Novel on Yellow Paper by Stevie Smith

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Novel on Yellow Paper by Stevie Smith

Post by Rob Martin on Sun Jan 31, 2010 5:07 pm

Dorothy W. wrote that the discussion of Stevie Smith's Novel on Yellow Paper would begin today. It appears I'm the first one here, so let me start by saying hello to everyone in the group. I'm a new member--just registered today--who followed Dorothy over from her Of Books and Bicycles blog. I've written book reviews for The Comics Journal and the Detroit MetroTimes, although most of my own writing and reviewing efforts appear on my blog Pol Culture. (Click here if you're curious.)

That's enough about me, though. The reason we're here is to discuss Smith's book, so I should get to it.

The book is charming. The obvious inspiration was Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, which was the talk of London's literary circles when Smith began writing her novel in 1935. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that she pitched it to the publisher as her version of Miller's book, written from her perspective and experiences, and minus all the trouble-causing dirty parts. Like Tropic of Cancer, the book's foundation is a whimsical autobiographical narrative, which serves as the springboard for a variety of meditations on life, society, and writing. It's refreshing to get a piece like this from a woman's perspective. Most writers who work in this mode are men, such as Miller, the Beats, and Lawrence Durrell in The Black Book. The only thing by a woman that immediately comes to mind is Anaïs Nin's Diaries, but Nin's prose style is nowhere as freewheeling. She also writes from the perspective of an upper-class bohemian; Smith's point of view is educated middle class. Smith also has a sense of humor, something that with Nin is in very short supply.

That said, I think Smith's book is very much in Miller's shadow. She's just not the stylist he is at his best. She lacks his verbal wit and comic skill. She tries to mimic his misanthropy, particularly with the caricatures of various ethnic groups, but it seems more snotty than vicious, and the viciousness is what's needed to make it funny. She also tries to mimic his headlong rhythms, but when Miller goes into run-on-sentence mode, it feels like he's hurtling along in creative ecstasy. Smith can't evoke the feeling of breathlessness he does, so you look at the "and...and...and" passages and wait impatiently for her to resume using punctuation. The book also avoids the surrealist/automatist flights that are arguably the most interesting aspect of Miller's writing.

I apologize if I sound more down on the book than I really am. My basic complaint is that the book doesn't measure up to the masterpiece it modeled itself on, which is a pretty relative complaint. Taken on its own terms, Novel on Yellow Paper is quite enjoyable. The most important thing for a book like this is that the author have an engaging personality, which Smith certainly does. She also deals with a range of experience that I haven't seen a lot of in fiction. Life through the eyes of a single, twentysomething middle-class woman isn't something of which there's a huge supply, particularly not in the setting of 1930s London. I do recommend the book, although it's probably best to read it in short snippets. Smith describes it at one point as "a foot-off-the-ground novel," and that "if you are a foot-on-the-ground person, this book will be for you a desert of weariness and exasperation." I wouldn't go that far. The pleasures of the book are its spontaneity and tone, which can leave you unconcerned about structure, at least for a while. Reading the book is like drinking spirits. Too much in a short time may leave you cranky, worn-out, and hung-over, but a little bit here and there can brighten the days as you make your way through the bottle.

Cross-posted at Pol Culture.

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Re: Novel on Yellow Paper by Stevie Smith

Post by Stefanie on Sun Jan 31, 2010 5:50 pm

Hi Rob! Welcome to the Slaves!

I've not read Tropic of Cancer so I am at a disadvantage to be able to agree or disagree with you on that score. I can agree with you on reading it in short snippets which is exactly what I did. I think If I tried to read it for longer than half an hour at a stretch I really might have felt hungover!

Here's something that came to me after reading Litlove's post. She starts her post off with a quote and here is part of it:

Oh talking voice, that is so sweet, how hold you alive in captivity, how point you with commas, semi-colons, dashes, pauses and paragraphs?

At the end of the novel there is that very sad scene with the tiger in captivity that falls into its pool and dies and has to go through the indignity of resuscitation and then it dies again. I thought, what an odd way to end a book. Now, given the quote above, I am wondering if it is a comment about holding alive in captivity the speaking voice? There could be no relation whatsoever, but it struck me that there might be.

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Re: Novel on Yellow Paper by Stevie Smith

Post by Litlove on Sun Jan 31, 2010 8:57 pm

Rob - Hello and welcome to the group! I've read Tropic of Cancer and can't really agree with you that it's the source, origin or main influence on Stevie Smith. It's widely mooted that Dorothy Parker was her model, and her friends were writers like George Orwell and Marghanita Laski, very much on the polite side of experimental. She wasn't attached to the same avant-garde group that Miller was, and didn't really have the same interest in sex and degradation. Are you basing your comparison on some biographical data that I haven't come across?

I could suggest a female precursor who writes with the same sort of lyric madness, however, and that's Djuna Barnes in Nightwood. Although I have no idea whether Smith read it, and would probably guess not.

Stefanie, that's an intriguing point about the tiger. It's an odd image to end on, and a sad one, and it makes me think of the moment earlier in the book when Pompey says she will know exactly when to stop talking. I suppose I was reading it as an echo of the repetitive patterns of elan and entropy that structure the writing, how Pompey's emotions are brought back to life, with Karl, with Freddy, with Lady Chatterley's Lover after the horrors of Nazi Germany, but that ultimately everything dies. I guess you could extend the analogy and see that same pattern existing at the level of the sentence, too.

I think I must have liked this more than anyone else - I found it really appealing to read, and enjoyed the loopiness of her voice, and the way she messes with words and just abandons topics that she's had enough of. I guess it was just the right book at the right time!

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Re: Novel on Yellow Paper by Stevie Smith

Post by Rob Martin on Mon Feb 01, 2010 12:00 am

Hi, Stefanie and litlove. Thanks for the response. I also wanted to tell you I had a good time stopping by So Many Books and Tales from the Reading Room. I've added them to the links on my own site.

I'd like to get into the subject of the tiger, but let me take my current time to clarify what I wrote. Litlove, I think you and I are talking at cross-purposes. Essentially, you're talking about content, and I'm talking about form. The way the books are written is very similar. What is written in the books is very different, if for no other reason than that Miller and Smith were very different people with a vastly different range of experiences to draw on.

One of my points was that Smith took the basic idea of the book from Miller's example. Both books are autobiographical fictions that use the narrative line as a springboard for personal meditations about whatever topic that apparently crosses the author's mind. Tropic of Cancer is the prototype for that kind of novel as far as I know. I don't think anybody attempted surrealist/automatist autobiographical fiction before him. Dorothy Parker was primarily a poet. She didn't write book-length fiction, and the fiction she did write was nothing like Novel on Yellow Paper.

If Smith was friends with Orwell when she was working on the book, she was all but certainly aware of Tropic of Cancer. When Miller's book was published, he conducted a grass-roots marketing campaign that resulted in nearly everyone in British and American publishing receiving a comp. (Complaints about this were among the reasons the book was almost immediately banned from import into the U.S. and U.K.) Judging from his essay "Inside the Whale," Orwell was among those who got a copy during this. He regarded Tropic as the beginning of a new school of fiction--Miller, in his view, was "the only imaginative prose-writer of the slightest value who has appeared among the English-speaking races for some years past." And many of Orwell's comments about Tropic reflect Smith's thoughts about her book in Novel's text.

Smith also copies some of Miller's stylistic flourishes, such as the use of run-on sentences for a rhapsodic effect. The difference, of course, is that he uses them well, and she doesn't.

Barnes wasn't a precursor. Nightwood and Novel on Yellow Paper were published the same year.

I'm sorry if I seem a bit stuffy or blunt in my reply. I come from a long line of engineers, and my response to criticisms tends to treat them like mechanical problems to be addressed. It's hard for me to answer them like there's a person on the other end. If my tone bothers you, please remember it's not personal. Thanks.

Best,

Rob

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Re: Novel on Yellow Paper by Stevie Smith

Post by Rebecca H. on Mon Feb 01, 2010 2:28 am

Hi everyone! This book has certainly offered a lot to think about ...

Litlove -- what you said about her writing reminding you of Stein made complete sense and I wonder why I didn't think of that as I read! The repetition is so like Stein, and particularly since she often leaves out punctuation -- commas and such to separate out the repeated elements. It has a simple, almost incantatory feeling to it sometimes.

I love the quotation above about the talking voice; it makes me think about the section where she makes fun of and complains about stereotypical women's writing. It seems like she is trying to move beyond tired, dead forms of writing by capturing a "talking voice" in her book, and yet how does one "capture" a voice? Does that mean killing it? I think you are right about the tiger, Stefanie; right near the end she says, "How many words how many wretched words to be said, to be unsaid, to be said again, and gone over until you can no more. I can no more." And a little later we get the tiger story. She's tried her experiment to keep the voice alive, and now it's over, the voice is dead, and the book is done.

On another note, what did you all make about the portrayal of Jews in the book? I almost wrote about it in my post, but then I ran out of steam. At first I was disturbed by it, but then I was relieved to see that Pompey is disturbed by it herself and sees the consequences of anti-semitism. Still, the very direct way she talks about her feelings made for an uncomfortable read at times.

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Re: Novel on Yellow Paper by Stevie Smith

Post by Litlove on Mon Feb 01, 2010 9:51 am

Rob - thanks for the clarification, and no, I don't mind your tone!

I've been thinking about this, and whilst I can see the links you're making, I think what I'm really objecting to is the certainty with which you insist that Smith copied, plagiarised or was wholly beholden to Tropic of Cancer. Now by all means you may see similiarities between them, and submit them to comparison. But it seems to me a whole other ball game to claim that Smith modelled her novel on Tropic of Cancer - that indicates a degree of intention that we don't know about. Several decades after publication. Smith wrote to a friend of hers, Kay Dick, about the book saying that she no longer liked it very much, finding it dated, mannered and brassy. And she wrote that she had been too much under the influence of Dorothy Parker, whom she'd been reading a lot at the time. Now unless we have another letter written, in which she says the same thing about Henry Miller, or some other kind of biographical proof, then any link between the novels is speculation, and can only be phrased as such. I think I feel defensive for Smith because it seems you're saying she tried to copy him and it didn't come off. And that's a harsh charge, and one that could be completely unfair if it wasn't true. You may think Henry Miller's book superior - and that's fine. And you may see similarities between them in terms of style, and that's fine. But you can't say for sure that Smith wrote a substandard version of Tropic unless you know that was where her intentions lay. If I were an author and someone told me that I'd try to copy someone else to bad effect when I hadn't, I'd be pretty mad about it. But I'll look into it and if I find any sort of indication that Smith was interested in Miller, I'll concede the point. I'm an academic, and you can call me far too fussy if you like!

Dorothy - when I read the first twenty pages or so, I thought, oh my, this is going to be troublesome in terms of racial ideology, but then it smoothed out a bit and Pompey moved closer to a perspective that wouldn't upset a modern audience. It was why I mentioned Tourette's in my title, although I ran out of steam to talk about it in the post. It did seem that Pompey just said what was on her mind, without censorship or deference to niceties!

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Re: Novel on Yellow Paper by Stevie Smith

Post by Stefanie on Mon Feb 01, 2010 3:05 pm

Dorothy, I was very uncomfortable at times about the portrayal of Jews in the book too. I thought at first she was anti-semitic but then later when she was talking about Germany and was bothered by what was going on there I felt better. While I wouldn't call her anti-semitic it does seem she holds a sort of view of Jews as being somehow exotic or Other, why else would she get such a thrill from being the only "goy" at a party? And the fact that she called herself a "goy" is interesting too since it has the possibility of negative connotations. Overall I don't think she means any harm but instead displays a certain ignorance and tactlessness.

Danielle, oh, good pick up on that! The tiger at the end is named Flo.

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Re: Novel on Yellow Paper by Stevie Smith

Post by Rebecca H. on Mon Feb 01, 2010 3:59 pm

What Smith does with her talk about Jews feels really risky to me, although people from her time might not think so? But it seems that she is completely open about whatever comes into her mind, however ugly it is, as Litlove said, and then she is willing to recognize later what a horrible thing it was. Perhaps you could argue she is exploring openly the ugliness that is in her own mind and is in other people's minds with the idea that to understand it is important and a step toward getting over it. Because she does seem to recognize later how awful her thoughts at the party early on were.

It's certainly a kind of openness we don't deal well with now, but maybe there's something admirable about her willingness to recognize her failings. Or maybe I'm being too charitable?

Now that I think about it, though, I argued in my post that she didn't seem to be fully self-revealing, that she might be using words to hide as much as to reveal. Now I seem to be contradicting myself!

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Re: Novel on Yellow Paper by Stevie Smith

Post by Stefanie on Mon Feb 01, 2010 7:13 pm

Heh, I was wondering if you would catch that you were contradicting what you had said in you post but I think the book kind of inspires a contradictory response Smile

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Re: Novel on Yellow Paper by Stevie Smith

Post by Rebecca H. on Tue Feb 02, 2010 2:07 am

I've been thinking about the issue of just how open and honest Pompey comes across in the novel. At first it felt like she was using language to hide herself, at least a bit, because of the way she never gives us a coherent picture of herself. She never stops to summarize her life or fill us in on the details. There are so many things we don't know about her.

And yet now I'm thinking that she's not really hiding herself so much as trying to capture what's going on in her mind as accurately as possible, which means of course she's not going to stop and summarize who she is and what her life has been like. That's not what runs through her mind. Instead, we get bits and pieces of her life as they occur to her.

Any thoughts about this? Did she strike you as trying to be completely honest about herself?

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Re: Novel on Yellow Paper by Stevie Smith

Post by Litlove on Tue Feb 02, 2010 9:38 am

Dorothy - that's very much the way I read it: as a portrait of a mind thinking, and so beset with moments of incoherence and rambling, before changing gear in a new direction and setting off again. I thought it was striving for authenticity in its representation of consciousness, which is definitely honesty, but not the poised and considered kind.

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Re: Novel on Yellow Paper by Stevie Smith

Post by Stefanie on Tue Feb 02, 2010 2:13 pm

I don't see Pompey as being dishonest either. But my goodness, "as a portrait of a mind thinking," like Litlove says it's all over the place. Do people really think like that? It's like being inside the mind of someone with ADHD. Come to think of it, my husband has mild ADHD and sometimes conversations with him are like the inside of Pompey's head!

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Re: Novel on Yellow Paper by Stevie Smith

Post by Litlove on Tue Feb 02, 2010 10:07 pm

Stefanie - I am in awe of the inside of your mind! Mine definitely flits from topic to topic with all kinds of bizarreness inbetween!

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Re: Novel on Yellow Paper by Stevie Smith

Post by Stefanie on Wed Feb 03, 2010 1:25 am

Litlove, Hmm, really? Maybe I'm the weird one then Very Happy My mind tends to dwell and work things over. It moves from topic to topic at a rather pedestrian pace. None of this flitting business for me. Obviously Pompey would classify me as a foot-on-the-ground person, though I enjoy looking up and watching others flit Wink

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Re: Novel on Yellow Paper by Stevie Smith

Post by Rebecca H. on Wed Feb 03, 2010 2:23 am

I'm definitely a foot-on-the-ground person, but my thinking is all over the place. I'm not at all like Pompey, but I do recognize how her mind moves from subject to subject quickly. I suppose I thought everyone was like that. Perhaps people's minds are more different than we think!

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