Monday, April 12, 2021

Stevie Smith's Novel on Yellow Paper (#1936Club)

 "...and how is it do-day, how is it to-day in this year of 1936, how is it to-day?"

Well, that's the question we're here to ask this week, isn't it?

Pompey Casmilus is the private secretary to Sir Phoebus in the publishing business. She's the narrator of the novel. She's well-educated--the book drops into German, French, Italian, Latin, Greek along the way--and she has literary aspirations of her own: she writes poetry. We're given samples. "That a poem I wrote, the way I wrote that other one I was saying and never got published. That's two off my hands."

We see things in her life; her boyfriends, two main ones, Karl the German that was, and Freddy the London suburbanite that is; her other friends; her relationship with her father, who abandoned the family; her mother, who died while was Pompey was still young; the aunt (the lion Aunt of Hull) who raised her. The WWI veteran who convalesces in her town, with whom she becomes friends; she's twelve at the start of that war. She goes to Germany before Hitler, but just, and is shocked out of her own, much milder, anti-Semitism. 

Pompey is interested in the intellectual currents of those years. Not only is there the situation in Germany, but the advent of sex education, Freudianism. I was particularly amused by her critique of classical scholarship--she dislikes Gilbert Murray's translation of Medea, because she finds it too emotional, insufficiently pure in its tragedy, not 'classical' enough. She prefers Racine's Phedre to Euripides' Hippolytus. At the time there was a growing awareness that the ancient Greeks weren't the icy Spock-ians they were long thought to be; Pompey is in favor of the old order. E. R. Dodds' Greeks and the Irrational (1951) would have just sent her round the bend. 

Correspondingly it's not a plot-driven novel. It's interested in the state of the 'modern' woman, and the back cover asks, '...but must she marry?' And it's true that's a question, but it's not the question; there is no conflict with an epiphany to wrap it all up.

Instead, I say it's a novel of voice. So, let's have some quotes!

"I'm typing this book on yellow paper. It is very yellow paper, and is this very yellow paper because often sometimes I am typing it in my room at my office, and the paper I use for Sir Phoebus's letters is blue paper with his name across the corner 'Sir Phoebus Ullwater, Bt.' and those letters of Sir Phoebus's go out all over the world. And that is why I type yellow, typing for my own pleasure, and not sending it by clerical error to the stockbrokers for a couple of thou. in Tekka Taiping, and not sending it to the Chief of Police with a formal complaint, and not sending it to Great Aunt Agatha asking her to, and asking her to..."

Yes, it really does say often sometimes, and it ends on the ellipsis in the original. 

"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."

That comes on page 38 in my New Directions reprint. So the warning is pretty early--but not at the very beginning...

"Astarte, Gave a Party, In Cromarty, Everyone was Rather Hearty."

A poem Pompey makes up spontaneously for Sir Phoebus.

"Harriet is also having troubles with her young man that sweet boy that is so very serious, and very teaching. Harriet is much more intelligent I think because she is not always being so serious. But this boy friend who is called Stephen, he is very serious indeed, and has never grown up out of being an undergraduate."

Anyway, you get the idea. Funny, thoughtful, but perhaps just a bit exasperating? If you've read it, what did you think?

There are several of Stevie Smith's own illustrations in this; the cover art is drawn by her. They're always fun.

I do think I like her poetry better.

It's the 1936 Club hosted by Simon and Kaggsy this week. Thanks to them for hosting!

Pompey Casmilus typing her novel (on yellow paper)

Link to my organizing post.


  1. like the drawing; it needs a caption: "WHAT did you say!??" another ellipsizer, i'll have to read it, tx...

    1. Pompey's clearly not typing at that point.

      Stevie Smith is pretty fun overall.

  2. I should read this. My kind of thing. Her poems, those strange little books, belong with the greats.

    1. Her poems are great. I liked this, but it did seem a little less great than the poems.

  3. That is the perfect opening question for the club! You did better than me - I tried this a few years ago and found the whole thing so annoying that I eventually gave up.

    1. There were moments! It took me longer to read than it should. On the whole I felt it worked, though I'll be much more likely to return to her poetry.

  4. I've heard of Stevie Smith for years but never read anything by her. I guess I think of her more as a poet. It's hard to tell if you liked the novel or not or if I would like it or not. Sometimes I love a distinct voice, but other times, well, it depends on the voice.

    1. I did like the novel, but it really depends on whether you like the sorts of things in the quotes. I like her poetry even better, though.

  5. This sounds good, but I bet it takes being in the right mood for it. Your review is excellent.

    1. Thanks!

      It's true: it does require the right mood, & it took me a little while to get into it.