‘But first, Reader, I will give you a word of warning. This is a foot-off-the-ground novel that came by the left hand. 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 that you made to get this book. You could not know.’
The 27th entry on the Virago Modern Classics list, which has been reissued in the last few years, is Novel on Yellow Paper, ‘the bestselling debut novel that made Stevie Smith a star’, and which took her only ten weeks to write. Published for the first time in 1936, and the first of only three novels, Novel on Yellow Paper feels thoroughly modern in many ways. Art historian and writer Frances Spalding believes that ‘Virginia Woolf’s roving consciousness lies behind the prose… but the tone owes more to Dorothy Parker…’. Upon its publication, the book was ‘acclaimed by some critics and abhorred by others’.
The reprint features a new introduction by Rachel Cooke. She emphasises what Spalding says when she states that one literary figure of the period believed that this was the work of Woolf herself, published under the guise of a pseudonym. Originally a fan of Smith’s poetry – ‘it was her tone that really delighted me. Her irony, her wit, that slight edge of malice: these things spoke to a moody teenager. Her voice was irresistible, bending the world into a shape that was disorientatingly odd, even as it was instantly recognisable’ – Cooke was both amazed and awestruck by her prose. Of her writing, Cooke says that Smith ‘likened her fiction to the sea: on the surface bright and sunny, but seven miles down “black and cold”‘.
Our protagonist, Pompey Casmilus, is Stevie’s own alter-ego, ‘a more antic version of herself’. She is ‘young, in love and working as a secretary for the magnificent Sir Phoebus Ullwater’. Cooke writes that there is ‘a certainty about Pompey; like her creator, she has the courage of her (somewhat weird) convictions’. Between her office duties, she ‘scribbles down – on yellow office paper – her quirky thoughts’. These thoughts go off at random tangents, and ‘her flights of inspiration’ consequently cover ‘Euripedes, sex education, Nazi Germany and the Catholic Church, shattering conventions in their wake’.
Small strands of story and sharp observations wind their way through the novel – for example, ‘Yes, always someone dies, someone weeps, in tune with the laurels dripping, and the tap dripping, and the spout dripping into the water-butt, and the dim gas flickering greenly in the damp conservatory’. In this manner, one thought leads into another seemingly unconnected idea, and strange thoughts manifest and embed themselves. The sentence above, for example, is followed with this: ‘Like that flood that kid made in its cradle with that thar cunning cat sitting atop of it. And perhaps if the kid rode the flood o.k. that thar cat smothered it. For you can’t escape your fate. And I’ve known cats overlay babies. It was in the newspapers’. Smith surges from the present to the distant past and back again, placing Pompey’s present against the backdrop of the past. Due to this, at times, the plot – what little there is of it, really – can be rendered rather difficult to follow.
Smith’s prose style is incredibly interesting – that perhaps goes without saying. Her writing swirls and spirals; sometimes it is almost rhythmical, and at others it is though a barrage of thoughts, which will never cease, have been unleashed upon the reader. Novel on Yellow Paper is a reading experience and a half, and is certainly one of the most experimental titles on the Virago list which I have come across to date. It isn’t the easiest of books to get into, and Pompey is not the best of narrators for a handful of reasons. The most grating element which I found about her was the way in which she refers to herself using both the first and third person perspectives. Whilst one cannot say that she is wonderfully developed, or well rounded, she is certainly a thoroughly interesting being, however: ‘And often I think, I have a sword hanging over my head that must fall one day, because I am conscious of sin in my black heart and I think that God is saving up something that will carry Pompey away’. The entirety of the book is intense and rather erratic – quite like the impression one forms of its narrator, really.
Whilst the stream of consciousness style which has been used here is decidedly Woolfian, the same exhilaration and beauty cannot be found in Smith’s work. Novel on Yellow Paper does not read anywhere near as well as Virginia Woolf’s work does, in my opinion. Whilst it is clear that she was inspired by Woolf’s groundbreaking writing style, I do not feel that some elements here have been controlled as well as they could have been; or, indeed, explored and discussed as well as Woolf would have handled them. It is as though Smith saw the entirety of her novel merely as an experiment, rather than as an exercise to create a wondrously memorable work of fiction. Pompey herself writes that ‘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 paint the moral, to adorn the tale’.
Novel on Yellow Paper is a melancholy work, breathy and almost exhausting to read in places. It is not a novel to be taken lightly; the whole is memorable and quite powerful in places. The novel’s sequel, Over the Frontier, has also been reissued by Virago, and is sure to be of interest to all of those who are drawn into Smith’s experimental style.
Whilst I have found some of Atwood’s work a little hit and miss in the past, I was very much looking forward to engrossing myself in this, an incredibly appealing-sounding historical novel. Of all her works, the thread of story within Alias Grace is the one which captured my attention the most.
Alias Grace was shortlisted for both the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Prize, and was the recipient of the Canadian Giller Prize. The novel has received wondrous acclaim from reviewers since its publication in 1996. It centres around the true story of Grace Marks, a servant who was arrested for her ‘cold-blooded’ part in two notorious murders in July 1843, at the age of sixteen. Thomas Kinnear, a wealthy farmer in Ontario, and his housekeeper-cum-mistress, Nancy Montgomery, were shot and strangled respectively. Grace’s co-worker and accomplice, a twenty-year-old stable hand named James McDermott, was hung for his part in proceedings. Grace, on account of her sex and young age, was committed to an asylum in Kingston, Ontario, where she remained for thirty years.
Atwood is masterful at using a variety of different techniques to set the scene throughout. As well as the story told in Grace’s own words – or, at least, Atwood’s imagining of them – we also have a narrative based upon a fictional doctor named Simon Jordan, who is researching Grace’s case. Materials such as newspaper articles and poems have also been used to further shape the historical context.
Alias Grace is beautifully written. Grace’s voice particularly has been incredibly tautly crafted, and Atwood’s portrayal of her feels realistic from the very beginning: ‘Sometimes at night I whisper it over to myself: murderess, murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt across the floor. Murderer is merely brutal. It’s like a hammer, a lump of metal. I would rather be a murderess than a murderer, if those are the only choices’. Grace is a captivating protagonist; although we know from the first what she has been convicted of, an awful lot of sympathy is soon created for her on behalf of the reader. Atwood is empathetic towards her young character, and makes her come to life once more upon the page.
Whilst I didn’t adore Alias Grace, it is certainly an incredibly well-crafted – and even quite moving – novel, and it is my favourite of Atwood’s books to date. I particularly admired the way in which she tied so many historical elements together – the use of historical quilt designs and foodstuffs, for example. Alias Grace, despite its length, is a gripping and fast-moving novel, which is sure to appeal to any reader with an interest in crime or general historical fiction.
The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jaaskalainen was first published in Finland in 2006. The novel in its lovely Pushkin Press edition has been translated from its original Finnish by Lola M. Rogers.
The novel’s protagonist, twenty six-year-old Ella Milana, is first introduced to us as ‘the reader’. She is a Finnish language and literature teacher – ‘a dreamy substitute with defective ovaries and gracefully curved lips’ – who has returned to her hometown, Rabbit Back, to work as a substitute at the high school. Whilst living in her childhood home once more, Ella finds herself with rather a lot to deal with – along with a stressful pile of marking each evening, her father is suffering from quite extreme memory loss, and all that interests her mother are ‘television shows and entering raffle drawings in the hope of winning a prize’.
Ella’s story begins when one of her students is found reading an incorrect version of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, in which the plot has been altered considerably: ‘… the existence of the irregular Dostoevky deeply offended her, and when she was offended she could sometimes do impulsive, purely intuitive things’. When returning it to the local library, Ella becomes suspicious that the librarian is not more surprised by the incident: ‘A prank like that would take a very unusual saboteur and it was hard to imagine what the motive would be. And how could such a book remain in circulation for nearly twenty years without anyone noticing anything strange about it?’
The Rabbit Back Literature Society of the novel’s title is ‘a collection of gifted children who would, with [Laura] White’s guidance, grow up to be writers’. Promising students at the Rabbit Back school have work sent to local and revered children’s author Laura White, who is continually involved in ‘her search for the new members she desires’. At the beginning of the novel, however, the society has had no new members for three decades: ‘The possibility of joining the society was practically theoretical, since the entire present membership – nine lifetime member authors – had all joined in the first three years after the Society was established in 1968’.
After one of Ella’s short stories is published in a supplement in the local paper, however, she is invited to join the Society. We are given quite a fascinating insight into the world of the elite in consequence. At a society get together, for example, ‘The members of the Rabbit Back Literature Society don’t seem to be talking with each other. They pass close by each other now and then, but never look each other in the eye, never indulge in conversation. One could very easily assume that they don’t know each other at all’. Two elements of mystery – one of which revolves around a shadowy past member whom nobody really remembers, and the other of which deals with the sudden unexplained disappearance of Laura White herself – soon come to light.
Bookish Ella is a character whom I found myself immediately endeared to: ‘She’d read more than was healthy, hundreds of books every year. Some of them she read twice, or even three times, before returning them. Some of them she would check out again after letting them sink in a while. She’d thought at that time that books were at their best when you’d read them two or three times’.
The novel’s third person perspective focuses mainly upon Ella and her place in Rabbit Back; a lot of thought has clearly gone into her character, her past and her actions. Such care has been taken over the translation of The Rabbit Back Literature Society, and it flows wonderfully. The whole is compelling, and is filled with some lovely passages and ideas. There is a creative aspect to be found in The Rabbit Back Literature Society, and Jaaskalainen has woven in elements of magical realism here and there, which add a wonderful balance to the whole. The novel becomes darker as it goes on, and it has been so well crafted that it is a true joy to read.
Featuring forgotten January footage from a trip to Stirling, views of my University, and a trip to Loch Lomond.
Music: ‘Stunning’ by Brigade | ‘Dark Blue’ by Jack’s Mannequin
Originally released in 2006, and rendered into English into 2011, Alois Hotschnig’s Maybe This Time is one of Peirene Press’ earliest publications. World Literature Today declares that ‘Hotschnig’s prose dramatizes the voice of conscience and the psychological mechanisms we use to face reality or, just as often, to avoid it’. Hotschnig is one of Austria’s most critically acclaimed authors, and he has won major Austrian, and international, literary prizes over his career. The collection has been translated from the Austrian German by Tess Lewis.
Hotschnig’s short story collection has been described by many readers as ‘unsettling’, and this, I feel, is quite a fitting appraisal. There is a creeping sense of unease which comes over one as soon as the stories are begun. The initial tale, ‘The Same Silence, the Same Noise’, is about a pair of neighbours who sit side by side in the narrator’s eyeline for days on end: ‘… they didn’t move, not even to wave away the mosquitoes or scratch themselves’. This has rather a distressing effect upon our unnamed observer: ‘Every day, every night, always the same. Their stillness made me feel uneasy, and my unease grew until it festered into an affliction I could no longer bear’. His reaction is perhaps the most interesting one which Hotschnig could have come up with in this instance: ‘I drew closer to them because they rejected me. Rejection, after all, is still a kind of contact’. As one might expect as the midway point is reached in this tale, the narrator soon becomes obsessed: ‘I decided to observe them even more closely to calm my unease, as if I no longer had a life of my own but lived only through them’.
There are nine short stories included within Maybe This Time, all of which have rather intriguing titles. These include the likes of ‘Then a Door Opens and Swings Shut’, and ‘You Don’t Know Them, They’re Strangers’. Some rather thoughtful ideas have been woven in; they have a definite profundity at times: ‘We looked at the same views, heard the same noises. We shared a common world and were separated by it’. Each of the tales is sharp; every one relatively brief, but all of which have a wealth of emotions and scenes packed into them. Hotschnig is shrewd, and in control at all times; he makes the reader fear impending danger with the most subtle of hints.
No particular time periods have been specified within the collection, and only small clues have been left as to when each story takes place. They are, one and all, essentially suspended in time. I did find a couple of the stories a little abrupt in terms of their endings, but this collection is certainly a memorable one. There is a great fluency in Lewis’ translation, which helps to render Maybe This Time one of the creepiest reads on Peirene’s list thus far.