Novel on Yellow Paper by Stevie Smith was first published in 1936. Supposedly the novel was written as a result of Smith being told by a publisher when she submitted a book of poetry that she should go and write a novel instead.
Pompey Casmilus works as the secretary of Sir Phoebus at a magazine publishing company. She is frequently bored and so decides to write a novel. She writes it on yellow paper so as not to get it confused with the correspondence she types up and sends out for Sir Phoebus. We are warned by Pompey from the get go that this is not going to be regular novel for she is a “foot-off-the-ground” person and her novel will follow suit. So we can’t say she didn’t warn us.
The novel has no true plot. Things happen to be sure. Pompey visits a boy she likes, Karl, in Germany and is appalled by what she sees there. She decides later that she can’t marry her boyfriend Freddy only to agree to marry him when he proposes and then ends up depressed when Freddy decides he can’t marry her and breaks off the engagement. There are stories about girlfriends and a horse named Kismet that she rode once. There are loads and loads of literary references and Pompey has a particular passion for Racine’s play Phedre. I thought at first there might be some connection between the novel and Phedre but as far as I can tell there isn’t.
The novel is also liberally sprinkled with untranslated French and German and I kept thinking I should look up at least some of it but never did. I’m not sure in the end that it would really have made that much of a difference.
Pompey is both a charming and frustrating character. Sometimes she makes me laugh, like when she is telling about her friend, Harriet, and Harriet’s boyfriend:
And Harriet is a darling and listens to him and comforts him for the sins of the whole world, which he must have upon his shoulders. But which were never meant for his shoulders at all. And he is suffering from this development-arrested-at-the-university. But Harriet is very adult, and is suffering from no arrestment in development.
And other times she just goes on and on and I got tired of her incessant voice however charming it is.
The book is very much like a conversation but it is a one-sided conversation where the reader, even though often addressed, is not allowed to get a word in edgewise. We are meant to sit and listen and keep our mouths shut as Pompey rattles on about whatever seems to come to her mind. She is one of those people who always has something to say about everything and keeps going on no matter what because silence would be unbearable.
I wonder if keeping the silence at bay might be the point? In spite of the incessant cheerfulness of Pompey’s voice she speaks of being sad, of tragic occurrences, and very often of death. Maybe for Pompey silence equals death so she talks and talks and talks to fill the void because she is terrified of the void. I’m not sure, just a thought.
Novel on Yellow Paper is definitely a book like no other I have ever read. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. Even an old New York Times book review didn’t help. The book is not exactly a comfortable experience so I can’t say I liked it. But I did like it in many respects and those outweigh the overall frustration and confusion.