The subtitle of the first of Stevie Smith’s three novels, Novel on Yellow Paper (1936), is “Or Work It Out for Yourself,” which she adapts from the book’s third paragraph:
“Read on, Reader, read on and work it out for yourself.”
That’s it, in toto. I like the cockiness of the voice and the assumption of intimacy between narrator (Pompey Casmilus, a mutated species of Smith) and reader – the sort of intimacy that permits and even encourages soft bullying. A fine poet, Smith is among my favorite writers of fiction, one whose example would be fatal if slavishly imitated. She is so much herself, so intractably idiosyncratic (from the Greek idios, “one’s own,” the same root as “idiot”), her example can be fatal to another writer. Second-hand coyness and cuteness are always fatal, or should be.
I first read Tristram Shandy, much admired by Smith, as a sophomore in college. My professor was an eighteenth-century specialist who adored Sterne and Swift. She loved satire and the play of ideas but more importantly she loved to laugh (her laughter, rare among females in my experience, was raucous and Rabelaisian but not irritating), and Tristram Shandy is laugh-out-loud funny.
At the desk beside me sat an intense, ascetic-looking fellow with long hair and a high forehead who seldom spoke. He was reputed to be writing a novel and was judged heroic, even noble, by most of us. One day, as the professor stood beside me, talking about Sterne, the rumored writer spoke up. The novel he was working on, he said, was written in a Shandean mode and was very long. I suppose we were polite and I was certainly intimidated. Later the professor said to me, quite seriously, “That will be a disaster, if he ever finishes it. You can’t successfully imitate Sterne.”
I’ve contemplated her observation for almost 40 years and accept its rightness. A fiction writer can imitate Chekhov and possibly get away with it – the plain voice, sympathetic objectivity, muted comedy. But the artful artificiality of Sterne’s voice – so ingratiating in the original -- invites cheap effects like whoopee cushions and bad impressions of Richard Nixon. At best, we can learn a graceful style and conversational artifice, but the puns, the whimsy, the sexual business, are best left to the master. Sterne suggests something similar at the start of Chapter XI in the second volume of Tristram Shandy:
“Writing, when properly managed, (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation. As no one, who knows what he is about in good company, would venture to talk all; -- so no author, who understands the just boundaries of decorum and good breeding, would presume to think all: The truest respect which you can pay to the reader's understanding, is to halve this matter amicably, and leave him something to imagine, in his turn, as well as yourself.”