Have you ever heard of Nella Larsen? She was an important novelist (1891-1964) of the Harlem Renaissance, who died in obscurity in New York City. I mentioned her most recently a few weeks ago in a review of Edward White’s The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America. Van Vechten was instrumental in getting Larsen’s novels published by Alfred Knopf. So imagine my surprise as I’m reading a new novel by Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli and Nella Larsen appears—not as an historical marker, but as a character. Moreover, because of Luiselli’s daring use of time (in this truly crazy novel), Larsen is there as a contemporary character, i.e., living in New York City today. The SAME Nella Larsen who was important during the Harlem Renaissance, not her daughter (she had no children) or someone else with that name.
In truth, it is not always clear if the scenes involving Larsen (and others) are set in the present time or in the past, so let me explain. The narrator of Faces in the Crowd is a young Mexican woman, a poet, living in Brooklyn with her husband and two children. She works for a small publishing house that brings out English translations of Spanish writers. It’s her duty as an editor to identify works in Spanish and recommend them to the publisher for translation and publication. She is unnamed, but most of the narration in this short novel is through her perspective. She’s obviously stifled in her own writing (and, hence, begun writing the novel we are reading) and clearly frustrated by her current duties as mother and translator/editor. Her husband is an architect, completing the blueprints for a rather extensive house that will be built in Philadelphia. That’s the framework for what occurs in this dazzling narrative.
Things are complicated right from the beginning. Barely a few pages into the narrative, she writes, “Novels need a sustained breath. That’s what novelists want. No one knows exactly what it means but they all say: sustained breath. I have a baby and a boy. They don’t let me breathe. Everything I write is—has to be—in short bursts. I’m short of breath.” There are no chapters in the narration, simply short passages, mostly less than a page, jumping through time: the past, the present and the future. In her current work she comes across a slim volume of poems by Gilberto Owen, a Mexican poet/diplomat who died in Philadelphia in 1952. Her proposal that his poems be translated and published is approved by the publisher of the press where she works, after numerous other projects are turned down.
Husband, boy, and baby are never given names, though on one occasion the husband is referred to also as “Gilberto.” When she mentions her family, it is almost always the demands they put on her work. “I know that when I go into the children’s room, the baby will catch my smell and shiver in her cot, because some secret place in her body is teaching her to demand her part of what belongs to us both, the threads that sustain and separate us. Then, when I go into my own room, my husband will also demand his portion of me and I will give myself up to the indefinite, sudden, serene pleasure of his touch.” Before she was married, before she had children, she led a rather promiscuous life and those previous lovers also wander in and out of her thoughts. When her son, is told that he is going to have a baby sister, he replied, “I’d prefer a baby rabbit,” obviously mirroring her own ambivalence.
Everything overlaps. She believes that she sees Gilberto Owen a number of times in the city. She speculates that he knew Nella Larsen, whom she also observes. Other writers (Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams) also appear, plus anonymous figures she does not know but who keep reappearing. Her husband not only reads what she is writing but then begins narrating several of the sections of the book (or is it simply her attempt to record his response to her writing)? She fakes the translation of a few of Owen’s poems and tells her editor that they were translated by another famous writer.
The passages are brief, clipped, and often quite witty. Tunneling Owen’s observations she observes of one of her friends, he “would have said that he spoke with spelling mistakes.” From time to time, she relates incidents that appear to have little to do with her own situation: “A young husband was asking the Newark district court judge to grant him a divorce because his fiancée hadn’t told him until the wedding night that, instead of a right leg, she had a wooden prosthesis. He had stolen the false leg as evidence for his hearing, and she’d filed suit for robbery.” Shades of Flannery O’Connor?
What does this all add up to? A woman on the verge of madness, post-partum depression? A poet suffering from writer’s block? Time-traveling but also meta-criticism of a poet’s literary mentors/inspirations? All of the above and more as the essays published in the same volume amplify. As reader, you finish the novella, flip the book upside down, and then begin reading these essays, called Sidewalks, also about writing and writers but, significantly, about displacement, the peripatetic life of a writer described as an “alien non-resident of New York,” moving from continent to continent, putting down no roots, but always on the verge of moving on again.
Faces in the Crowd and Sidewalks must have been an overwhelming challenge to Christina MacSweeney, the translator, but the result is quite memorable. What a remarkable new voice.
Trans. by Christina MacSweeney
Coffee House Press, 147 pp and 111 pp.
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. His books include Invisible Darkness: Jean Toomer & Nella Larsen. Email: email@example.com.