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.