‘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 just been reissued, 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 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.