Once I entered your Novel on Yellow Paper (1936), I immediately noticed three things: that I was being held captive; that I was complicit in my captivity; and that the thing that held me inside was neither plot nor character, but something less tangible. I had fallen in love with a voice. Yours, I presume, but not quite.
The novel is narrated in first person by Pompey Casmilus, a twentysomething middle-class single woman who lives in London during the 1930’s and works as a secretary for a magazine publisher. We follow her freewheeling account of everything that goes through her mind as she types the novel on yellow paper during her office hours.
The book has no definite plotline – in stream-of-consciousness musings, Pompey recounts her life as it happens to her, surging from the present to the past, revealing a small opening into the future, and then going back again. In snapshots, we read about her job, her travels, her family, love affairs, friends and acquaintances. She then zooms out of her experiences and places them against a larger backdrop – one small event leads into a seemingly unconnected idea, then back to another event, and just when we think the sentences are going nowhere, Bang!, we are faced with a somewhat coherent portrait of the time about which she is writing. Or maybe not exactly the portrait of the time, but the experience of having lived it – the how rather than the what; the rambling voice, rather than what this voice is enunciating. As Pompey warns us, “this book is the talking voice that runs on”. Randomly, she digresses and meditates on class, religion, marriage, anti-Semitism, the rise of Nazism in Germany, Catholicism, sex and death, literature and writing.
This is, by and large, a novel about how (not) to write a novel. You confront the subjectivity of interpretation and the artificiality of conventional fictional devices, on the one hand, by embedding the story within the solipsistic account of a narrator determined to break off with form; on the other hand, you make the opposite move of breaking off with solipsism itself, by continuously addressing the reader, as in a fragmented conversation – thereby inviting us to recognize the exchange between author and reader, and inviting us to play along with you and Pompey.
The use of language (as convention) in order to go beyond the conventional is the core of this game you invite us into. You try to embody in language language’s own incapacity to embody experience without taming, reducing it; you try to make incomprehension comprehensible; you play with our expectations, by enacting in the page the ways in which the uses of language and conventional fictional devices shape our expectations, as readers, and thus shape and are shaped by our interplay with you, as author. You refuse to impose meaning; you call us to complete the blanks, only to then make trivial and senseless our very quest for meaning. Here it is worth remembering the book’s subtitle: ‘Work It Out For Yourself’.
I am tempted to read your novel as autobiographical, and to read Pompey as your alter ego – much like your narrator, you wrote Novel on Yellow Paper after having been told, by a publisher who refused to publish your poems, that you should write a novel instead. So is this book a private joke? An ongoing laughing voice? Since your novel – this game you invite us into – collapses author, reader and narrator, we are only left with this voice.
And what a charming voice it is. Pompey’s tone verges from naiveté to satire and malice, as if she were mocking the reader’s innocence for believing her innocent. She is witty, ironic, and delightfully sharp. Pompey is a character with an edge, bending herself from inside out and back. Her swirling voice toys with the interplay between slang, foreign idioms and erudite quotations; it toys with rhythm and repetition as means to uncover nonsense, bending everyday things into oddity.
I am also tempted to explore the very act of naming you problematize in your novel. Your narrator’s name – Pompey Casmilus – combines the two main competing forces in your book: the solidity and imposed discipline of convention, personified by the reference to the Roman general Pompey; and the mercurial, untamed, eloquent nature of your prose, personified by the reference to the Greek God Hermes (Mercury, or Camilus, the name the Phoenicians gave to him). The very title of your book could be a reference to the British literary periodical The Yellow Book, or to the illicit French books which were wrapped in yellow paper to alert the reader to their lascivious content. Am I going to far in making such associations? Perhaps I am.
So back to the voice that caught me in a swirl and held me inside in its captivity, moving back and forth, like a deep tide. This voice has a deceptive, watery quality to it: it blinds us with the light it reflects from the outside, but on the inside its undercurrent is dark, seeped in melancholy and despair. I could not quite distinguish what was swirling along in this voice: this thing that held me, was it waving, or drowning?
“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?” – Stevie Smith, Novel on Yellow Paper
“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.” – Stevie Smith, Novel on Yellow Paper
“Some people take sex like it was a constitutional exercise, some people take it like it was a conflict. Some people have to mix it up with a lot of talk, explaining and arguing and declaiming, and some people take it like it was all hatred and cruelty.” – Stevie Smith, Novel on Yellow Paper
About the book
- Virago Modern Classics, 1986, 252 p. Goodreads
- Virago, 2015, 256 p. Goodreads
- New Directions, 1994, 264 p. Goodreads
- My rating: 5 stars