1 March, 2005Issue 4.2EuropeLiteraturePoetryWriters

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Stevie Smith in Combat

Will May

Romana Huk
Stevie Smith: Between the Lines
Palgrave, 2004
344 pages
ISBN 033354997X

How far is reclamation the business of literary criticism? Romana Huk’s new book on Stevie Smith (1902-1971), the still underrated British poet and novelist tries, for many of its three-hundred-plus pages to attempt exactly that: to reclaim or, more accurately, to proclaim, the deceptive complexity of an author still best remembered for her mannered poetry readings, her much-anthologised ‘Not Waving But Drowning’, or the oddly intransigent drawings that accompanied much of her work. Stevie Smith, who inspired a play of her life and two biographies before academic criticism saw fit to assess her, is perhaps, for British readers, still irrevocably tied up with the myth of the English eccentric; we see her dressed in her childlike Victorian costumes haunting the reaches of outer London suburbia. How apt then, that this vigorous plea to take her work seriously comes from the pen of an American academic.

Many reasons can explain the ham-fisted entrance of Smith into the literary academy. Her work is dense and allusive, and yet her poetry often borders on the facile. She was a fiercely proud writer who always insisted on her own integrity, and yet throughout her work we find the equivalent of the authorial shoulder-shrug, the sense of the writer making it up as they go along. The act of reading her work is often an exercise in bafflement—her use of simple ballads and fairy tale scenarios, particularly in her later poems, only emphasises the divide between our familiarity with the raw materials of her work and our uncertainty as to what she has created with them. Stevie Smith also adopted a number of guises throughout her career; from the 1930s modernist novelist whose first published work, Novel on Yellow Paper (1936), was mistakenly attributed to Virginia Woolf, to the 1960s performance poet who took the stage along with Roger McGough and Michael Horovitz. Academia likes its subjects malleable but not slippery, and attempts to read her in any sharply defined context often tend to unravel before they have begun. Feminists, too, have been wary about trying to accommodate an author who scorns the idea of a women’s poetry anthology, and who calls the battle of the sexes an ‘ancient’ and, one infers, tired debate. Similarly, Smith’s work fights shy of a popular following; although her work inspires cultish websites and her poetry is still widely anthologised, her collected works have remained stubbornly out of print for nearly ten years. There seems, then, an unevenness in the way general readers and academics might approach her oeuvre.

To balance out this unsteady reputation, Huk’s book tries to do two things at once: to make Stevie Smith not only a complex writer, but also a serious one. The two attributes are not as compatible as they might seem at first glance. To acknowledge the difficulty and contradictions in Smith’s work is often simply to read her as the artless joker, whereas to focus on her work as one serious ‘project’ often shuts down the complicated crosscurrents to be found in her prose and poems. But this word ‘project’ is one to which Huk often returns. She absorbs Stevie Smith’s corpus, her three novels and her numerous poetry collections, into one ‘cultural project’. What makes this book’s argument so interesting is the nature of the ‘project’ Huk has assigned to her: Stevie Smith, whose popularity was at its height by her death in 1971, becomes a war writer.

As Huk points out, Stevie Smith’s three novels, published in 1936, 1938, and 1949 (before, during, and after, as Huk neatly surmises) are all explicitly concerned with the factors that lead to war. Novel on Yellow Paper (1936) draws links between the growing climate of hatred in Germany and the ‘acceptable’ anti-Semitism of pre-war Britain, Over the Frontier (1938) transforms Fighting for recognition Stevie Smith in combat its heroine into a secret spy, whilst The Holiday (1949) is a self-proclaimed portrait of the ‘post-war’ climate. Yet Smith remains apparently uncommitted to the political seriousness suggested by a brief outline of her novels. The Holiday was in fact composed during the war, but, owing to publishing difficulties at the time, later simply updated by Smith by adding ‘post’ to each mention of it in her text. This is an act that, for Huk, becomes problematic in her determination to find in Smith a deliberate social commentator. Huk attributes Smith’s actions to ‘the prompting of her publishers, who argued that though the novel was written during the war…its failure to find the light of day until 1949 meant that it must be updated to the post-war period.’

Yet Smith’s transgression in slipping between wartime and peacetime through the addition of ‘post’ suggests more than an over-subservience to her publisher. Does it point us once again to Smith the artless trickster, an author of contingency, or to a deeply complex writer whose casual adaptation of her own novel’s setting from war to post-war points up the limitations of language in tracking such an ideological shift from conflict to peace? What might it mean to call somebody like Stevie Smith a war writer? How important is the political in our engagement with literature? Or, to articulate the question that Huk’s book often seems to dodge, what constitutes a serious writer?

Theodor Adorno, the writer and cultural theorist whose shadow hangs over much of this book, notoriously questioned the efficacy of lyric poetry after Auschwitz. Given the recent Auschwitz memorial, it seems pertinent that I am reviewing a book that argues for the less-quoted conclusion of Adorno’s tenet; any post-war literature is by necessity a product and, in part, a reaction to that war. Several times while reading Between the Lines I was reminded of Dylan Thomas’s assertion in 1934 that ‘artists have set out, however unconsciously, to prove one of two things: either that they are mad in a sane world, or that they are sane in a mad world’.1 Huk, who suggests that Smith’s protagonists are undergoing Freud’s talking cure through the process of narrating their own texts, argues it both ways: the characters that people Stevie Smith’s novels and poems are deemed mad in their world of seeming sanity but, in fact, are the only ones attempting to cure their society’s collective political amnesia.

Yet Huk’s book perhaps shares some of that amnesia, despite its promises to give us a political reading of Smith’s work. It seems happier to repeatedly situate her within a cultural context of Heidegger and Hegel than to explore the often very interesting questions Huk’s approach raises about what a ‘war writer’ might in fact be. Huk only offers us the equivocal argument that ‘indeed, at least in some respects, it would not be wrong to think of Smith as being, broadly defined, a “war poet”’. In Huk’s bid to make a serious Smith, we lose any sense of how she might have taken up and abandoned this mantle for her own reasons. Why, for example, did Stevie Smith often dismiss her wartime novels in the final twenty years of her writing career? How did her alertness to the printed propaganda of the day relate to her own preoccupation with shaping an audience for her work? Smith’s own self-positioning as a war commentator in the 1930s and 40s, however oblique that commentary was, surely says as much about Smith’s own desire to attain the position of the political writer, to become the Dostoevsky whom she so admired, as it does about our desire to reclaim her as one.

The conclusion to Huk’s dazzlingly intelligent reading of Stevie Smith’s work seems particularly apt in this context. In the final sentences, Huk draws comparisons between Smith’s historical-political context and the current world situation—Smith’s ominous promise that ‘we shall kill everybody’ in her poem ‘How do you see?’ becomes a prophetic warning of the war on terror. It is almost as if, having apparently argued for the efficacy of Smith as a war writer for the full length of the book, Huk was, after all, only seeking to reclaim an author with a continuing relevance—the context of war simply being the most contemporary one in which to situate her work. Huk, in effect, is attempting to reframe our understanding of Smith’s writing in much the same way that Smith herself attempted throughout her career.

Unfortunately, our passage through Huk’s book, extremely learned and well-researched though it is, is not made easier by her own style, which cumbersomely piles up clause after sub-clause. With such complex material (and treatment) as this, a reader needs more than an overuse of italics to navigate their way through the book’s argument. However, if Huk’s convoluted but innovative reading of Stevie Smith leaves us longing to return to the less leaden rhythms of Smith herself, a re-read of poems such as ‘Not Waving but Drowning’ and ‘The Frog Prince’ may no longer provide us with the soothing tonic we anticipated. Huk’s Smith is then undoubtedly serious, perhaps too serious; but as for complexity, it is primarily the critic’s muddling voice that confuses the difficult material it attempts to elucidate.

Will May is a DPhil student in English literature at Balliol College, Oxford. His thesis examines authorial self-construction in the work of Stevie Smith.

1. Dylan Thomas, Collected Letters, ed. Paul Ferris (London, 1985), 90.