Author: Stevie Smith
Details: (c) James MacGibbon 1936; Pub 1993 Virago; ISBN 0-86068-146-7
Verdict: Novel on yellow paper is an intriguing glimpse of a character and milieu.
Reasons for reading it: My brother the Thuggish Poet is into early feminist novels at the moment, and has been passing on some gems to me.
How it came into my hands: Pesach present from the aforementioned brother.
In spite of the title, Novel on yellow paper isn't meaningfully a novel, more a stream of consciousness. Pompey's voice is witty and engaging enough that I wanted to carry on reading in spite of the annoying lack of structure. Of course, it isn't as artless as it appears, the seemingly random jumping about between topics does actually impart meaning, but so subtly that you only realize the connections in hindsight. Pompey does comment that people who prefer linear, logical writing probably won't get on with the book, but even though I'm clearly not the intended audience I did enjoy it. Even more than the lack of clear storyline, you might have thought that opening with several pages of diatribe about how stupid and annoying Jews are would put me off, but the tone is so ironic that I couldn't quite take offence.
Actually, it turns out that the comments about Jews are a set-up for a later passage, where Pompey visits Nazi Germany and comes to the realization that the kind of casual "some of my best friends are Jews, but you know how they are" antisemitism can easily be twisted by dark political forces. I think the book is worth it for an honest and frankly terrifying appraisal of 30s Germany from a truly contemporary voice. A lot of post-war writers do cleverly ironic things portraying English characters' view of the early stages of Nazism, but there's no substitute for the real thing. Pompey is fairly horrified by the political situation in the immediate aftermath of the Enabling Act and Nuremburg laws, but clearly Smith genuinely had no idea how bad things were going to get. Reading Pompey's reaction to German fascism, as someone who was steeped in European culture, and had plenty of German friends and often visited the country, is a spookily fascinating experience.
Her comments about this topic are as oblique as her thoughts about everything else, though. There's a strong undercurrent of condemnation of what in modern terms would be called homophobia, but nothing is said explicitly, the reader has to reconstruct it from offhand remarks scattered throughout the text. Actually, one area where Smith isn't oblique is in reclaiming sexual freedom for women; Pompey talks quite openly about how much she enjoys sex, and doesn't see why it should be either restricted to an expression of True Love, or reduced to mere enjoyable exercise. The impression I get from the text is that the latter view had at least some currency in middle-class 30s society, so I don't think Smith was doing anything completely outrageous by discussing the issue.
The other theme of the book is the standard early feminist one, about the importance of having one's own space, and breaking away from the assumption that the only possible life path for women is marriage and children. Pompey doesn't complain very much about how unfair society is to women, but seems to take it as a given that women could have far more freedom if they would just open their eyes and stop believing outdated myths about gender roles. At the same time, she's obviously very distressed about breaking up a good relationship because her boyfriend can't deal with the fact that she doesn't leap straight from being in love with him to wanting to marry him and buy a nice little house in the suburbs and have a couple of children.
Sometimes Pompey's voice gets a bit grating, especially when for no obvious reason she writes long paragraphs with the syntax of a German speaker with less than perfect English. A lot of my reaction to her seemingly random comments was rather, wtf?! But there were plenty of genuinely comic moments; the randomness itself is a source of humour too. There are several really moving passages, and the book as a whole provides a lot of food for thought via the superficially light tone.