Thursday, 23 July 2009

Novel on yellow paper (Smith) VMC 27

"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 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...
...But if you do not know whether you are a foot-off-the-ground person or a foot-on-the-ground person, then I say, Come on. Come on with me, and find out."

I think this extract really sets out the tone of Novel on yellow paper which is an absolutely delightful and individual read. It is the book of Pompey, who works in an office for Sir Phoebus, who composes her thoughts on yellow paper, as opposed to the blue of the official correspondence... In essence this is very autobiographical, and Pompey is Stevie Smith as she saw herself, as the author worked as a private secretary for Sir George Newnes, the magazine publisher. Apparently Smith tried to publish a book of poetry in 1935, but was told to go away and write a novel; this is the result, and it is unlike anything I've read before.
She skips between subjects in a stream of consciousness and we hear about her work in the office on a day to day basis, her life (living normally with her Aunt, but at present with her friend Harriet), and her thoughts on subjects as diverse as Euripedes and Nazi Germany. Hence the need to be a foot-off-the-ground person in order to appreciate it - i.e. you must be able to get past the need for a linear story and cope with something which is more discursive than descriptive. Yes, it is now dated, but I don't think that detracts from its value as a novel and it thus also provides insight into the 1930s when it was written.

Over the frontier and The holiday are also VMCs by Stevie Smith and I will be interested when I get to them to see how they compare.

This book has been published by a number of publishers, but here are the Virago covers - I read the 1980 one, which is the third one - I found it in our college library, but will be looking out for my own copy.


  1. Such a great review! So great, I want to read it!
    My local bookshop has secondhand copies of Stevie Smith (I picked up The Holiday there but already had Novel on Yellow Paper) - would you like me to look at prices the next time I'm in?

  2. Don't tempt me...but yes please!

  3. Hee. I'll pop in at some point next week. Did I tell you that this appears on the Guardian's 1000 Novels? So it's on my reading list for this year... rapidly out of control reading list, I might add.

  4. You think you can read 1000 novels in a year Claire?!

    Umm...I've actually just acquired a copy of Holiday...

  5. Oh God NO! I posted about it in March and had read around 165 of their list and trying to reach 200 within the year!

    Ha re: The Holiday!

  6. I have this, the second cover down, but not read yet... (how often is that my response?! All the time!)