Sunday, January 31, 2010

Stevie Smith's Novel on Yellow Paper

Cross-posted at Of Books and Bicycles.

Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper was an enjoyable book in moments and a puzzling book in others; it’s one of those books I can’t quite figure out how to respond to, and I’m not sure another reading would help. There’s a lot I liked in the book, but what puzzles me about it is that given the books that appeal to me most, I should love this one, and it turns out I don’t, quite.

I admire its form and structure most; it’s the kind of novel where not much happens and instead we have someone sharing her thoughts with us the entire way through. The main character is called Pompey, and she writes in a way that seems spontaneous, telling us whatever is on her mind at the moment. We hear about her job — she works as a secretary for a certain Sir Phoebus – her love affairs, her friends, her family — especially her aunt, the “Lion of Hull” — and her thoughts about society, literature, and politics.

Basically, there is no form or structure (as far as I can tell), and instead it’s a loose-flowing stream-of-consciousness monologue. Novel on Yellow Paper reminds me most of Nicholson Baker’s novel The Anthologist, where there is a structure and plot, but these are so basic they hardly count and the real point of the book is the voice. The pleasure of the book comes from listening to the main character share his thoughts. That’s what we’re offered in Smith’s book — a chance to get inside the main character’s head a little bit.

However, now that I think about it a little more, I’m not sure how much we do get inside Pompey’s head. It’s feels a little more like she uses words to charm and entertain us and to tell us about herself, but in such a way that she hides as much as she reveals. Words are as much a shield for her true self, or a cloud in which to hide, as a way to reveal herself.

She certainly is amusing and charming, and she has funny quirks that make her voice very distinctive. This passage illustrates her use of repetition and rhythm and also shows how frank and open she can be (or appear to be):

Oh how I enjoy sex and oh how I enjoy it. There have been many funny things about sex in my life that have made me laugh and so now I will tell you.

There was once a woman called Miss Hogmanimy. That was certainly a queer name. That was a name you would certainly want to get married out of. But this woman was very queer and wrought up over babies and the way babies are born, and she gave up her whole life going round giving free lectures on how babies are born. And it certainly was queer how ecstatic she got about this way how babies are born, and always she was giving lectures to young girls of school or school-leaving age. And all the time it was mixed up in a way I don’t just remember with not drinking, not drinking alcohol, but just carrying on ginger beer, kola and popgass. And so well this Miss Hogmanimy she got up in our school, now I think it was our school, chapel and so there she was in this school chapel, giving a lecture with illustrating slides to young girls on how babies are born …

…to listen to Miss Hogmanimy you’d think just knowing straight out how babies was born was to solve all the problems of adolescence right off. You’d come out straight and simple and full of hearty fellowship and right thinking if you just got it clear once and for all how babies are born. There’d be no more coming out in spots and getting self-conscious about the senior prefect, nor getting a crush on the English mistress, nor feeling proud and miserable like you do at that time, before you get grown up. There’d be none of this at all if you just knew how babies are born. So there she was.

Pompey is great at this kind of amusing light satire. There is a wonderful section on women’s fiction where she describes the typical “Fiction for the Married Woman,” which is all about learning to be happy with housewifely duties. The section is funny, but there is anger underneath the light surface. She decides that describing fiction for the unmarried woman is just too painful:

I cannot tell you about the stories for unmarried girls, the ones that are so cleverly and coyly oh. And they are so bright and smiling and full of pretty ideas that are all the time leading up to washing-up. You will know how they go but I cannot tell you. I am already feeling: No, I should not have said all this. It is the ugliest thing that could ever have been conceived, because it is also so trivial, so full of the negation of human intelligence, that should be so quick and so swift and so glancing, and so proud. And you Reader, whom I have held by the wrist and forced to listen, I am full of regret for you, because I have forced you to listen to this.

As I type out these passages, I’m thinking about how much I like them and how much I liked quite a few sections of the book. The phrase “so full of the negation of human intelligence” is just great, as is the apology to the reader (I wrote about another great section here).

The problem is that in between these sections I felt impatient and occasionally irritated. I couldn’t follow the way her mind worked very well, and the picture of who Pompey is and what her life is like remained hazy. I wanted a more coherent picture to come together, even if that took a while. I love voice-driven novels where plot is not the focus, but I think I need just a bit more coherence, direction, and forward-movement than I got here.

I also just don’t know anybody who talks like Pompey does or who thinks like she does, and I found her a little hard to believe. I suspect, to be really simple and non-literary-critical about things, that Pompey and I probably wouldn’t be friends. With this kind of novel, I want to be able to imagine having a conversation with the main character, and I’m having trouble imagining it here.

So, to sum up, it’s an original, puzzling, strange, frustratingly quirky book I would have loved to love.

You can read other posts on the novel here and join in the discussion at the forums here.

Smug-pug, c'est moi

Have you ever encountered a voice in fiction that's so like that of someone you know in real life that you're totally freaked out? To the point that you can't stop supplying a projected subtext to the work at hand that you know isn't warranted or at all fair? To the point that the entire novel is tainted by an unwavering sense of foreknowledge as to what you'll have confirmed about the author once you seek out the biographical material, no matter how often you tell yourself not to confuse the writer with her creation?

Such was my experience with Novel on Yellow Paper.

I'd gone into it expecting much enjoyment--I've had a fondness since high school for "Not Waving But Drowning," the one Stevie Smith poem I'd read but had never forgotten. But Pompey Casmilus is such an aural doppelganger to this, ah, real-life counterpart of mine, who continually puts me in the smug-pug foot-on-the-ground role as I'm called upon to save her yet again from drowning, that I found no charm in Pompey's voice--I've become immune over the years to such techniques and no longer appreciate freewheeling tangents meant to detract and delay us both from dealing with the problem at hand. (And that's a pity: I'm Southern and ordinarily love a good tangent.)

My apologies to my fellow Slaves. Maybe I can read this one again some day with a more disinterested ear.

Charming and Frustrating

Novel on Yellow Paper by Stevie Smith was first published in 1936. Supposedly the novel was written as a result of Smith being told by a publisher when she submitted a book of poetry that she should go and write a novel instead.

Pompey Casmilus works as the secretary of Sir Phoebus at a magazine publishing company. She is frequently bored and so decides to write a novel. She writes it on yellow paper so as not to get it confused with the correspondence she types up and sends out for Sir Phoebus. We are warned by Pompey from the get go that this is not going to be regular novel for she is a "foot-off-the-ground" person and her novel will follow suit. So we can't say she didn't warn us.

The novel has no true plot. Things happen to be sure. Pompey visits a boy she likes, Karl, in Germany and is appalled by what she sees there. She decides later that she can't marry her boyfriend Freddy only to agree to marry him when he proposes and then ends up depressed when Freddy decides he can't marry her and breaks off the engagement. There are stories about girlfriends and a horse named Kismet that she rode once. There are loads and loads of literary references and Pompey has a particular passion for Racine's play Phedre. I thought at first there might be some connection between the novel and Phedre but as far as I can tell there isn't.

The novel is also liberally sprinkled with untranslated French and German and I kept thinking I should look up at least some of it but never did. I'm not sure in the end that it would really have made that much of a difference.

Pompey is both a charming and frustrating character. Sometimes she makes me laugh, like when she is telling about her friend, Harriet, and Harriet's boyfriend:
And Harriet is a darling and listens to him and comforts him for the sins of the whole world, which he must have upon his shoulders. But which were never meant for his shoulders at all. And he is suffering from this development-arrested-at-the-university. But Harriet is very adult, and is suffering from no arrestment in development.
And other times she just goes on and on and I got tired of her incessant voice however charming it is.

The book is very much like a conversation but it is a one-sided conversation where the reader, even though often addressed, is not allowed to get a word in edgewise. We are meant to sit and listen and keep our mouths shut as Pompey rattles on about whatever seems to come to her mind. She is one of those people who always has something to say about everything and keeps going on no matter what because silence would be unbearable.

I wonder if keeping the silence at bay might be the point? In spite of the incessant cheerfulness of Pompey's voice she speaks of being sad, of tragic occurrences, and very often of death. Maybe for Pompey silence equals death so she talks and talks and talks to fill the void because she is terrified of the void. I'm not sure, just a thought.

Novel on Yellow Paper is definitely a book like no other I have ever read. I'm not entirely sure what to make of it. Even an old New York Times book review didn't help. The book is not exactly a comfortable experience so I can't say I liked it. But I did like it in many respects and those outweigh the overall frustration and confusion.

Cross-posted at So Many Books

Literary Tourette's

‘For this book is the talking voice that runs on, 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 the 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?’

Some books are all about the voice, and never more so than Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper. In it, Pompey Casmilus, a cumbersome name hard to reconcile with its sly, mercurial, skipping persona, recounts her life as it occurs to her – we hear about her work as a private secretary, about her days lived tranquilly with her aunt, the noble Lion, her failed love affair with Freddy, who wants the kind of marriage and orthodox existence that fleet-footed, butterfly minded Pompey cannot countenance, and about a moving constellation of friends and acquaintances, even odd German strangers who try to pick her up on trains (‘So then he leant across, very magnetic in the eyes and said: I know everything you are thinking. Phew-oops dearie, this was a facer, and a grand new opening gambit I’d never heard before. I could only think to say: Well, well, well.’) And no matter what the subject, whether death, religion, Nazi Germany, lost love or Russian drama, Pompey’s voice plays and toys with it, casting it around in her curious combination of slang and quotation and foreign idioms, all thrown in for light-hearted if serious-minded fun. If you like the voice, this is a book you’ll love, but if you don’t like it, then as Pompey herself predicts ‘Foot-on-the-ground person will have his grave grave doubts, and if he is also a smug-pug he will not keep his doubts to himself, he will say: It is not, and it cannot come to good.’

Stevie Smith is best known for her poetry, and perhaps best of all for the poem that begins:

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

I must say that whole tracts of my life would have to pass by unarticulated if I hadn’t had the phrase ‘not waving but drowning’ to hand. This is Stevie Smith’s particular talent, the throwaway remark that lands a hefty punch, a casual joke that reveals something peculiarly profound. Her poems, like her prose, are often superficially artless, catchy as a music hall lyric, bound up with a strange chameleon grace that bends them in and out of different speaking voices. Her life was notably identical to Pompey Casmilus’s – she lived a maiden’s existence with her aunt, having lost her parents early, she was private secretary to two magazine publishers for twenty years, and she had many friends whom she loved dearly and satirized shamelessly. Late on in life she discovered a talent for live poetry reading, where her girlish, charming and expert performances always won over her audience. According to critic Ian Hamilton ‘To hear them chuckling over her cute spiritual despairs was a fine bonus for her old age, and she took particular pleasure in upstaging the beatniks at the avant-garde poetry rallies she for some reason kept getting invited to throughout the 1960s.’ There was enough that was genuine and startling about Smith’s work to hook her reader, but there was a fine, laughing, ludic quality to her writing too, that faced up to hardship and sorrow but never quite took them seriously.

I really loved this book, although I didn’t always understand it, or follow Pompey’s rollercoaster of thought with sympathy. But she sounded so like my students when they are off on a riff, naïve and knowing, erudite and yet childish. I couldn’t help but laugh at her silly slang and her razor sharp perceptions. I’ll tell you who else she reminded me of, and that’s Gertrude Stein. The singing phrases and contorted yet rhythmic repetitions were so like Stein’s translations of the spoken voice into prose. But Stevie Smith’s preoccupations are far more metaphysical than Stein’s, her voice more lyric and whimsical. By the end of the novel, I felt the key to it was the ‘rhythm of visiting’ that is so precious to Pompey that it prevents her from marrying.

‘I have traveled and come and gone a great deal. I am toute entière visitor. That is what I am being all the time. […] That is the very highest pleasure to me, that it is a visit that comes to an end, that may recur, that may again come to an end and be renewed. The rhythm of visiting is in my blood.’

Inside Pompey’s mind and, therefore, on the yellow pages of her novel, there is nothing but endless visiting, as thoughts and memories arise and go away, some abandoned the moment they get too boring for Pompey to care, some cherished and waved off with regret. No topic may dominate, no emotion or mood may reign supreme. Instead, all is transience and charm and serious distraction. Just like the moment when Pompey’s grief about Nazi Germany is immediately and wholly replaced with book lust when she spots her sleepy train companion abandoning his copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. We are all waving and drowning, waving and drowning, on an endless loop, Stevie Smith suggests, and if we can permit ourselves to grow accustomed to it, that very ambivalence may be our saving grace.