Passing (Anglais) Broché – 1 février 2008
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It had been, Irene noted, postmarked in New York the day before. Her brows came together in a tiny frown. The frown, however, was more from perplexity than from annoyance; though there was in her thoughts an element of both. She was wholly unable to comprehend such an attitude towards danger as she was sure the letter's contents would reveal; and she disliked the idea of opening and reading it.
This, she reflected, was of a piece with all that she knew of Clare Kendry. Stepping always on the edge of danger. Always aware, but not drawing back or turning aside. Certainly not because of any alarms or feeling of outrage on the part of others.
And for a swift moment Irene Redfield seemed to see a pale small girl sitting on a ragged blue sofa, sewing pieces of bright red cloth together, while her drunken father, a tall, powerfully built man, raged threateningly up and down the shabby room, bellowing curses and making spasmodic lunges at her which were not the less frightening because they were, for the most part, ineffectual. Sometimes he did manage to reach her. But only the fact that the child had edged herself and her poor sewing over to the farthermost corner of the sofa suggested that she was in any way perturbed by this menace to herself and her work.
Clare had known well enough that it was unsafe to take a portion of the dollar that was her weekly wage for the doing of many errands for the dressmaker who lived on the top floor of the building of which Bob Kendry was janitor. But that knowledge had not deterred her. She wanted to go to her Sunday school's picnic, and she had made up her mind to wear a new dress. So, in spite of certain unpleasantness and possible danger, she had taken the money to buy the material for that pathetic little red frock.
There had been, even in those days, nothing sacrificial in Clare Kendry's idea of life, no allegiance beyond her own immediate desire. She was selfish, and cold, and hard. And yet she had, too, a strange capacity of transforming warmth and passion, verging sometimes almost on theatrical heroics.
Irene, who was a year or more older than Clare, remembered the day that Bob Kendry had been brought home dead, killed in a silly saloon-fight. Clare, who was at that time a scant fifteen years old, had just stood there with her lips pressed together, her thin arms folded across her narrow chest, staring down at the familiar pasty-white face of her parent with a sort of disdain in her slanting black eyes. For a very long time she had stood like that, silent and staring. Then, quite suddenly, she had given way to a torrent of weeping, swaying her thin body, tearing at her bright hair, and stamping her small feet. The outburst had ceased as suddenly as it had begun. She glanced quickly about the bare room, taking everyone in, even the two policemen, in a sharp look of flashing scorn. And, in the next instant, she had turned and vanished through the door.
Seen across the long stretch of years, the thing had more the appearance of an outpouring of pent-up fury than of an overflow of grief for her dead father; though she had been, Irene admitted, fond enough of him in her own rather catlike way.
Catlike. Certainly that was the word which best described Clare Kendry, if any single word could describe her. Sometimes she was hard and apparently without feeling at all; sometimes she was affectionate and rashly impulsive. And there was about her an amazing soft malice, hidden well away until provoked. Then she was capable of scratching, and very effectively too. Or, driven to anger, she would fight with a ferocity and impetuousness that disregarded or forgot any danger; superior strength, numbers, or other unfavorable circumstances. How savagely she had clawed those boys the day they had hooted her parent and sung a derisive rhyme, of their own composing, which pointed out certain eccentricities in his careening gait! And how deliberately she had—Irene brought her thoughts back to the present, to the letter from Clare Kendry that she still held unopened in her hand. With a little feeling of apprehension, she very slowly cut the envelope, drew out the folded sheets, spread them, and began to read. --Ce texte fait référence à l'édition Broché .
Revue de presse
"[Nella Larsen] offers characters so honest and desperate to be whole that we cannot help but champion their humanity."
--From Ntozake Shange's Introduction --Ce texte fait référence à l'édition Broché .
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"Passing" begins with a letter received. By inviting us to peer into the contents of personal correspondence in the grand tradition of the epistolary novel, then denying us the full contents, the reader must come to terms with a limited, and even deceptive narrative style. Irene Redfield refuses to open a letter she has just gotten from a childhood acquaintance with whom she has had only brief communication with since, Clare Kendry. Irene then reflects on the time, two years ago, when she happened unexpectedly upon Clare at a rooftop restaurant in Chicago. As 'black' women who can 'pass' for 'white,' they meet at this decidedly white restaurant, after gauging each other in confused silence. Renewing their acquaintance, Irene is shocked to learn that since her young adulthood, Clare has 'passed' as white, even marrying a wealthy white businessman, whose violent racism forces Clare to disavow her ethnic 'identity.' The remainder of the novella details the strained relationship that forms between Irene and Clare, and the differences as well as striking similarities that structure their personal and social adult lives.
The ways that minor characters interact with the two heroines force us to question the long standing American discourse of racial 'identity.' Brian Redfield, Irene's husband, and Jack Bellew, Clare's husband, for instance, seem on the surface to be drastically opposite characters - Brian, fed up with the way that black people are treated in America, has a long cherished fantasy of relocating his family to Brazil, the ur-text, if you will, of African slavery in the New World, where he believes his sons can be raised without the torments of ethnic conflict in post-reconstruction and post-World War America. Bellew, an avowed white racist, detests the very thought of black people, and his pet name for Clare, "Nig," troubles for the reader the very notions of Bellew's construction of his own identity. Irene and Clare's marriages to these two men challenge them and the reader to consider the strained family dynamics of the 'traditional' marriage, and their own awkwardly constituted and expressed relationship with each other.
"Passing" manages to both cover and conceal a wealth of issues facing America in the decades preceding the national Civil Rights, Anti-War, and Sexual Revolution movements of the latter half of the 20th century. In the short space of a novella, Larsen produces a work of extraordinary power and indeterminacy. That the issues she addresses are still of a piece with our own present-day social landscape, so "Passing" remains a vital and important literary artifact.
But through a chance meeting, where Irene is also passing for white, they meet after many years of separation. Irene has married a black doctor, who wants to move to Brazil and in effect pass as a latin American. He wants physically out of America while Irene wants out of the racial tensions of America.
Clare is drawn back to her racial roots by some mystery. She can't let go even though she knows it will be the end of her marriage and perhaps the loss of her daughter.
Clare's husband, John Bellows, is a avowed racist who calls Clare "Nig" because he jokes that she is getting darker, totally unaware of her race. Irene and another friend who is also passing endure Bellow's racist remarks but do not respond.
The book takes place over about a 2 year period as Clare flirts with the danger of discovery and also Irene's husband. Irene is in conflict as to whether to reveal the truth to John, which would get Clare out of her life. But she can't bring herself to do it.
The book tells of the conflict of being black and living white; it tells of the interracial circles of Harlem of the 1920's. It's a period of high racial tensions, but yet whites flock to Harlem because some see it as in vogue not because they seek an interracial culture.
Although Irene lives black, she has created a white world around herself. She doesn't want her sons to know about lynchings and racial issues.
At the end Clare makes a tragic choice. She chooses death over admitting that she is black. Of course, maybe that is what she wanted all the time - out of this false world. Irene gets her wish, she gets Clare out of her immediate life but she will never get her out of her memory.
By chance, the two women meet again, and hypnotic, powerful Clare moves into Irene's circle in ways that threaten both of their lives. More than a story of passing, hypocrisy, and adultery, Passing is a complex story of origins, history, and acceptance.