Read Julie Orringer's Preface to 'The Boy,' a Novel by Marcus Malte

Marcus Malte’s prize-winning novel The Boy, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan and Tom Roberge, is a story that forces us to consider what it means to be human. Beginning in 1908, the narrative starts, quite simply, with the boy, a wild child from the forests of Southern France who sets out, voiceless and innocent, to discover civilization. As he travels between cities and towns, the boy encounters the best and the worst of the world, from ogres and earthquakes, to love and the joys of music, and finally, to war. Malte’s prose is at once poetic and mysterious, and sometimes harsh as he weaves this poignant tale of the human nature.

In her preface to The Boy, Julie Orringer, bestselling author of How to Breathe Underwater, The Invisible Bridge, and The Flight Portfolio, writes: “As we inhabit [the boy] … there is no way to perceive him as other, only as a version of ourselves, at times compassionate, at times violent, always curious, always seeking comfort and love, a balm for what’s been irrevocably lost.” Read Orringer’s full preface below.

The Boy: A Preface by Julie Orringer

Reading The Swiss Family Robinson recently with my eight-year-old son, I came across a passage—amid the ardent shelter-building, tropical-plant identification, animal-shooting, and campfire cookery of the novel’s first chapters—where our narrator, William, expresses the fear that his family’s new home might be inhabited by savages. The author’s (and translator’s) use of the word seemed to require explanation, or context; I asked my son if he knew what it meant.

“I think he means wild animals,” he said.  “Beasts.”

I explained, with some discomfort, that the author was actually referring to people, indigenous to the island, who likely lived as hunters and gatherers, employing technology that had been used for thousands of years, and practicing forms of religion, storytelling, dance, dress, and music-making that would have been unfamiliar, and perhaps even frightening, to Europeans.  I explained that the word originated with the Latin silva, meaning wood, and silvatica, out of the woods; from this came the French sauvage, and finally our English savage, with its attendant fear of the unknown, of what might lurk in forests, fierce and untameable and possibly intending to do us harm.  But why would a person be called a savage, my son still wanted to know; and what made the Swiss family fear them? Underneath his question I sensed another: What is it that makes us recognize one another as human?  And what does it mean to be human in the first place?

This subject was much on my own mind because I’d been reading the book you now hold in your hands: Marcus Malte’s brilliant and disturbing novel The Boy, which poses the same question in a different way. Using a trope familiar to literature, one that has long fascinated and perplexed us—from Romulus and Remus abandoned by their mother and nursed by a she-wolf, to the tale of Victor of Aveyron, the eighteenth-century French boy who was discovered after more than a decade on his own in the wild—Malte envisions a man-child, newly orphaned at fourteen, who has lived all his life in the isolated wilds of southern France, with only his nonverbal mother for company; the story opens in the first decade of the twentieth century, on the verge of one of the greatest upheavals of Western history.  Notably, the point of view belongs not to some curious observer but—as in T. C. Boyle’s “Wild Child,” or Karen Russell’s “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves”—to the feral child himself, nameless and languageless. As we inhabit him, as we experience his journey into the populated world, there is no way to perceive him as other, only as a version of ourselves, at times compassionate, at times violent, always curious, always seeking comfort and love, a balm for what’s been irrevocably lost. Moving from wilderness to village, from village to town, and from town to city, this extraordinary character perceives, and thereby reveals, the strangeness of the twentieth-century world.  

To see every element of our lives (and yes, these are our lives, with only minor differences)—the things we eat, the way we behave towards animals, the way we house and clothe ourselves, the way we worship, speak, make music, treat our children, medicate ourselves, perform the act of love, and wage war—through the eyes of someone to whom all of this is new, constitutes a reevaluation of everything we take for granted.  In what ways are we ridiculous, or compassionate, or divine? In what ways are we beastly? Mona Ozouf, president of the Prix Femina jury that awarded its 2016 honor to The Boy, called it, in my imperfect translation, “a novel about, among other things, the ensavagement of human beings by war, which reminds us that barbarism camps on the borders of the civilized world.”  

Marcus Malte himself, speculating in an interview about his reasons for choosing the book’s historical setting, said this: “Until now, I’d always located my novels in our own time; I’d described the contemporary world exhaustively, especially its faults, so maybe I’d arrived at a time when this world, our world, weighed on me too much—when I needed to get away from it, at least in my fiction.” But isn't the story of human ensavagement the story of every time?  And isn’t the question of what is barbaric or savage in so-called civilization one we have to face in every era? In our own moment, when acts of racial violence and xenophobia have become the stuff of daily news, don’t we need, more than ever, to be reminded of the value of wordless communication, of immersion in nature, of loving touch, of music-making, of empathy, of literature read aloud by one person to another—as well as of the fact that certain wounds, inflicted deeply enough, can never heal?

The book you’re about to read shines a fierce and necessary light on our world.  Read it patiently, if you can—a challenge at times, considering the wild and unexpected turns it takes, and the pleasures that lie around every corner—and discover, or re-discover, what it means to be a member of the human tribe.

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About the Introducer

Julie Orringer is the author of the novel The Invisible Bridge and the award-winning short-story collection How to Breathe Underwater, which was a New York Times Notable Book. She is the winner of the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction and the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Stanford University, and the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. She lives in Brooklyn.

Read An Excerpt From The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: The Happy Years by Ricardo Piglia

The Diaries of Emilio Renzi - The Happy Years by Ricardo Piglia - 9781632061980.jpg

The second installment of Ricardo Piglia’s acclaimed autobiographical diaries, The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: The Happy Years continues the celebrated Argentine author’s bibliographic and intertextual record of his auto-fictional alter ego, Emilio Renzi. Piglia intimately interrogates the trajectories of Renzi’s literary, professional, and personal spheres against the backdrop of Argentina in the 1970s, rampant with emotional and political turmoil from displacement under the effects of Peronism, guerrilla warfare, and a bloody military coup. As in Formative Years, Piglia deftly weaves literary criticism with fiction in this second volume, taking on the historic traditions of literature within which he has secured a place of his own.


“For the past few years, every Latin American novelist I know has been telling me how lavish, how grand, how transformative was the Argentinian novelist Ricardo Piglia’s final project, a fictional journal in three volumes, Los diarios de Emilio Renzi—Renzi being Piglia’s fictional alter ego. And now here at last is the first volume in English, The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: Formative Years, translated by Robert Croll. It’s something to be celebrated… [It] offer[s] one form of resistance to encroaching fascism: style.” 

—Adam Thirlwell, BookForum, The Best Books of 2017


From The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: The Happy Years

Monday, July 1

Let us begin with the death of Perón. On Monday, after alternate versions, stories, enhancements. A meeting at home in the morning with Rubén and Boccardo, delusions with Sadovsky and other gentlemen who have discovered Lenin (what? Lenin?) because of his “prestigious names.” The melancholy while Perón lay dying, at least while the story of his death was born, which I kept myself away from until after four in the afternoon, when I left home and started to grow concerned about the lines in front of the shops (I thought: “I have oil,” I thought: “The lines are coming, just like in Chile”) and about the Galerna library being closed. In the bar I find out about the death of King Lear: general astonishment at my ignorance of the news that had moved everyone in the world. “Where were you?” etc. Even worse, I heard the news from Saúl Sosnowsky, a depoliticized escapee who lives in the United States, whom I am meeting to give him a chapter of my essay on Arlt for his magazine Hispamérica. The city is quiet, people piled up at Congreso, at nightfall, waiting for the line to begin so they can see the dead man.

I visit David, furious about the telegram from the PCR with condolences for Isabelita.

Tuesday 2

I get up at two in the afternoon. An unexpected appearance from Amanda, who comes with Anita Larronde (Luppi’s wife), bringing me a novel by Pavese that, according to her, I had lent her. Trivial conversation, no great tension, a pleasant ending: I give her a copy of Los Libros magazine. Ana says: “There’s an excellent article in here.” She looks for it, it’s mine, and she is amazed. “I’m going to tell Federico I’ve been around important people.” That’s what we call displacement, saying one thing in place of another.

I move through the rainy city, the endless funeral lines, and no one seems to want the goodbyes to end, no one wants to go home; I remember wakes in my childhood that lasted all night and continued on after noon, but now they are expanded, crowded, with serious gestures that repeat on every street. Some have waited for thirty hours to see the dead man, the venerated man one last time. 

Wednesday 3

I walk through the empty city, street openings blocked off, people wandering with a sorrowful air, and I end up on Carlos Pellegrini, where (without seeing it) I feel the effects of the funeral procession that crosses Avenida de Mayo carrying the corpse. Men cry, I see a policeman with his face damp from weeping, the soldiers in procession cry as well. Sorrow weighs down upon the city like a shadow. The Montoneros sing out their slogans. I lose myself in the multitude and make it to Congreso. On the way back I pass down endless streets, skirting along a persistent row of men and women lined up to see the cadaver. The long procession continues along Carlos Pellegrini until Retiro. The people’s pain.

I return home and observe the city in darkness from high above. The lines go on in spite of the rain.

León R. comes over and makes history personal, saying: “What has this man done to us.” It isn’t a question, it’s a complaint, as though he were referring to the ghost of Hamlet’s father. León’s personal view refers everything to himself and his own feelings. That is his philosophical viewpoint. What does the world mean for me? More deep-seated and extreme than Descartes: the subject is the truth of reality. 

Iris talks about the relationships between life and writing—between living and writing—with the same words I have used for years: “Leave everything behind. Live to write.” 


Perón’s death has erased all meaning, the despotic signifier has vanished; the mourning is endless and stories proliferate. I register some of them as I walk through the streets: “A regiment from La Tablada rose up” (they say on the first day). Or rather: Perón is dead, the officers make their return. Cámpora appears to be the only political figure from Peronism who has some backing and support. The right sees him as an enemy and wants him to disappear. And so, news has been circulating all day about an attempt on Cámpora’s life. Balbín is the only one who can unify the dominant classes: he is the lower-ranked, imaginary substitute for Perón. In front of the coffin in the incandescent chapel, the empty speeches went on until the Chinese man with round eyeglasses appeared, standing beside the dead man, and said, inspired with a high Latin rhetoric: “Today, an old adversary comes to say goodbye to a friend.” Everyone cried except for him; proud and serene, he spoke for the first time as an equal l to the Man (as my father and all of the Peronists called him during the Resistance years) who had defeated him and imprisoned him and humiliated him. I remembered the unmatched tone of Quevedo’s prose after the murder of Julius Caesar: “Marcus Brutus was a severe man, a man who reproached other’s vices with his own virtue, not with words. He had an eloquent silence, and his intellect keen.” Epic emotion lies in a man’s praise for the rival who has defeated him, or whom he has conquered. It takes the form of a challenge, transforming anger into admiration. The heartfelt requiem that the defeated man enunciates, now without hatred. All of the politicians and the whole of the public pointed to Balbín as the dead man’s heir.

Friday 5

I am reading Marthe Robert’s book on the Freudian family romance as a fundamental root in the history of the origins of modern storytelling. She studies Robinson Crusoe as the figure who negates his father and invents a lineage and a territory of his own 

Julia calls me on the phone, I meet her at Tolón and immediately my peace leaves me. She has lost her handbag with her glasses in it—now she can’t see (does she know who I am?)—and her documents. She is broke, alone, and lost, and she weighs me down with everything. (She also fantasizes about getting together with David, who will be alone on Wednesday once Beba goes to Europe after a Chilean man.) Of course I have nothing to say to her, and I tell her as much and give her a thousand pesos to get back home… Oh those lost loves. It’s as though a light is going out. The woman we once loved is a stranger, speaking to us and chiding us as though she knew us. She seems crazy, talking nonsense. That is how I see her now; love makes people better and when it ends, oh, it is too late for tears.

Saturday, July 6

On the bus, a chain of associations, the criminal always tells his tale as though it belonged to someone else. He can kill, but he cannot say, “I have killed.” It works the same way as dreaming, where the intensity of the experience cannot be transmitted with words: in order to say it, the killer has to kill again. A grammatical reasoning behind the serial killer: he can only speak through the detached bodies. And who can read his message carved into the corpses, as words written in sand? He cannot say it and so repeats the act. 

I go to dinner with Iris at América. León calls after I come back, a melancholy encounter. He speaks from another planet: he analyzes Perón’s death solely through his perspective, as though Argentine history were part of his life. It is the left’s problem with Perón. He has stayed with the working class as though he had abducted them. That’s the issue with León and David. Peronism is seen as a scheme, a tyrannical means of using the subordinate classes through deceit and lies. The personalization of politics viewed as a psychological trap. What has this man done to me, he who governed the country for years and then died without having been condemned? Everything is experienced in first person. Politics as a private drama. That is the merit of impassioned thought and also its self-referential closure.

Sunday 7

A peaceful and happy day. I watch the World Cup finals on television: Germany-Netherlands. Soccer is like life, as my father would say: the better one never wins. Iris and I walk around the city, marked by the absence of the Man. Iris laughs, “he was always controlled by women. First Eva and then Isabelita. The best thing,” she adds, “is that he always got married to fallen women.” Cuarteleras, barracks girls, as military jargon calls the female soldiers who accompany men to war.

Andrés comes over: his older son is dying of cancer. The whole succession of catastrophes, no work, his ex-wife living with Juan Gelman, his ex-best friend–he needs to move. Weighed down, at his limit, he raves a bit and I follow, raving along with him. “Is it possible to kill and not be caught?” We speak calmly, analyzing several alternatives.

Tuesday 9

One could say I spent the whole day sleeping. I got up at ten, and Carlos came to visit me. I went to lunch at the tavern on Calle Serrano. I went back to sleep until three in the afternoon. Now I imagine I will go out into the street like a sleepwalker, looking for a woman. 

Friday 12

I receive a beautiful letter from Tristana. She announces a delivery of stones for the man with the golden arm. Once more the fantasies are reborn in a corner, what can I say to a woman (married, with two children) in a letter. A Stendhalian theme.

I spend the day at Iris’s house, very good. We go out for dinner in the rain, under the pale lights.

Sunday 14

I listen to Mozart, make myself some tea and prepare to write “Los dos linages” in Borges. I act as copyist, going over and over the initial pages of the essay. Three pages that barely suggest the tone. An essay depends on the conviction transmitted by the prose.

Tuesday 23

What can be said of a man like me? A simple letter from Tristana was enough to cause the dull anxiety that follows me. Uncertainty brought by the flight of birds; I see symbols of fate in the slightest traces of the wind among the trees. Reading those signs takes up all of my time and strength. Her letter, on the other hand, reopened a wound in another part of my body. Everything can form part of the novel that I’m writing. The novel and my life, always the same schism. It would be better to say: “The novel of a life.”

A feeling that I am bound to the barrenness of the times. I see David, who calls me to meet in La Moncloa. A meeting for Los Libros. We have Issue 36 ready. An excellent article on Althusser by Altamirano. Several articles about urbanism. What dangers disquiet me? More than dangers it is a discontentment, facing the inadequacy of my life.

The mistake seems to lie in the delusion of expecting validation in the present. Don’t conjugate verbs in past tenses. Forget about the future. This current vision of the future never seems to have been given except perhaps before, in another time. I tell myself once more: “Do not bind yourself to the good times passed, but to the bad times yet to come.”

The essay could be called “Ideology and Fiction in Borges.” Meaning proliferates, the point is to reconstruct the fiction from the origin. The ways writers imagine the material conditions that make their work possible. Sometimes I can’t stand combinatorial analysis, I need some distance, so I go out to smoke a cigarette.

Read Darryl Pinckney's Introduction to Nella Larsen's Classic Novel, 'Passing'

Dear readers,

Today, we’re exhilarated to release a beautiful new edition of Nella Larsen’s much-overlooked classic novel of the Harlem Renaissance, Passing. Originally published in 1929, it was Larsen’s second novel in two years—and her last. Larsen’s writing is alive with poetic force and resonance with our current moment: she tackles issues of race, sexuality, and belonging through the story of an intimate friendship between two black women, one of whom is passing for white.

As celebrated critic and author Darryl Pinckney writes in his incisive introduction, “Larsen’s upbringing as the resented stepchild, the darker-skinned daughter whose existence perhaps burdened her otherwise loving mother would inform her fiction about women too dark to be white and too light to be black, women living between black and white, and culturally at home nowhere.” Read Pinckney’s introduction below, supplemented by Maggie Lily’s beautiful cut-outs that illustrate the Restless Classics edition of Passing.

Introduction: Nella Larsen and the Story of Passing

In Nella Larsen’s day, the theme of passing had been an obsession of American popular literature, of American culture and politics, since the mid-19th century. In most of the fiction by white men about passing, a black girl of tragic birth is compelled by circumstances to pretend to be white. Her beauty always makes an aristocratic white youth fall in love with her. On the verge of marriage, she confesses or is exposed. The white youth—and the white race—are saved. Usually, the deceiving black girl dies of fever or the like. She pays. The difference in how black writers of the same time handled the subject has to do with depiction of motive, sympathy for the black girl’s predicament. When black women writers in late 19th-century black women’s magazines dealt with passing in their fiction, the white suitor is given up not in the name of racial purity but for the sake of black pride. No more suicides over white men.

Illustration by Maggie Lily

The white husband at the end of William Dean Howells’s An Imperative Duty (1891) vows to keep his black wife’s secret, but they move to Italy. Charles Chesnutt in The House Behind the Cedars (1900) introduces a character who convinces his sister to join him in his life of passing for white. Once he has got her across the color line, he disappears from the story. The sister is left to her inevitable romantic doom and we aren’t told how her being exposed affects her brother. In James Weldon Johnson’s novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), the narrator, a successful businessman, looks back on his traumatic experiences as a black youth that led to his decision to pass for white. He is sometimes described as the first character in American fiction to get away with passing, though it is not the novel’s intention to tell us what effect his confession has and on whom. In Nella Larsen’s Passing, the black woman who has been living as a white woman does die, and yet Larsen’s novel feels very unlike previous fictions concerning light-skinned black girls attempting to escape what it means for them to be black. Her refinement has much to do with a deep fatalism at the core of her work.

For a long time Nella Larsen was the mystery woman of the Harlem Renaissance. She published two novels, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929), and then nothing more was heard from her. She died in obscurity in 1964. Reprints of her slender, but unsparing novels of class and color consciousness started coming out in the 1970s. Critical studies of the Harlem Renaissance as well as successive biographies of Larsen have filled in most of the story of this elusive and fiercely talented figure.

Nellie Walker was born in Chicago in 1891. Her father, a black man from what was then the Danish West Indies, worked as a cook, and her mother, a white woman from Denmark, was a domestic and dressmaker. Her father vanished from the picture soon after her birth. Her mother quickly remarried, to a white Danish man, and gave birth to another daughter. Nella Larsen took her stepfather’s name. In an increasingly segregated, racially tense city, the only neighborhood where the Larsens as a mixed-race family could find a place to live was in the red light district. Black people constituted no more than two percent of Chicago’s population at the time. Larsen may have spent part of her childhood with relatives in provincial Denmark—she read and spoke Danish—but by 1907, when her family moved into an all white neighborhood, she was on her own.

Illustration by Maggie Lily

Larsen’s upbringing as the resented stepchild, the darker-skinned daughter whose existence perhaps burdened her otherwise loving mother would inform her fiction about women too dark to be white and too light to be black, women living between black and white, and culturally at home nowhere. Her biographers tell us that she tended to shroud her early life in mystery, ashamed of her lowly origins in the vice district and anxious that people would think her the daughter of a white prostitute. Yet Larsen’s working class mother provided for her black daughter an education that her white daughter would never have.

However, Larsen’s studies in Nashville, Tennessee at Fisk University came to an abrupt end after only a year. Though it catered to the children of the black bourgeoisie, Fisk reflected ideas about the education of blacks that prevailed when black colleges founded in the South after the Civil War sought to control as well as mold black people. Many were denominational schools that imposed severe restrictions on student behavior. Fisk had rules about the clothes and jewelry its female students could wear. Apparently, Larsen dressed in a way she should not have and was expelled. She would adore good clothes all her life. She spent the next three or four years in Copenhagen, but Europe was not really the answer to her question of where she belonged.

In 1912, Larsen returned to the US and began training to become a nurse at the Lincoln Hospital and Home in the Bronx, New York, an institution where the doctors were all white and the nursing school all black. After graduating in 1915, she took a position as head nurse at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, which had an even stricter atmosphere than Fisk. Larsen resigned in 1916, exhausted by the poor working conditions. Back in New York, having witnessed the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, Larsen gave up nursing to become a librarian. In 1919, she married Elmer Imes, the second black person in US history to hold a doctorate in physics. They moved to Harlem and Larsen took a job at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library. After gaining a certificate from the Library School of the NYPL, Larsen worked as a children’s librarian on the Lower East Side.

“Larsen may have spent part of her childhood with relatives in provincial Denmark—she read and spoke Danish—but by 1907, when her family moved into an all white neighborhood, she was on her own.”

Illustration by Maggie Lily

By virtue of her marriage, she was a member of Harlem’s black professional class. She and her husband knew everyone who was anybody in Harlem. However, because of her low birth and mixed-race parentage, and because she did not have a college degree, Larsen was alienated from the life of the black middle class, with its emphasis on school and family ties, its fraternities and sororities. Yet she was well placed to catch the first stirrings of the Negro Awakening: the exhibitions, plays, concerts, and books. She drifted away from library work in order to write and in 1926 published her first adult fiction in women’s journals devoted to the romantic short story.

Self-conscious among the Talented Tenth, some ten years older than Langston Hughes and his crowd—Zora Neale Hurston’s friends didn’t know that she’d lopped a decade off her age—Larsen was maybe more comfortable in Greenwich Village than she was in Harlem. She was drawn to the interracial bohemia frequented by Carl Van Vechten, the white writer and photographer whose controversial novel of 1926, Nigger Heaven, she defended to black people who felt he’d slandered the race by depicting Harlem life as a drunken orgy. But she herself was no celebrant of boldly proclaimed blackness and vernacular liberation. She also wasn’t on the side of black critics who valued art and literature by blacks as the cultural arm of the freedom struggle. She would always be on her own, her own secret.

When Larsen wrote her first novel, Quicksand, what most influenced how she rendered her tale of a black woman struggling not to be imprisoned by insecure social circumstances was her reading of Henrik Ibsen and Jens Peter Jacobsen. The heroine of Quicksand is the child of a white mother and a black father who deserted them. Larsen kills off the mother pretty soon as well. Her heroine’s experiences are clearly drawn from her own life, so much so that biographers have looked to the autobiographical elements of her novel for clues about Larsen’s restlessness of soul—Negro education; teeming black Harlem; tolerant yet hurtful Copenhagen. It was daring to write about the sexuality of black women, and of single women in the city, but Larsen’s message is bleak. Her heroine is broken by religion, marriage, and drudgery in the South. Quicksand was a kind of purge, a shedding of psychological burdens, preparation for the leap Larsen would make as a writer in the novel that swiftly followed. In Passing, Larsen would give a very worn racial subject defiantly modern treatment.

Illustration by Maggie Lily

Passing is very interior: Larsen’s recessive characters need a lot of explanation, and she was writing a Harlem novel of sensibility. Her view of Harlem differs from that of other novelists of her era who shared her subject, because she deals largely with parties in private homes. Her characters don’t go to cabarets; her dances are club events. There is little of the street in her novel, and certainly none of the decadence behind the unassuming door, as in Van Vechten. It is a woman’s view of Harlem, determined by where she, a nice girl, can go, and when and with whom. Larsen’s control of her Harlem milieu of polite teas and tense cocktails is superb. She takes surfaces seriously: clothes, décor, the weather, faces.

Things, lovely things for their own sake, play an important part in Larsen’s work. Her feminine sensibility found expression in women characters of terrible wariness and dread of social vulnerability. It shows in her dialogue, in the way the unspoken thought can undercut or contradict what is being said. The prose keeps a certain distance; the formality indicates Irene’s armored personality. Larsen can keep up the tension in the ordinary because she never forgets the conflict between what a character would like to do and what she brings herself to do. The withheld thought is perhaps a feminine strategy in conversation, part of the training in how to defer, to make oneself agreeable, to keep things moving along. What goes unsaid is certainly a useful weapon in Passing.

By Larsen’s day, passing as a theme had become yet another example of blacks knowing more about whites than whites did about them. As such, Passing is an unusual novel of urban manners, because the focus is not on how the passer is doing among whites, but rather on how black people who know this secret about someone behave toward that person in social situations, uptown and downtown. Moreover, passing was always dramatized as a class question. Why should I be a slave when I’m educated and white enough to be free? Why should I be curtailed when I am talented enough to be successful? No black character in American fiction has ever been portrayed as passing in order to live among poor white trash.

“[Larsen’s] characters don’t go to cabarets; her dances are club events. There is little of the street in her novel, and certainly none of the decadence behind the unassuming door.”

Larsen’s inspiration lies, in part, in the point of view. She frees herself from the conventions that had grown up around the theme of the person passing for white—by telling her story from the point of view of a witness, a black woman who knows another black woman who is passing. Irene Redfield is light enough to pass, but she is married to a restless Harlem physician, by whom she has two sons, a townhouse, a maid, and a cook. She passes when it is convenient for her, as when she is shopping alone and wants to have tea in a good hotel. Visiting her hometown, Chicago, she does just that and by chance meets a childhood acquaintance, Clare Kendry, whom she has not seen in twelve years. The novel concentrates on Irene’s efforts to resist Clare’s friendship, because, though she can never figure Clare out, she understands that Clare is a self-destructive person who can’t make her point unless she takes someone else down with her.

Illustration by Maggie Lily

Willful, pretty, motherless Clare was pitied in their old neighborhood, because her janitor father was a drunk. After he was killed in a saloon fight, Clare went to live with her father’s relations in another part of the city. He was white, her mother black. Her visits to the old neighborhood lessened and then she vanished altogether. There were rumors, which Clare airily confirms. She has married a rich white businessman who does not know she is black; their daughter is in school in Switzerland. Irene’s instinct is to stay clear of Clare, who has done this “abhorrent and dangerous thing.” She tells herself that she is not a snob, that she doesn’t care about “the petty restrictions . . . with which what called itself Negro society chose to hedge about itself,” but she has an aversion to the “gossip and scandal” which Clare’s presence in her life would expose her to.

However, she is strangely moved by Clare and agrees to call on her before she returns to New York. At Clare’s hotel, Irene finds another old acquaintance. In a remarkable scene, Irene, a light-skinned black woman with a black husband, listens to two other light-skinned black women, one married to a white man who doesn’t know she’s black, the other married to a white man who does, discuss the strain of their pregnancies, their relief when their babies came out pale, and their fear of having more children, because they may turn out to be too dark. “They don’t know like we do, how it might go way back, and turn out dark no matter what color the father and mother are.” Irene informs them that her husband couldn’t pass.

Matters worsen for Irene when Clare’s husband, John Bellew, arrives unexpectedly. His nickname for his wife is “Nig.” He teases her about having got darker since they married. “I tell her if she doesn’t look out she’ll wake up one of these days and find she’s turned into a nigger.” He roars with laughter, because he knows she’s no “nigger”; he’s met her white aunts. He assumes he’s talking to white ladies. “No niggers in my family. Never have been and never will be.” His tirade against “niggers” goes on and Larsen can do it all—Clare’s innocence and composure, the comic discomfort of their old acquaintance, Irene’s struggle not to betray her anger and therefore Clare. She remembers that Clare likes to take risks and doesn’t consider the feelings of anyone else. But she can’t understand why Clare has subjected the two of them to the insults of her husband.

Clare’s letters pursue Irene, back in New York. She tells her indifferent husband, “It’s a funny thing about ‘passing.’ We disapprove of it and at the same time condone it. It excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it.” Clare comes to New York, and Irene continues to ignore her letters. But Clare is not to be denied. As soon as Bellew leaves on business, Clare appears at her door. “You don’t know, you can’t realize how I want to see Negroes, to be with them again, to talk with them, to hear them laugh.” She never sounds more white. Once Clare has penetrated Irene’s mahogany fortress there is no stopping her. The pace of the novel accelerates as Clare wheedles her way into Irene’s parties and conquers her friends with her insolent beauty and spectacular clothes and glamour. Irene’s circle is racially mixed, and not even the character based on Van Vechten can tell if she is or isn’t one thing or the other.

Larsen shows Irene at first trying to protect Clare from herself, and her reckless game. Nervous about the excuses Clare gives her husband, Irene becomes a hapless conspirator in Clare’s clandestine affair with Harlem. Then she shows Irene trying to defend her home against the assault of Clare’s charm. The scene in which Irene realizes that her husband and Clare are having an affair is tersely told. “It hurt. It hurt like hell. But it didn’t matter, if no one knew. If everything could go on as before. If the boys were safe.” Bitter, robbed of her self-assurance, Irene has a moment of wishing she had not been born Negro. It was “enough to suffer as a woman, an individual, on one’s own account, without having to suffer for the race as well.”

Clare’s husband has been closing in on her deceits. Irene has gone from hoping Bellew didn’t find out what Clare was doing to desperately wanting him to know, without her being the one to tell him. But when he tracks Clare down at a Harlem party, and angrily confronts his smiling, uncaring wife, Irene sees the danger in letting him cast Clare aside. “It was that smile that maddened Irene.” One moment Clare is there, “a flame of red and gold.” She is leaning backward in a window; then she is gone. Bellew is like a beast in agony. The grief of Irene’s husband tells her she has lost his heart.

Illustration by Maggie Lily

Literary scholars have had much to say about Clare’s death. A considerable body of critical opinion has wondered about the nature of Irene and Clare’s relationship, whether it is not a lesbian attraction that Irene is fighting. Then, did Clare fall, accidentally, commit suicide from caprice, or did Irene push her, deliberately or somehow by unconscious reflex? George Hutchinson, Larsen’s most recent biographer, has argued that the scene underscores the unreliability of Irene as a narrator. Not only does the reader see only what she sees, we know only what she allows herself to remember. Hutchinson contends that Irene’s last thoughts in the novel are those of guilt, and that they betray her fear of being found out. The ambiguity is Larsen closing another door on us, but the ambivalence and irresolution at the end are also her way of eschewing the piety and morality that novels about passing usually convey in order to excuse having explored a prurient subject.

“Once Clare has penetrated Irene’s mahogany fortress there is no stopping her. The pace of the novel accelerates as Clare wheedles her way into Irene’s parties and conquers her friends with her insolent beauty and spectacular clothes and glamour.”

Few writers of the Negro Awakening were able to sustain careers once the Great Depression took hold and the vogue for things Negro, as Langston Hughes called it, came to an end. The stock market crashed and that seemed to be it. As it turns out, scholarship tells us, black writers of the period we thought had disappeared often did try to carry on, but found their work rejected by publishers, while others who managed to publish made little impression. The times had moved on. The radical young black writers of Richard Wright’s generation who were finding their voices in the late 1930s dismissed the New Awakening as an entertainment for a Jazz Age white audience. Some Harlem Renaissance writers looked back with the feeling that they had been part of a tragic failure.

In 1930, Larsen was involved in a plagiarism scandal, but nevertheless won a Guggenheim Fellowship and went to Europe. Her marriage was in trouble, and to judge from Van Vechten’s diaries it was common knowledge in their circle. Her husband was a womanizer and some of Passing’s gall may express something of Larsen’s humiliation. In any case, life on Mallorca and in Paris was one grand social round. But when she came back to New York, things fell apart. The novel she’d written in Europe was rejected. Larsen was divorced in 1933. It seems she survived on alimony until her former husband’s death in 1941, at which time she went back to nursing. She moved downtown where she lived, a ghost of the Harlem Renaissance, until her death more than two decades later. Her writing life had been brief.

She left the narrow world she wrote about, the world of blacks who appeared always to be dressed for a photograph by Van Der Zee. Friends like Van Vechten who wondered where Larsen went kept her lively letters and she turns up in many letters herself, such as the one Lorca sent home to his family in Spain from New York in 1929, in which he describes the black woman novelist he met, full of that “deep, moving melancholy that all blacks have.”


From the introduction to Passing. Copyright © 2018 by Darryl Pinckney


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Darryl Pinckney is a long time contributor to The New York Review of Books, the author of two novels, High Cotton (1992) and Black Deutschland (2016), and two works of nonfiction, Out There: Mavericks of Black Literature (2002), and Blackballed: The Black Vote and US Democracy (2014). Other periodicals to which he has contributed include FMR, Freibeuter, The Guardian, Harper's, Los Angeles Times, The Nation, The New Republic, The New Yorker, the New York Times Book Review, The Paris Review, Slate, TLS, Vanity Fair, and Vogue. Pinckney has been a Hodder Fellow at Princeton and received The Harold D. Vursell Award for Distinguished Prose for the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a fellowship from the John S. Guggenheim Foundation.