A small bookshop in Caterham, Surrey, was my regular haunt as a teenager and young adult. Here I found, among the Penguin Modern Classics, Stevie Smith's Novel on Yellow Paper. Intrigued by its title, I took it off the shelf and read the opening: "Beginning this book (not as they say 'book' in our trade – they mean magazine), beginning this book, I should like if I may, I should like, if I may (that is the way Sir Phoebus writes), I should like then to say: Good-bye to all my friends, my beautiful and lovely friends. And for why? Read on, Reader, read on and work it out for yourself."
Such button-holing immediacy was impossible to resist. The voice intrigued with its flip informality, its teasing rhythms, and the way it both cajoled and rebuffed. We soon discover that Pompey Casmilus, the gossipy office-girl narrator, works as a secretary for Sir Phoebus Ullwater, the director of a magazine empire, just as Smith went to work for Sir Neville Pearson at Newnes. It was evident that Sir Phoebus, like Sir Neville, was merely a figurehead. Both Pompey and Sir Phoebus get quickly bored. "We indulge in the utmost limit of boredom, he in his room and I in mine, and stagger out when tea time comes, as it must, however it comes, whether rung for on the house phone, or trundled in by the hired girl, that's like an angel of grace breaking in on an orgy of boredom to which my soul is committed."
Virginia Woolf's roving consciousness lies behind the prose in Novel on Yellow Paper, but the tone owes more to Dorothy Parker. Then, too, there is a knowing handling of rhythmic repetitions, a debt perhaps to Gertrude Stein, and in several places a delight in American slang which is used as a challenge to mandarin prose. This is, after all, as Smith says, a "foot-off-the ground" novel, implying a want of balance and a readiness to fly off at a tangent.
"So blended and intertwisted in this life are occasions for laughter and of tears." This line from De Quincey, which Smith quotes, perfectly describes Pompey's condition. Pompey's soliloquy keeps up a brisk pace which distracts, at first reading, from the melancholy which increasingly pervades the book. We follow Pompey to Germany, where she encounters the neurosis of 1930s Germany. We learn of her abortive fling with Karl and her inability to marry Freddy. There are distinct intentions behind Smith's engagingly idiosyncratic manner, and every new reading of this book uncovers further depths. When first published in 1936, it overnight turned Smith into a celebrity. It was swiftly followed by the first two collections of her poetry for which, today, she is better known. But the subversiveness of this novel has never lost its appeal, its greatness lying in its exuberant celebration of the uncircumscribed spirit.
Frances Spalding's 'John Piper, Myfanwy Piper: lives in art' is published by Oxford