Thursday, November 01, 2007

Stevie Smith and the Jews

Part of that pert and determined voice--and part of what makes Novel on Yellow Paper of continuing interest--is that Stevie Smith’s Pompey still has the power to shock. But when that shock comes in the form of garden variety 30s anti-Semitism, it’s hard to know how to take it.

If you do pick up Novel on Yellow Paper, you’ll find Pompey riding horses with her friend Leonie, “a Jewess, but slim” right in the opening pages. In spite of myself, I find this non sequitur very funny. Less funny but more interesting is her account of finding herself the only goy at a party:
Hurrah to be a goy! A clever goy is cleverer than a clever Jew. And I am a clever goy that knows everything on earth and in heaven. This moment of elation I am telling you about: the only living person in that room, the cleverest person in that room; the cleverest living goy.
Do all goys among Jews get that way? Yes, perhaps. And the feeling you must pipe down and apologize for being so superior and clever.
This nonchalant self-acceptance of her own prejudices is why I call her anti-Semitism “garden variety,” she seems to see her own opinions as utterly common to her context. But Pompey’s self-analysis is anything but ordinary. Even as she feels superior, she pursues that feeling, puts it under a microscope.

Not much more about Jews shows up for the next hundred pages though her thoughts about her German boyfriend Karl keep the topic close to mind. This is, after all, a 1936 novel, so knowing that Hitler is already in power, that the war is just 3 years away, gives her thoughts a special electricity.

She breaks up with Karl, goes to Germany, stays with some Jewish friends who already are keeping “a weather eye out for self-preservation” under Hitler. On the way home, she weeps on the train for fear of what may come and for shame at how her own thoughts might contribute to the general fund of hatred in the world, of mounting cruelty against Jews.

A hundred pages is a long time to wait for a character to redeem herself, and Smith doesn’t let Pompey completely off the hook here. Instead, just a few episodes later, Pompey finds herself thinking about a friend who’s just married a Jewish man, about how, for her, his Jewishness still conveys something meaningful about his personality: “she was married to a man that was—and after all I’ve said about Germany what black treachery and perfidy this is—well I’ll say it, got married to a man that is a Jew.”

I’m loving and admiring this more and more, and partly because it is shocking and partly out of historical interest but also because it really does seem to do something honest and kind of ugly but also really penetrating. What do you think? How far are you willing to go along with a text when it offends you?


genevieve said...

Anne, I was severely tested with this recently reading Christos Tsolkias' much acclaimed, but terrifying novel, Dead Europe, and it's a relief to broach the subject of offence. His book really, really is about hatred, in every sense of the word. I struggled to finish it even though his writing is quite remarkable.

Do you think Smith is taking the piss though? Sounds to me like she can't really be serious. I must get hold of the Yellow Novel sometime.

genevieve said...

whoops, I mean Novel On Yellow Paper.

Unknown said...

I felt tested, too, by Edie Meidav's novel about a Vichy war criminal: it made me feel gross just entering so deeply into his head without relief.

The Smith is different, I think, but it's not simply taking the piss. She still likes being able to make anti-Semitic comments even as she's thinking that the time for them has passed...