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.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.
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.
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?