Monthly Archives: January 2010

Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper

Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper was an enjoyable book in moments and a puzzling book in others; it’s one of those books I can’t quite figure out how to respond to, and I’m not sure another reading would help. There’s a lot I liked in the book, but what puzzles me about it is that given the books that appeal to me most, I should love this one, and it turns out I don’t, quite.

I admire its form and structure most; it’s the kind of novel where not much happens and instead we have someone sharing her thoughts with us the entire way through. The main character is called Pompey, and she writes in a way that seems spontaneous, telling us whatever is on her mind at the moment. We hear about her job — she works as a secretary for a certain Sir Phoebus —  her love affairs, her friends, her family — especially her aunt, the “Lion of Hull” — and her thoughts about society, literature, and politics.

Basically, there is no form or structure (as far as I can tell), and instead it’s a loose-flowing stream-of-consciousness monologue. Novel on Yellow Paper reminds me most of Nicholson Baker’s novel The Anthologist, where there is a structure and plot, but these are so basic they hardly count and the real point of the book is the voice. The pleasure of the book comes from listening to the main character share his thoughts. That’s what we’re offered in Smith’s book — a chance to get inside the main character’s head a little bit.

However, now that I think about it a little more, I’m not sure how much we do get inside Pompey’s head. It’s feels a little more like she uses words to charm and entertain us and to tell us about herself, but in such a way that she hides as much as she reveals. Words are as much a shield for her true self, or a cloud in which to hide, as a way to reveal herself.

She certainly is amusing and charming, and she has funny quirks that make her voice very distinctive. This passage illustrates her use of repetition and rhythm and also shows how frank and open she can be (or appear to be):

Oh how I enjoy sex and oh how I enjoy it. There have been many funny things about sex in my life that have made me laugh and so now I will tell you.

There was once a woman called Miss Hogmanimy. That was certainly a queer name. That was a name you would certainly want to get married out of. But this woman was very queer and wrought up over babies and the way babies are born, and she gave up her whole life going round giving free lectures on how babies are born. And it certainly was queer how ecstatic she got about this way how babies are born, and always she was giving lectures to young girls of school or school-leaving age. And all the time it was mixed up in a way I don’t just remember with not drinking, not drinking alcohol, but just carrying on ginger beer, kola and popgass. And so well this Miss Hogmanimy she got up in our school, now I think it was our school, chapel and so there she was in this school chapel, giving a lecture with illustrating slides to young girls on how babies are born …

…to listen to Miss Hogmanimy you’d think just knowing straight out how babies was born was to solve all the problems of adolescence right off. You’d come out straight and simple and full of hearty fellowship and right thinking if you just got it clear once and for all how babies are born. There’d be no more coming out in spots and getting self-conscious about the senior prefect, nor getting a crush on the English mistress, nor feeling proud and miserable like you do at that time, before you get grown up. There’d be none of this at all if you just knew how babies are born. So there she was.

Pompey is great at this kind of amusing light satire. There is a wonderful section on women’s fiction where she describes the typical “Fiction for the Married Woman,” which is all about learning to be happy with housewifely duties. The section is funny, but there is anger underneath the light surface. She decides that describing fiction for the unmarried woman is just too painful:

I cannot tell you about the stories for unmarried girls, the ones that are so cleverly and coyly oh. And they are so bright and smiling and full of pretty ideas that are all the time leading up to washing-up. You will know how they go but I cannot tell you. I am already feeling: No, I should not have said all this. It is the ugliest thing that could ever have been conceived, because it is also so trivial, so full of the negation of human intelligence, that should be so quick and so swift and so glancing, and so proud. And you Reader, whom I have held by the wrist and forced to listen, I am full of regret for you, because I have forced you to listen to this.

As I type out these passages, I’m thinking about how much I like them and how much I liked quite a few sections of the book. The phrase “so full of the negation of human intelligence” is just great, as is the apology to the reader (I wrote about another great section here).

The problem is that in between these sections I felt impatient and occasionally irritated. I couldn’t follow the way her mind worked very well, and the picture of who Pompey is and what her life is like remained hazy. I wanted a more coherent picture to come together, even if that took a while. I love voice-driven novels where plot is not the focus, but I think I need just a bit more coherence, direction, and forward-movement than I got here.

I also just don’t know anybody who talks like Pompey does or who thinks like she does, and I found her a little hard to believe. I suspect, to be really simple and non-literary-critical about things, that Pompey and I probably wouldn’t be friends. With this kind of novel, I want to be able to imagine having a conversation with the main character, and I’m having trouble imagining it here.

So, to sum up, it’s an original, puzzling, strange, frustratingly quirky book I would have loved to love.

You can read other posts on the novel here and join in the discussion at the forums here.

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A bookshelves meme!

Box of Books has a great meme I can’t resist: what do your bookscases say about you?

  • “I think I read much faster than I really do!” I have been collecting books at a fast and frantic pace lately, and somehow I still think that each one I buy, borrow, or mooch I will get to before very long.
  • “I went to graduate school!” I have my share of literary theory and criticism — Foucault, Derrida, Irigaray, Freud, etc., etc. Some of these books have even been marked up and written in.
  • “My husband went to graduate school too!” Although some of our books are on separate shelves, we combine much of our fiction and some poetry, which we keep in our living room. Here you will find not just one, but multiple copies of books like Ulysses and William Wordsworth’s The Prelude, in the big Norton Critical Edition. You will also find multiple copies of obscure eighteenth-century novels that almost no one reads unless they went to grad school.
  • “I studied eighteenth-century British literature!” I have books like Augustan Critical Writing, Critical Essays on Laurence Sterne, Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry, Women in the Eighteenth-Century, and a copy of Richardson’s Clarissa with lots of cracks in the binding.
  • “I’m mildly obsessive!” But only mildly. I keep our fiction downstairs alphabetized, and the books in my study are arranged by subject. But these books arranged by subject aren’t alphabetized. I only go so far.
  • “I love long novels!” I have lots of long Victorian novels, including tons of Dickens, Eliot, and Austen, as well as some Trollope. And I also have long, long books by Richardson, Burney, Dostoevsky, Thackery, Tolstoy, Lady Murasaki, and Cervantes.
  • “I have traditional tastes!” I’d like to read more widely than I do — from more cultures and from lesser-known authors — but the truth is I spent many years being trained in the canon, and although I do read outside of it, the results of that training are still there.
  • “I can’t get enough of essays!” I have a couple shelves devoted to essays, although I’d have more if I added all my unread collections, which I currently keep separately. I have a row of large collections lined up in a row, and the site is a beautiful one.

Anybody else want to say what your shelves say about you?

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Notes

  • Today happens to be my birthday. 36 still counts as mid-30s, right? It’s not such a bad place to be, I think. My day was fairly low key; it’s a busy teaching day for me, so Hobgoblin and I will celebrate more tomorrow. He did give me my present today, which is a Garmin bike computer with GPS (this one, if you are interested), which will be lots of fun to use on bike rides and for training. He also got me a gift certificate for a massage at the local massage place in town. Yay!
  • I got some books as well. A friend of mine sent me a whole stack, including The Old Religion by David Mamet, The Public Image by Muriel Spark, Shroud by John Banville, and Queen Lucia by E.F. Benson. This last one I’ve already read but didn’t own, so now I have my own copy.
  • Oh, and I got home from work today to find that Hobgoblin brought home cupcakes! I had one tonight and will have another tomorrow. Yum.
  • In other news, I have now finished Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper and am trying to figure out what I will say about it for the Slaves of Golconda discussion this weekend. I’m not sure yet. We’ll see.
  • This means it’s time to pick a new novel. I’m not entirely sure what that will be, but I’m thinking maybe Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. A friend of mine said she has been enjoying it a lot, and I think I might read along with her.
  • Another friend recently lent me Sarah Vowell’s book The Wordy Shipmates. The back cover says “To this day, America views itself as a Puritan nation, but Sarah Vowell investigates what that means — and what it should mean. What was this great political enterprise all about? Who were these people who  are considered the philosophical, spiritual, and moral ancestors of our nation? What Vowell discovers is something far different from what their uptight shoe-buckles-and-corn reputation might suggest.” Sounds interesting, right?
  • And now I’m off to watch another episode of Brideshead Revisited. Three more to go.

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Farewell, My Lovely

Today was the first day of classes for me, and I’m still reeling from the day. The first day of classes is never difficult — just introductions and going over the syllabus and maybe an activity or exercise or something — but it’s always a shock to be back in school again. I suppose it didn’t help much that I went on a 50-mile bike ride before heading off to class. That’s maybe not the best way to get myself ready. But it was so much fun. I went with Hobgoblin and one other friend, and we stopped to get cupcakes halfway through the ride, and the whole thing was lovely.

But on to books … my mystery book group met last Saturday to discuss Raymond Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely, and it was a great meeting, as usual. I was glad to read Chandler this time around because he’s such an important figure in the genre and someone I hadn’t yet read. We had already read a number of books you might call hard-boiled — Dashiell Hammett, Chester Himes, Cornell Woolrich — and it was time we got to Chandler.

I thoroughly enjoyed the novel and finished it feeling that I’d like to read Chandler again soon (although, of course, it probably won’t happen, given everything else I want to read soon). The funny thing is that this is SO not the kind of book I like. It’s plot-driven, first of all, and without much in the way of character analysis or direct discussion of ideas, and also without any complex, non-stereotypical female characters (well, arguably — there’s one who might count). It’s very stereotypically male and violent.

But still, it’s nice to read something different from the kind of thing I usually like. I won’t even try to tell you much about the plot, as that would be way too complicated. Basically, the main character Philip Marlowe follows a strange-looking, very, very large man into a bar, just because the situation looks interesting, and mayhem and murder ensue. In the course of investigating the violence — Marlowe isn’t actually hired to do this, but he doesn’t seem to have much else going on — he gets himself into a whole mess of trouble. He is attacked, drugged, warned away by the police, seduced (well, seduction is attempted, at least), attacked again, and attacked again.

The great thing about Marlowe is that he just keeps going. I think it’s his character and especially the way his character is portrayed through the first-person narration that I enjoyed so much about the book. There’s a bitterness and anger about how messed up the world is that keeps him going — that and the fact that he has to make a living somehow, although surely there are safer ways? As a private detective, though, he can work on his own, make his own rules, take the cases he wants, and look into things he wants to even if no one has hired him to do it. There’s a jaded, world-weariness about him, along with cleverness and surly quick-wittedness that seem to mask an inner, very well-hidden sentimental side. Why else would he put himself at risk for such an uncertain, ill-paid job, if he didn’t believe in the work, somehow, and think that what he is doing is worthwhile? Or maybe it’s just that he’d be bored otherwise. Or maybe he likes the danger and the excitement of it. There’s something mysterious about his motivation, and that mysteriousness is part of the appeal.

The other great thing about the book is the writing. Chandler gets the tone exactly right — lyrically bitter. He’s especially good with metaphor and simile:

I sat there and puffed my pipe and listened to the clacking typewriter behind the wall of my office and the bong-bong of the traffic lights changing on Hollywood Boulevard and spring rustling in the air, like a paper bag blowing along a concrete sidewalk….

I looked at my watch once more. It was more than time for lunch. My stomach burned from the last drink. I wasn’t hungry. I lit a cigarette. It tasted like a plumber’s handkerchief….

A girl passing me on the way from the elevators back to her work turned and gave me one of those looks which are supposed to make your spine feel like a run in a stocking.

He also has a great sense of humor, and I laughed out loud at a lot of passages. Here’s how one chapter opens:

I was sitting on the side of my bed in my pajamas, thinking about getting up, but not yet committed. I didn’t feel very well, but I didn’t feel as sick as I ought to, not as sick as I would feel if I had a salaried job. My head hurt and felt large and hot and my tongue was dry and had gravel on it and my throat was stiff and my jaw was not untender. But I had had worse mornings.

It was a gray morning with high fog, not yet warm but likely to be. I heaved up off the bed and rubbed the pit of my stomach where it was sore from vomiting. My left foot felt fine. It didn’t have an ache in it. So I had to kick the corner of the bed with it.

There’s something exhilarating about the language in the book — exhilarating as Marlowe’s adventures are, maybe. It’s such a pleasure listening to him wise-crack and swagger in such wonderfully poetic language.

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Novel on Yellow Paper

First of all, check out the new Diversify Your Reading blog, a “a clearinghouse of blog reviews of books by authors underrepresented in English-language publishing today.” There are lists of authors and books from around the world with links to the blogs that reviewed them. You are welcome and encouraged to add links to your own reviews on the site. I just added a bunch of links today. I think it’s a great idea for a blog and a wonderful place to find out about books from a whole range of authors.

I want to write a review of Raymond Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely and write about last night’s mystery book group meeting, but for tonight, I think I’ll post a long passage from Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper, which is the next Slaves of Golconda read (discussion to begin on January 31st).

I’m not entirely sure what I think about the novel, but it does have some utterly charming passages. This is one where the narrator talks about what kind of novel she is writing, and I’m a sucker for this kind of metafictional approach.

But first, Reader, I will give you 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 are 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 you made to get this book. You could not know.

And it is not to be proud I say: I am a foot-off-the-ground person; or to be superior that I say: Foot-on-the-ground person — Keep out. It is to save you an exasperation and weariness that have now already hardly brought you to this early page.

But if you do not know whether you are a foot-off-the-ground person or a foot-on-the-ground person, then I say, Come on. Come on with me, and find out.

And for my part I will try to punctuate this book to make it easy for you to read, and to break it up, with spaces for a pause, as the publisher has asked me to do. But this I find very extremely difficult.

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?

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. And I shall say, yes, it is and shall. And he will say: So you think you can do this, so you do, do you?

Yes I do, I do.

That is my final word to smug-pug. You all now have been warned.

I appreciate an author who warns me about what I will find in the book I’m about to read. As for being a foot-on-or-off-the-ground kind of person, I don’t really know what I am, so I’m coming along to find out.

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Ten Random Books Meme

I saw this meme over at Danielle’s who got it from Simon, and it looked like fun, so here goes. Here are the rules:

1.) Go to your bookshelves…
2.) Close your eyes. If you’re feeling really committed, blindfold yourself.
3.) Select ten books at random. Use more than one bookcase, if you have them, or piles by the bed, or… basically, wherever you keep books.
4.) Use these books to tell us about yourself – where and when you got them, who got them for you, what the book says about you, etc. etc…..
5.) Have fun! Be imaginative. Doesn’t matter if you’ve read them or not – be creative. It might not seem easy to start off with, and the links might be a little tenuous, but I think this is a fun way to do this sort of meme.
6.) Feel free to cheat a bit, if you need to…

I went to all my main bookshelves in my study and my living room so I could get a variety of books. I did cheat a little bit when I chose books that belong to Hobgoblin or that … well, that bored me or that gave my list too much repetition. But for the most part, this is what I selected, with eyes closed:

  1. Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker. This is one of the books I’ve been meaning to read for a while. In fact, I included it on a list of books I want to read not too long ago, although it didn’t make it to the TBR challenge list (on my sidebar). It’s one of those books that by the time I read it, I will have been saying I’m going to read it for ages. Oh, well. That’s true for a lot of books.
  2. Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. This is one of the longest books I’ve read, if not the longest, period. This book was assigned for a grad class I was auditing; I didn’t finish it that semester, but the Christmas afterward I got to the end. It’s a great book and I wouldn’t mind reading it again one day — but my God, is it long. I just love epistolary novels, and this is one of the most important.
  3. David Richter, ed., Falling Into Theory: Conflicting Views of Reading Literature. This was a textbook for an undergrad class in literary theory, my first exposure to it. Now it’s a little dated, but looking through the table of contents, it still looks pretty good. I’m not sure why it’s called “falling” into theory, though.
  4. Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book. This book came from my essay shelves. I read it a year or two ago and loved it. Really, if you want to read some nonfiction and want to read something that’s really, really old (10th-11th century) and from another culture, this is perfect. It’s charming and fun.
  5. Maria Edgeworth’s Helen. This came from my TBR shelves. I’ve read Edgeworth’s novel Belinda and really liked it and have been meaning to read more of her work forever (of course). She’s a really good writer who gets overshadowed by Austen who lived around the same time. If you want more fiction from Austen’s time, Belinda is a great book to pick up.
  6. Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs. I was just thinking about this book because Zhiv wrote a post on academic novels that made me want to read more of them. I really liked this book and made a point of picking up another Lurie novel pretty soon after reading this one (The War Between the Tates). Lurie is someone I hope to return to again — before too, too long.
  7. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. This one belongs to Hobgoblin, but I read his copy so I included it in this list. It was an incredibly powerful read, dark and scary, but difficult to put down. I haven’t seen the movie yet, and I’m kind of scared of it. I don’t like scary movies, and this is bound to be terrifying. And yet it was such a good book, and I’m curious about the movie version. We’ll see.
  8. Colette’s My Mother’s House and Sido. I read this book a few years ago, but I first thought about reading it back in college when my Advanced Writing professor recommended it to me. That just goes to show that even though I do take forever to get around to reading something, I usually do get there eventually. I loved the book and am glad it stayed around in my mind for so long. Now I just need to get around to reading some of Colette’s fiction.
  9. Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. I read this one in college, and I don’t think I’ve reread it since then, although it’s possible. I do know that I listened to it on audio during the time I had a 1 1/2 hour commute each way a few years ago, and it was a good companion on the way to work. It’s such a great novel. I love books about people who read, even when bad things happen to them because of it, and this is such an important example.
  10. Rosy Thornton’s Hearts and Minds. Here’s another academic novel I really enjoyed. I read it a year or two ago and thought it was great fun — a good story, an interesting setting (Cambridge), good writing — it has everything.

Anybody else want to try this? My selections are fairly representative, I think. A decent number of classics, a few contemporary books, a couple essay collections — that sums up my reading pretty well.

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Plagiarism?

I’m about halfway through The Best American Essays 2008 and am greatly enjoying it. There are some stunningly good essays in the collection, and even the ones that aren’t stunningly good are still entertaining. There’s one on a lesbian wedding that I liked and one on how often great and famous quotations aren’t quoted correctly — the phrase “nice guys finish last” was originally “The nice guys are all over there, in seventh place,” but the longer phrase was shortened to make a better headline.

I also really liked Jonathan Lethem’s essay on plagiarism called “The Ecstasy of Influence.” Lethem argues that our copyright laws are too strict. All art is essentially borrowing and we should be encouraging the free movement of art and ideas rather than trying to turn them into property and to increase profits from them as much as possible.

These aren’t the most original ideas in the world, but, it turns out, that is kind of the point. I enjoyed reading the essay because about halfway through it I decided to flip to the end to see how long the essay was and I noticed some interesting-looking endnote-type things there, although there weren’t any endnote numbers. I looked a little more closely and realized that the endnotes explained where he got his material from — and that much of the essay was plagiarized. I just now looked over the essay to write about it and realized that the essay is subtitled “A Plagiarism.” A big clue I missed, right?

That made the essay even more fun to read because from that point on, I kept flipping back and forth to see what was original Lethem and what was plagiarized. I had to laugh at myself for really liking a certain line that I later found out is plagiarized from the introduction to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, something I’ve read multiple times and should have remembered:

Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of the void but out of chaos.

That’s a good sentence to steal for my class on creativity, I think.

Lethem has taken big chunks of text from lots of different sources; I don’t really know what percentage of the essay is from other people, but that percentage is pretty high. But the essay isn’t really plagiarized, obviously, since he documents where his quotations come from pretty carefully. He also says the whole idea of writing a “collage text” isn’t new to him — of course.

One of the most interesting ideas in the essay is about how art participates in a gift economy, in addition to the market economy — the economy we are used to thinking of where things are bought and sold. The difference between the two is that “a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people, whereas the sale of a commodity leaves no necessary connection.” We buy things and feel no connectedness to the salesperson, but when we receive a gift, there is an emotional connection between us and the giver.

Art participates in both these economies at once — it can be bought and sold, obviously; we buy books, tickets to plays, and paintings to hang on our wall. But it also means something to us beyond that:

Art that matters to us — which moves the heart, or revives the soul, or delights the senses, or offers courage for living, however we choose to describe the experience — is received as a gift is received.

The way art participates in both kinds of economies is complicated, but what it means is that while art is a commodity, it can’t be fully reduced to a commodity. The problem with copyright laws as they exist now is that they push art too close to commodity status and try to negate the gift element of it:

But if it is true that in the essential commerce of art a gift is carried by the work from the artist to his audience, if I am right to say that where there is no gift there is no art, then it may be possible to destroy a work of art by converting it into a pure commodity. I don’t maintain that art can’t be bought and sold, but that the gift portion of the work places a constraint upon our merchandising.

Interesting, isn’t it? Should I give Lethem credit for these ideas? Who knows.

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