Monday, June 13, 2016

Short Take: Novel on Yellow Paper, Stevie Smith

Stevie Smith's Novel on Yellow Paper (1936) is a charming, freewheeling portrait of life as a twentysomething middle-class woman in 1930s London. The apparently autobiographical protagonist works as a magazine publisher's secretary, and her experiences are used as a whimsical springboard for a variety of meditations on life, society, and writing. It's refreshing to get a piece like this from a woman's perspective. Most writers who work in this mode are men, such as Henry Miller and the Beats. But Smith has what it takes to make it work, namely an engaging personality and a good sense of humor. She describes the book at one point as "a foot-off-the-ground novel," and that "if you are a foot-on-the-ground person, this book will be for you a desert of weariness and exasperation." A reader can have both reactions. The pleasures of the book are its spontaneity and tone, which can leave one unconcerned about structure to a certain extent. That said, the occasional flights of run-on sentences are tiresome, and the book is best read in short bursts. Reading it is like drinking spirits. Too much in a short time may leave one cranky, worn-out, and hung over, but a little bit here and there can brighten the days as one makes one's way through the bottle.

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