historical novel that covered the Second World War, but I had no idea that it was based on a real person, poet Charles Causley. With Andrew Motion, Gale is a patron of the Charles Causley Trust, which runs an annual poetry competition for children. I hadn’t heard of Causley, but Gale and some members of the audience recall memorizing his poems in school – like Roald Dahl’s, they can have a wicked sense of humour. Causley also wrote in the style of traditional ballads; my husband knows a version of one on a folk album.
Gale called Causley the “least sexy” of the war poets. He was from Launceston, Cornwall and left school at age 15, joining the Navy and later working as a schoolteacher for many years. He lived with his widowed mother and, if you believe the legend, died a virgin. However, Gale unearthed evidence that Causley was in fact a closeted homosexual and had sexual encounters with men during the war. He experienced survivor’s guilt because he escaped his ship’s explosion while he had an on-shore posting so that he could sit his exams.
Equally important to the novel is Causley’s mother, Laura, who grew up in extreme poverty and, after her husband’s death from TB, raised Charles in a slum on a laundress’ salary, even managing to buy him a piano. Launceston was decimated by the two world wars, and essentially colonized by the segregated U.S. Army. Gale made up a Black character named Amos, but gave him a horrific real-life story. Laura would have met Black soldiers and, later, German POWs through her working-class church.
Gale acknowledged that he had to make up more of Laura’s story, relying only on the information about her in Causley’s tiny appointment diaries. In response to an audience question, he said he thinks Causley would be “utterly appalled” at the existence of this novel because he was an intensely private person, but that he’s salved his conscience with the fact that the book is driving people back to Causley’s poems. He wrote this as a novel rather than a biography because he tends to “overempathize” with characters, and likes to go “behind the bedroom door,” as he put it – indeed, one (non-graphic) scene he read was of Charles’s conception, while the other was about Charles learning to read at age five and enjoying his father’s company though he knew he was ill.
Mother’s Boy is most like A Place Called Winter from his oeuvre, Gale remarked, in that it’s historical fiction based on real people – in that earlier case, his own relatives. Gale’s father was the governor of Wandsworth Prison and his mother the daughter of the governor of Liverpool Prison (where he oversaw many hangings). In fact, he’s now at work on a sequel to A Place Called Winter, about his grandparents and parents, and researching from letters.
I was impressed with Gale’s delivery: he spoke engagingly for 45 minutes about the book and its context, peppering in readings and recitations, with no interviewer to prompt him. It was clearly a practiced lecture, but he had no notes and spoke warmly and as if off the cuff.
Are any of these poem titles familiar to you? These were the ones mentioned during last night’s event. (You can listen to Causley reading some of them in his eighties – with his large cat purring in the background – on the Poetry Archive site I linked to above.)
- “Timothy Winters”
- “Rattler Morgan”
- “Eden Rock”
- “The Ballad of a Bread Man”
- “Angel Hill”
I have a copy of Mother’s Boy on hold at the library for me to pick up tomorrow, and we fancy reading A Place Called Winter for book club soon – his Notes from an Exhibition was one of our all-time favourites that we’ve read together.
Are you a Patrick Gale fan? Have you been able to attend any literary events recently?