Sunday, September 20, 2015

`It's the Aura, I Think'

Like her admirer Philip Larkin, Stevie Smith started out thinking of herself foremost as a novelist, and only latterly a poet. If I were a critic I would now lay out all the reasons you might wish to track down her novels (only the first remains in print) -- Novel on Yellow Paper (1936), Over the Frontier (1938) and The Holiday (1949) – read them, reread them, and pass them on to the intrepid readers in your life who presumably already know her poetry and recognize it as some of the finest English verse of the twentieth century. I’ve met hardly anyone who has read Smith’s fiction, and most know only a handful or her poems. Let me instead entice you with a sampler of sweets from the novels. First, from Novel on Yellow Paper, a passage that tells us something about Smith’s modus operandi, and does it with a wry Johnsonian echo:

“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.”
And here, the concluding lines of Over the Frontier, the least satisfactory of Smith’s novels:
“The thought and desire upon death is no salve for my mood, is but a cipher, an ignis fatuus, a foolish gesture, a child’s scream of pain. Not-self-violence upon the flesh, not a natural death, has promise of release. Power and cruelty are the strength of our life, and in its weakness only is there the sweetness of love.”
And here, a characteristic passage of breathless ingenuity, from The Holiday:
“Lopez has this method, she has a quick ear and a wonderful gift for mimicry. She will for instance overhear a remark in the street. It is rather like the competition for the best overheard remark, like the woman in the all-in wrestling match who said, Proper ape, ain’t he? or the Chekhov play remark, Makes you worry doesn’t it? or the bus remark, A little further along, dearie, I could never abide a warm seat, it’s the aura, I think. And for a competition it is all right. But in writing, though it is very good in Lopez’s writing, it is not always so good, because it is so often something that gets an effect of significance, that is without significance.”
It occurs to me that Smith’s novels, in their sparkling idiosyncrasy, are an acquired taste, not for everyone, rather like Henry Green’s or Ivy Compton-Burnett’s. She skirts whimsicality. If you told me you didn’t like them, I would reply, “I’m not surprised. My feelings are not hurt,” and I would make no effort to proselytize for them, then I might suggest you try her poetry again, and then drop the matter. Smith was born on this date, Sept. 20, in 1902, and died on March 7, 1971, at age sixty-eight.

1 comment:

Subbuteo said...

It seems to me - I have read Novel on Yellow paper - that she writes like she thinks. The passage you quote from The Holiday illustrates this well. It's kind of modernist, Joycean, Woolfian stream of consciousness to an extent and also reminds me of some of Eliot - "He likes to get the beauty of it hot". I guess her knack is in the ability to report it and serve it up whole and fresh as excavated from her mind. The charm is in the unvarnished nature of it and the refusal to apologise for the strange places her mind takes her to. Her originality lies in her complete eschewal of pretense to be anything other than she is.