‘For this book is the talking voice that runs on, and the thoughts come, the way I said, and the people come too, and come and go, to illustrate the thoughts, to point the moral, to adorn the tale.
Oh talking voice, that is so sweet, how hold you alive in captivity, how point you with commas, semi-colons, dashes, pauses and paragraphs?’
Some books are all about the voice, and never more so than Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper. In it, Pompey Casmilus, a cumbersome name hard to reconcile with its mercurial, skipping persona, recounts her life as it occurs to her – we hear about her work as a private secretary, about her days lived tranquilly with her aunt, the noble Lion, her failed love affair with Freddy, who wants the kind of marriage and orthodox existence that fleet-footed, butterfly minded Pompey cannot countenance, and about a moving constellation of friends and acquaintances, even odd German strangers who try to pick her up on trains. (‘So then he leant across, very magnetic in the eyes and said: I know everything you are thinking. Phew-oops dearie, this was a facer, and a grand new opening gambit I’d never heard before. I could only think to say: Well, well, well’.) And no matter what the subject, whether death, religion, Nazi Germany, lost love or Russian drama, Pompey’s voice plays and toys with it, casting it around in her curious combination of slang and quotation and foreign idioms, all thrown in for light-hearted if serious-minded fun. If you like the voice, this is a book you’ll love, but if you don’t like it, then as Pompey herself predicts ‘Foot-on-the-ground person will have his grave grave doubts, and if he is also a smug-pug he will not keep his doubts to himself, he will say: It is not, and it cannot come to good.’
Stevie Smith is best known for her poetry, and perhaps best of all for the poem that begins:
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
I must say that whole tracts of my life would have to pass by unarticulated if I hadn’t had the phrase ‘not waving but drowning’ to hand. This is Stevie Smith’s particular talent, the throwaway remark that lands a hefty punch, a casual joke that reveals something peculiarly profound. Her poems, like her prose, are often superficially artless, catchy as a music hall lyric, bound up with a strange chameleon grace that bends them in and out of different speaking voices. Her life was notably identical to Pompey Casmilus’s – she lived a maiden’s existence with her aunt, having lost her parents early, she was private secretary to two magazine publishers for twenty years, and she had many friends whom she loved dearly and satirized shamelessly. Late on in life she discovered a talent for live poetry reading, where her girlish, charming and expert performances always won over her audience. According to critic Ian Hamilton ‘To hear them chuckling over her cute spiritual despairs was a fine bonus for her old age, and she took particular pleasure in upstaging the beatniks at the avant-garde poetry rallies she for some reason kept getting invited to throughout the 1960s.’ There was enough that was genuine and startling about Smith’s work to hook her reader, but there was a fine, laughing, ludic quality to her writing too, that faced up to hardship and sorrow but never quite took them seriously.
I really loved this book, although I didn’t always understand it, or follow Pompey’s rollercoaster of thought with sympathy. But she sounded so like my students when they are off on a riff, naïve and knowing, erudite and yet childish. I couldn’t help but laugh at her silly slang and her razor sharp perceptions. I’ll tell you who else she reminded me of, and that’s Gertrude Stein. The singing phrases and contorted yet rhythmic repetitions were so like Stein’s translations of the spoken voice into prose. But Stevie Smith’s preoccupations are far more metaphysical than Stein’s, her voice more lyric and whimsical. By the end of the novel, I felt the key to it was the ‘rhythm of visiting’ that is so precious to Pompey that it prevents her from marrying.
‘I have traveled and come and gone a great deal. I am toute entière visitor. That is what I am being all the time. […] That is the very highest pleasure to me, that it is a visit that comes to an end, that may recur, that may again come to an end and be renewed. The rhythm of visiting is in my blood.’
Inside Pompey’s mind and, therefore, on the yellow pages of her novel, there is nothing but endless visiting, as thoughts and memories arise and go away, some abandoned the moment they get too boring for Pompey to care, some cherished and waved off with regret. No topic may dominate, no emotion or mood may reign supreme. Instead, all is transience and charm and serious distraction. Just like the moment when Pompey’s grief about Nazi Germany is immediately and wholly replaced with book lust when she spots her sleepy train companion abandoning his copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. We are all waving and drowning, waving and drowning, on an endless loop, Stevie Smith suggests, and if we can permit ourselves to grow accustomed to it, that very ambivalence may be our saving grace.