NOVEL ON YELLOW PAPER by Stevie Smith (first published by Jonathan Cape in 1936)
Stevie Smith is more acclaimed as a poet than as a novelist and now I know why.
When I start reading a book I hate abandoning it but this rambling ‘novel’ defeated me half way in.
I may have given up even sooner but for a clever stunt on her part on page 25 where she writes the following:
“I will give 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 not 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. It was a mistake to get this book. You could not know”.
Now, prior to reading this I had never even heard tell of foot-on/off-the-ground people but in this context I take it that ON is bad and OFF is good.
I assume that to be OFF is to be open to loose strands and open-ended threads, to not be irritated by a “talking voice that runs on”. Being ON is to be literal-minded, straight and, by strong implication, a boring stick in the mud.
Her challenge is there in the novel’s ” work it out for yourself” subtitle and the back page blurb offers another warning by quoting The Times Literary Supplement’s praise for the “Shandyesque digressions”.
Not wanting to be one of the blinkered readers who expect a start, middle and end (in that order) I did persevere but had to will myself to concentrate in a vain attempt to follow an author with a saucy wit but no concept at all of what makes a coherent novel.
It purports to be the voice of bored secretary (Pompey) but reads more like random autobiographical musings in which sexual liberty and independent thinking are celebrated but where she follows a train of thought without giving much any real reason why the reader should go there with her.
Life’s too short and I set it aside with a sense of relief.
Now I just have to live with the fact that I’m officially a foot-on-the-ground person.