Book Review

Passing by Nella Larsen (Norton Critical Edition)

a stunning harlem renaissance novel; scott muses on the hangover of growing up in a cultural desert

February 27th

When I was an undergraduate – back in the days of mcat (embarrassingly I never tried it) and landfill indie (embarrassingly I did) – I owned several Norton Critical Editions, which were the editions of books often recommended by my lecturers.

The ones, in particular, that I remember having were the Norton Critical Edition of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf and Goethe’s Faust.

At the time, I was uninspired by the idea of a book filled with critical essays and annoying explanatory annotations, especially as they were annotations that the text felt borderline illegible without! Yawn, I thought, the foppish young provincial dolt that I was.

If a text was good, was successful, then surely it should need no explanation?

If the lecturers thought that we, the students (granted this was a low-ranking red brick so filled with what were ostensibly my intellectual equals (i.e. not the greatest minds of my generation (except maybe David Spittle and all the other people who were exceptions (if you’re reading this and you were on my undergraduate English lit course, I almost certainly don’t mean you: that you have nothing better to do with your time than read the trite and tonally inconstant prose of a minor poet with a personality disorder shows that you are definitely no better than me, and I’m definitely not adjacent to greatness!)))) needed these notes to enjoy the text, then surely the text wasn’t worth trying to enjoy? Right?

Of course, this was bullshit on my behalf.

The worst thing about growing up in (what I would consider) cultural poverty (e.g. I have never known my father to even deliberately watch a film, which is just (to me) an unfathomable level of disinterest in culture – who doesn’t like films!?!?) was arriving into adulthood with a runty bumpkin presumption that it was “normal” to never think, to never explore, to never emote and to never consider anything in any way at all.

Feelings were off the table, so of fucking course Art was, too.

I suppose I learned the importance of feelings by myself by having them, but even by the time I reached university (and the real reason why it wasn’t a top tier one) was because the culture I had experienced to that point was all entry level stuff.

The “high art” I left school knowing about and thinking I was fancy and cultured because I knew about, was still culture taught to me by the educators and (sometimes vicariously, sometimes directly) friends’ parents who I thought were fancy and cultured, yet all were adults who had insufficient cultural capital to live in a city like a normal person. Suburban life is no life at all.

I had seen a reprint of Picasso’s Guernica. I had a CD with Holst’s The Planets on it. We performed a Bertolt Brecht play at high school. I thought Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead was superior to Hamlet. We all thought Pete Doherty was a gifted poetic voice on the cusp of greatness (whoops). I had listened to every album by The Beatles. I knew Pierce Brosnan wasn’t the only James Bond. I knew that more expensive wine was meant to taste better, and I even knew that Lambrini wasn’t a wine.

I knew a lot, I thought, and then I left the provinces and realised I knew nothing at all.

But don’t worry – a decade and a half on and I am wise, worldly and very, very cool. This time I’m right, though. Which is why I’m ready to move back to London lol haha.


I haven’t watched, but am aware of, Rebecca Hall’s recent adaptation of Nella Larsen’s Passing, staring Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson (two of the leads from two of my favourite, recent, flawed high concept TV shows (Preacher and Westworld respectively)).

It was almost certainly because of this recent film that this 500plus page Norton Critical Edition was on v prominent display in one of the grubby secondhand bookstores I loiter in (in lieu of having anything happening in my life – I’m very alone, but not really lonely; I lack the self-esteem (or the energy) to be bothered explaining myself to other people, so it’s easier to speak to no one than it is to speak, properly, to someone, anyone).

I bought it, of course, not only because I was intrigued to read this classic novel of the Harlem Renaissance, but because I was genuinely excited by the 450ish pages of supplementary materials contained within the volume. 

As someone who loves literature (autocorrect changed that to loved, which is fucking bleak; if I don’t love “to read” then I don’t love anything), and as someone who is comfortable, now, reading many critical texts (though not all – that pretentious af Frederic Jameson book on Raymond Chandler did not spark joy, though I see now I read that FIVE YEARS AGO so maybe I’d enjoy it now?) and takes extreme pleasure in reading books that are about literature (e.g. that Thomas Mann book), getting to read an excellent (short) novel, followed by 100 pages of contemporaneous writings of Larsen’s peers and colleagues, then reviews of the novel, then historic writings (both fiction and journalism) about the issues raised by the text (i.e. “passing”, in terms of a Black person performing whiteness, usually in the explicit context of gaining safety or financial/social gain), then a selection of texts exploring Passing from an academic perspective, was a fucking treat.

It took me ten days or so to read, because there really is a lot of text in this book, and tho some of the critical pieces were stodgy and dull in the typical way of stodgy dull academese, it was all writing about what was undoubtedly a phenomenal novel, so still of some interest.

The narrative is about two youngish women, both upper middle class, both born poor in Chicago and now married to successful men. They reconnect after a decade, while both are “passing” in a snooty “whites only” rooftop cafe. One is married to a notable Black doctor, and is “passing” at that moment because she can, while the other is married to a white man who believes her to be white – she is “passing” 24/7 in her day-to-day life. Bumping into the old friend reminds her of the past (and future) she has lost, and tho she feels comfortable introducing the other – as white – to her aggressively racist husband, she wants to catch up with more old friends, more people who knew her before she moved out of the neighbourhood and began the long-term lie that necessitated her cutting off everyone who might reveal to her economically rich – but ethically impoverished – husband the truth about her parents.

Of course, everything ends up going to shit, but before it does so there are great paranoid whispers of sexual jealousy, there’s a little frisson of sapphic attraction, and there’s potent, detailed, characterful writing about a specific time and place and the hypocrisies that come about from compromising with a current and fundamentally unjust society. Which we all do every day.

A great read, a great edition. More more more please!

NB: there is a war going on as I type this, but maybe there won’t be by the time it’s published, also I know nothing about war. (note from May: it’s still going!) is 10 years old! Celebrate by sharing this post – or others – with friends (if you have any), family (if you have any), lovers (which I presume you have because this website isn’t for children), or by donating to the site via the below link so that I can maybe take a day off work some time and enjoy being alive for a few hours.

1 comment on “Passing by Nella Larsen (Norton Critical Edition)

  1. Pingback: Sula by Toni Morrison – Triumph Of The Now

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