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Quicksand (Dover Books on Literature &…
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Quicksand (Dover Books on Literature & Drama) (original 1928; edition 2006)

by Nella Larsen

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3431346,477 (3.54)52
Member:laurelei
Title:Quicksand (Dover Books on Literature & Drama)
Authors:Nella Larsen
Info:Dover Publications (2006), Paperback, 144 pages
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Quicksand by Nella Larsen (1928)

  1. 00
    Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys (jscape2000)
    jscape2000: The struggles of a bi-racial American (Caribbean in Rhys) woman trying to survive in Europe. Central issues are identity, displacement, and loneliness.
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Showing 1-5 of 13 (next | show all)
Larsen's prose is crisp and elegant. There is a beautiful simplicity in some of her descriptive passages. It feels light, delicate, effortless.

Some trouble I had with the book is that the main character, Helga Crane, feels elusive and distant. Her thoughts often feel overdetermined and abstract, though in some instances it works well, as in when Larsen is finding a way to make the the political personal, inflecting Helga's thoughts with the philosophy and thinking of black radical politics and activism. Larsen also does this to emphasise Helga's bourgeois yearnings and the chasm between politics and what she desires; she loves art and solitude and beautiful things, and is often torn between contempt for the communal activities of her people vs the life she thinks she should adore in Copenhagen: "meeting only pale serious faces when she longed for brown laughing ones".

There's some structural issues due to disjointed time jumps and abrupt shifts, as well; whole years pass between one chapter and the next whereas other chapters follow a time period more closely.

I'm glad I read it because it's searingly honest about the effects of racism on the psyche and the split consciousness it engenders. It's short and brutal and the ending is quite devastating considering that Helga walked into it with her eyes open. It's a book well worth reading. ( )
  subabat | Mar 19, 2018 |
Quicksand by Nella Larsen made me think of better versions of the genre: Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys, The Damnation of Theron Ware by Harold Fredric, or Reuben Sachs by Amy Levy, The Drowning Room by Michael Pye, even Jane Eyre (though I'm not fond of Jane Eyre).

The young, bi-racial orphan wakes up one morning entirely unhappy with her life- she's a teacher, but she doesn't love it. She sets off to call on what little family she has. She is rebuffed by her white relatives, then settles into a nice life in Harlem. After a year or so she pulls up her roots again to visit her mother's family in the Netherlands. She is very well received there, but she feels her African American heritage makes her more of a curiosity than a part of society. So she heads home for America, where she married a preacher for no good reason, pops out a few kids and is thoroughly disgusted by her life.

I can grapple with the feeling of isolation that the protagonist's identity causes her, but the stark cause and effect of Larsen's writing leaves me cold. I can imagine how powerful any of the scenes in this slight volume could have been in the hands of a more gifted craftsman. George Eliot or Toni Morrison or Margaret Atwood or Chimamanda Adiche could have burrowed into any one of those great situations and illuminated, rather than merely cataloging, the racial struggle of the Harlem Renaissance.

Not a terrible book, and a quick read (which can be its own merit). But not the first I'd recommend. ( )
  jscape2000 | Feb 8, 2015 |
Worst of all was the fact that she understood and sympathized with Mrs. Nilssen’s point of view, as she always had been able to understand her mother’s, her stepfather’s, and his children’s points of view. She saw herself for an obscene sore in all their lives, at all costs to be hidden. She understood, even while she resented. It would have been easier if she had not.

Someone at the helm of NYRB Classics fell asleep at the wheel, for the fact that this work has not yet been granted a rebirth in their gorgeous editions is a travesty. Penguin Classics may have it, as does the 1001 Books Before You Die, but neither place implies the incisive ferocity of these pages, a whirlwind of fervent life and unbearable insight embodied in the body and mind of one black woman. The power of this book is the like of which I have never seen, least not in its entirety, and it is no wonder I had to stumble across it in search of something far more popular. I've picked up parts in Walker, Rhys, Maugham, carefully collegiated categories that must never, ever, intersect, certainly not within the work written 86 years ago. That would prove too inspiring a thing by far.

But gradually this zest was blotted out, giving place to a deep hatred for the trivial hypocrisies and careless cruelties that were, unintentionally perhaps, a part of the Naxos policy of uplift.

I do not claim to be Helga Crane, or even Nella Larsen for that matter, but familial blood is a desiccated thing next to the kinship I've through them found. It is a matter of minds in different worlds that for all the voids of time and skin convene here, in this place of the written word and the life it spawns. It is my unyielding effort to balance the hard-earned uplift with the rapid descent, the nightmare of thought and the inability to give even that up for the world. It is what I know of my privilege and what I feel of my pain, the exacting measures I have put myself through to translate both into a single language, and the ultimate reassurance that I may live so long as I let everyone else do the same. Neither Helga nor Larsen had happy endings; it is their living by truth I must look to.

“And the white men dance with the colored women. Now you know, Helga Crane, that can mean only one thing.” Anne’s voice was trembling with cold hatred. As she ended, she made a little clicking noise with her tongue, indicating an abhorrence too great for words.

“Don’t the colored men dance with the white women, or do they sit about, impolitely, while the other men dance with their women?” inquired Helga very softly, and with a slowness approaching almost to insolence. Anne’s insinuations were too revolting. She had a slightly sickish feeling, and a flash of anger touched her. She mastered it and ignored Anne’s inadequate answer.


It is the everyday hypocrisy that leads the lambs to the slaughter. Half black, half white, female, sensitive, pretty, intelligence as sharp as a whip if life would let it. Anyone at all would learn something from it if they weren't stopped by the usual bigotries, the patriarchal tendencies to denigrate the efforts of the "weaker sex" to exist in full acknowledgement of mind and lust, the white-washing over the two options of death sentence or selling of self for the most practical price, the oppressed cutting each other down to size in hopes of the fruits of their religion fed to them by the oppressors. It is the same old story, but so rarely told with such keen cutting and beautiful strength of self. It is a story that belongs to today, giving the lie to all that self-gratifying talk of progress, making it all nothing but appropriation, silence, and gilt.

…he was not the sort of man who would for any reason give up one particle of his own good opinion of himself. Not even for her. Not even though he knew that she had wanted so terribly something special from him.

I will never regret having been born far too late to have experienced the Harlem of Helga's time. The technology of the modern age means I have the resources to come to grips with any instances of hypocrisy, a network with which to imbibe and put forth any thoughts at all that are necessary for the building of my own self, a bulwark with no need for the customary solutions of travel, career change, whatever commitment to the unknown which shows its true colors as a path towards damnation only when I no longer have the means to escape it. Were I to live in the midst of this book, my quicksand would be quicker. That coming to terms of the self is far more worthwhile than any seeming happiness of an ending.

For Helga Crane wasn’t, after all, a rebel from society, Negro society. It did mean something to her. She had no wish to stand alone. ( )
1 vote Korrick | Jul 22, 2014 |
Nella Larsen is quite a discovery; a lost writer of the Harlem Renaissance. Only two novellas of hers were published, and then she was unjustly accused of plagiarism of a story and stopped writing. What a waste! Quicksand is the tragic story of a half Danish, half black woman (as was Larsen) who cannot find happiness in Harlem or in Denmark. In America she becomes filled with self loathing and race hatred both as a teacher at a HBC and a Harlem resident. Helga Crane flees to Denmark, where for a time she enjoys her status as an exotic but is insulted by propositions from men who see her as their own personal Josephine Baker. She then returns to Harlem and is happy for a time with her friends but once again becomes miserable and ends up in an even worse state due to a nervous collapse. There is no happiness for someone who is so divided. How awful. I hope that this is no longer the case but I don't know. So beautifully written, with language we no longer use these days. Somewhat anachronistic but with such elegant flow. Spoiler alert: the end is very jarring. ( )
  froxgirl | Mar 14, 2014 |
I didn't hate the book, in fact I quite enjoyed some of it, the writing is excellent, but it just didn't grab my attention, I couldn't concentrate on it. I might try it again some time, in print ( )
1 vote Petra.Xs | Apr 2, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0141181273, Paperback)

Born to a white mother and an absent black father, and despised for her dark skin, Helga Crane has long had to fend for herself. As a young woman, Helga teaches at an all-black school in the South, but even here she feels different. Moving to Harlem and eventually to Denmark, she attempts to carve out a comfortable life and place for herself, but ends up back where she started, choosing emotional freedom that quickly translates into a narrow existence.

Quicksand, Nella Larsen's powerful first novel, has intriguing autobiographical parallels and at the same time invokes the international dimension of African American culture of the 1920s. It also evocatively portrays the racial and gender restrictions that can mark a life.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:17 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

"Helga's mother is white, and her father is black--and absent. Ostracized throughout her lonely childhood for her dark skin, Helga spends her adult life seeking acceptance. Everywhere she goes--the American South, Harlem, even Demark--she feels oppressed. Socially, economically, and psychologically, Helga struggles against the "quicksand" of classism, racism, and sexism" -- back cover.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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