Review: Novel on Yellow Paper, Virago reissue

This is my copy of Novel on Yellow Paper, Smith’s 1936 debut.

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Blurry because the camera was too saddened by the book’s condition to take a proper photo.

‘Well-loved’ would be a generous description. The cover is taped to the title page, and the book makes alarming cracking noises when I turn the pages.

Lucky, then, that a few weeks ago, I received a very kind message from Rachel at Virago Books. Having gathered that I work on Stevie Smith, she wrote to tell me that Virago were reissuing Novel on Yellow Paper in April. Would I like a copy of the new edition? And, while they were at it, some vintage merchandise postcards?

Yes. Yes, I would.

The parcel arrived this week. I nearly melted.

virago-parcel

Novel on Yellow Paper is fantastic. It’s frustrating, allusive, suggestive, funny, sad and ungraspable. I read it for the first time when I was eighteen, and was thoroughly confused; it’s taken until now for me to grow into its scale. I’m delighted that Virago are reissuing the book. And it’s very timely. Articles like this recent Guardian piece suggest to me that Smith’s due for a bit of a revival.

My little Penguin edition feeling very shabby indeed next to its sleek descendant.
My little Penguin edition feeling very shabby indeed next to its sleek descendant.

And what a great job they’ve done. Look at that cover.

virago-novel

The fiasco over Faber’s reissue of The Bell Jar showed how easy it is to get these new versions badly wrong. Virago, in contrast, plays it just right. The aesthetic’s not over-feminised. Against a slate-grey background, a sketched cat gazes through a window, made up of yellow pages.

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Whoever designed this cover really did their homework. The yellow pages are, in fact, adaptations of Smith’s scribbles in Some Are More Human Than Others (1958), her book of captioned sketches which is little known and terribly under-appreciated. More sketches pop up in the title and on the back. It’s great to see her less-famous work assimilated into the cover like this.

This is a reissue which understands that Smith wasn’t cute. Rachel Cooke‘s excellent, light-footed introduction underlines this:

It’s true that Stevie was birdlike, her mannerisms dainty and her looks gamine, and this was certainly something she chose to emphasise in later life when she began to wear self-consciously girlish clothes: shifts, pinafores, pretty brooches, Peter Pan collars. But in every other respect, she was far from little. Aunt wasn’t the only lion in Avondale Road.

I do prefer not to see Smith referred to as ‘Stevie’, even in an introduction which balances (very well) the personal with the critical. But that’s a very minor niggle about an edition which is otherwise so very good. The book is well-bound, with a lovely clear font. It’ll be a joy to work with this text.

Many thanks to Virago Books, and to Rachel Wilkie, for supplying me with a copy of the new edition.

© Noreen Masud 2015

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