|The cover shows a detail from Catherine
Carrington, by Dora Carrington.
Novelist and poet Stevie Smith seems to have become a forgotten author, but back in the middle of the last century her spare, wry poems were immensely popular, offering a skewed view of suburban life that questioned our perceptions and made us think about loneliness, death, and the dispossessed. I must admit I have never been a huge fan of her poetry (her language doesn’t sing to me, or if it does I don’t hear it). However, she also wrote three novels, and I’ve just read one of them – Novel on Yellow Paper, which sings out loud and clear, and I loved it. My copy (one of my charity shop finds) was published by Virago in 1983, but they don’t seem to have reprinted it recently, and as far as I am aware no-one else is producing it either, which is a shame. If a modern edition is available, I apologise. If not, can I make a plea for this to be re-issued? Please?!
It has to be one of the most curious novels ever written, and is unlike anything else you are ever likely to read, with the possible exception of Tristram Shandy (actually, I felt quite pleased with myself for thinking this, because I didn’t look at Janet Watts’ introduction until I’d finished the book, when I found she had made a similar statement).
Anyway, it ought to be listed as one of the greatest and most glorious idiosyncratic books in the English language. Its style, story, structure and characters are unique, and it cannot be categorised. Apparently when Smith tried to get her poems into print in 1935 she was told to go away and write a novel, and this was the result. It was published the following year, and must have seemed as odd then as it does today, because it breaks with so many literary conventions and traditions.
Trying to describe this book is really, really difficult, because it’s so individual, and so idiosyncratic. There’s no plot or storyline, and it doesn’t slot easily into of the usual pigeon holes, and the central character is hard to pin down as a will o’ the wisp, flitting from thought to thought and scene to scene. Even her name is not her own. Reflecting on it she says:
Did I tell you my name was Pompey Casmilus? Patience I was christened, but later on when I got grown up and out and about in London, I got called Pompey. And it suits me. There’s something meretricious and decayed and I’ll say, I dare say, elegant about Pompey. A broken Roman statue. One of those old Roman boys that lost their investments and went round getting free meals on their dear old friends, that had them round to fill up the gaps, and keep things moving.
She tells us:
There’s not a person nor a thing in this book that ever stepped outside of this book. It’s all just out of my head
Nevertheless, it seems to incorporate elements from Smith’s life, and it’s hard not to view
Pompey as the alter ego not just of Patience, but of Stevie Smith herself, whose real name was Florence Margaret. Pompey, like the author, works as a secretary, writes poetry, and is trying to write a novel – on very yellow paper, so she doesn’t confuse it with letters for her boss, which are typed on blue paper. She also has a ‘Lion Aunt’, just like Smith. And this is her book, in which she describes her thoughts on Life, Love, the Universe and Everything.
She writes about her friends, her family, her employer, current affairs, politics, religion, education and sex. There’s a lot about the situation in Germany, and from her initial comments you might assume that she’s anti-Jewish, but she’s not – she’s vehemently opposed to the Nazis. And there are references to history philosophy, popular culture, music hall songs, poems, classical literature. Pompey/Stevie writes it all down exactly as it pops into her head, and plays with words and language in a way that rivals James Joyce.
Yet her style seems almost ‘naïve’ as she writes so matter of factly about strange events and complex concepts, which gives the book a surreal edge. Barbara Comyns also does this, describing the most bizarre events as if it was all quite normal, so you can find echoes of other books in Smith’s work – or perhaps you find echoes of her book in other people’s work – but taken in its entirety it’s a one-off that can’t be classified.
Smith obviously knows her novel is ‘different’ and that people may not like it, so she has Pompey tell us:
This is a foot-off-the-ground novel that came in by the left hand’ she warns. ‘And the thoughts come and go and sometimes they do not quite come and I do not pursue them to embarrass them with formality to pursue them into a harsh captivity. And if you are a foot-off-the-ground person I make no bones to say that is how you will write and only how you will write. And if you are a foot-on-the-ground person this book will be for you a desert of weariness and exasperation. So put it down. Leave it alone. It was a mistake you made to get this back. You could not know.
Says she’ll try to make it easy to read, as her publisher asks, but finds it difficult.
For this book is the talking voice, that runs on, and the thoughts come, and the thoughts come, the way I said, and the people come too, and come and go, to illustrate the thoughts, to point the moral, to adorn their tale.
Oh talking voice that is so sweet, how hold you alive in captivity, how point you with commas, semi-colons, dashes, pauses and paragraphs?
I feel I really haven’t done justice to Novel on Yellow Paper, but it’s a marvellously written book, which is a wonderful read, and I love it to bits – and I think that ‘talking voice’ deserves to be heard by many more people.