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The interior life of an episode of Neighbours
February 28, 2013 4:06 AM   Subscribe

"Misadventures was written in a flat, artless style — as The Daily Telegraph’s critic put it, like “a cross between a police officer giving evidence in court and a slightly demented grandmother intent on telling you everything over a cup of tea”. The curious tale of Sylvia Smith - the author who achieved fame in her fifties on the publication of her memoir of an ordinary life, one which sometimes baffled critics.
posted by mippy (22 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
I think I would like to read Misadventures. I'd never heard of it before. I'm item, I'm 36, I just farted.
posted by item at 4:53 AM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


I read these "links". I found them readable enough.
posted by blue_beetle at 4:55 AM on February 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


The first link - the obit - is a masterpiece of deadpan humor - but the 2nd link is brilliant too. It's an interview by Mick Brown from 2001 with the oddball best-selling author herself:

"The Alfred Hitchcock Hotel in Leytonstone, she said, 'does a very nice
Indian'...."


Lovely post. Thanks.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 5:03 AM on February 28, 2013


Thanks there mippy, your post makes me go out and buy a book. Her prose reads like a facebook timeline, without the duckfaces or food Instagrams.
posted by ouke at 5:08 AM on February 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


the author who achieved fame in her fifties

Isn't it enough to say "the author who achieved fame?" It is the oddity of this book and not her age that made her a remarkable author.
posted by three blind mice at 5:16 AM on February 28, 2013


Her age does have some bearing, given that after decades of living an 'ordinary life' she turned to writing - and was published - relatively late in life. I find it interesting that it seems one day she decided just to give writing a go, rather than toiling away for years while resenting being a temp.
posted by mippy at 5:18 AM on February 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


I haven't read it myself - I always mixed her up with another author who wrote in plain prose interspersed with THINGS IN ALL CAPS and for the life of me I can't remember what she is called. People who hung round public libraries in the UK in the early 00s, help me out here...
posted by mippy at 5:20 AM on February 28, 2013


Her age is also relevant inasmuch as it reinforces the fact that her books are autobiographical; the flat, affectless accounting of mundanity makes a different impression when you can read them as factual rather than a parody or put-on.
posted by ardgedee at 5:30 AM on February 28, 2013


Very occasionally, I meet someone who I'm convinced is playing a deadpan joke on the rest of the universe. That on their deathbed they're going to rip off the mask and yell "Surprise!"
[...] supposing I finish up as famous as Michael Aspel? When he goes to Sainsbury's everybody recognises him and they all follow him around to see what he buys for breakfast and whatever.
She's... got to be joking. Right?
posted by Leon at 5:40 AM on February 28, 2013


Isn't it enough to say "the author who achieved fame?" It is the oddity of this book and not her age that made her a remarkable author.

I think the age framing is entirely appropriate when describing the first (autobiographical) publication of a writer. It gives context to the autobiography. I don't think it's ageist, if that's what you're suggesting here. Or derisive. Writing is one of the few social arenas in which writers are not often negatively judged for being 20 or 50 or 80, but their age usually does impart something about the work. Even for fiction!
posted by distorte at 5:47 AM on February 28, 2013


I think her age is also relevant in adding to the "seriousness" of the endeavor. This isn't a ironic young hipster out to subvert the establishment with satire. It's a respectable, middle-aged Member of the Establishment. Kind of.
posted by DU at 5:50 AM on February 28, 2013


They say "write what you know" and she did.
posted by tommasz at 6:08 AM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've half-memories of reading confused reviews of this when it was first published. I've a sudden strong urge to give it a go after reading the links.

I recently read The Grass Arena by John Healy, which was another autobiography written by an individual who'd never written anything before. His prose was at times absolutely wonderful, although he was describing a very eventful and dramatic life. It's got me wondering now about other, similar earnest attempts by "non-writers". I'm sure a lot of autobiography meets this criteria, but the idea of someone who is not a story-savvy broadcaster or journalist or politician picking up a pen and, without the help of a ghostwriter, producing something people want to read and talk about is kind of amazing. It is capable of interesting weirdness. Like in this case, where the result is fascinating people for very odd reasons.
posted by distorte at 6:10 AM on February 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


Another interview and an extract from Misadventures.

Strangely touching, but I don't think I'm going to abandon Wolf Hall to read this.
posted by Elizabeth the Thirteenth at 6:16 AM on February 28, 2013


Along the lines of "autobiography written by an individual who'd never written anything before", Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's first and last novel, "The Leopard", originally rejected by publishers, and only published after he died, is a really wonderful read. It's set a hundred years before his own time, but the slow decline of the aristocratic family he describes in the book is widely interpreted as mirroring the decline of his own family (he was himself the last in a long line of minor Italian princes). The New York Times published a nice essay a few years ago about the book's curious success; if you're interested in the excellent film adaptation of the book (starring Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale, and directed by Lucino Visconti), the Criterion Collection's essay accompanying their DVD release of the film adaptation has some interesting insights, as does the Guardian.
posted by orthicon halo at 6:27 AM on February 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


When he goes to Sainsbury's everybody recognises him and they all follow him around to see what he buys for breakfast and whatever.

Alan Bennett wrote in his diaries about seeing two nuns in the food hall at the Covent Garden Marks and Spencer. He was very disappointed to not get to see what nuns buy for their tea.
posted by mippy at 7:20 AM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


I love reading memoirs/autobiographies by non-famous people. Generally to get one of these on the shelves you have to have done something unusual (Dress Codes, about a woman whose father had a sex change; The Boy Who Fell From The Sky about the brother of a Lockerbie victim; Name All The Animals about a girl whose close brother died young might be an exception as this is less unusual but was extremely well-written which might have given it the edge to an agent.)

However, the extracts remind me a lot of Andy Warhol's writing. I've only read From A to B And Back Again, but he has a very plain, dry prose style which I could never quite tell whether it was arch or pedestrian. Apparently his diaries record the cost of every single thing he bought each day. It might be Slogan Syndrome - often prose writing by advertising execs is written in the same punchy, short style of a short copy ad and reads very oddly over the course of more than a paragraph, out of its natural habitat- but perhaps Andy also just didn't consider himself a very good writer.
posted by mippy at 7:26 AM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


The first link - the obit - is a masterpiece of deadpan humor

What now? For reals?
posted by bq at 8:07 AM on February 28, 2013


Most people would write a book just like it, boring without introspection. Sylvia Smith doesn't even read other books, it seems to exist outside literary influence, which makes it genuine - like a child's unfiltered comments. Thus I suspect it will be a great source for future anthropologists, she may live on longer than most writers.
posted by stbalbach at 8:13 AM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


mippy: However, the extracts remind me a lot of Andy Warhol's writing.

Yeah, that's about right, I think. It's such an odd book. I remember reading it when it came out, side by side with Martin Amis' Experience, to write a joint review. Maybe it was that juxtaposition that gave it some of its strange, uncanny character; up against Amis and his endless picking away at his rich and bounteous navel fluff, in between bouts of inserting himself into other peoples' tragedies*, Misadventures and its weird litany of one small anecdote after another became totally fascinating.

You get writers who invent characters like Smith, but they always make sure to give them a rich, compelling inner life through monologue. Smith is nothing like that; her story, such as it is, ends up being this crooked lattice which you end up hanging your own (invented) interpretation of her inner life upon. Really, I've never read anything like it.

*I seem to recall that the family of his cousin, Lucy Partington, who was murdered by Fred and Rose West, were none too pleased with how she became such a central character in the book, despite the fact that they barely knew each other.

On preview:
stbalbach: Thus I suspect it will be a great source for future anthropologists
Oh, totally. there's something very Mass Observation about the whole enterprise.
posted by Len at 8:17 AM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Len: You get writers who invent characters like Smith, but they always make sure to give them a rich, compelling inner life through monologue. Smith is nothing like that ...
Yes. I was thinking there's something rather Kate Atkinson or Carol Shields about her, but utterly divested of all Atkinson's arch, post-modern cleverness or Shields's humanism. I have read plenty of unpublished memoirs and diaries by "ordinary people," too, and Smith seems utterly unlike them as well.
posted by Sonny Jim at 10:22 AM on February 28, 2013


First of all:

.

Sixty seven is far too young to die, especially these days.


"Most people would write a book just like it, boring without introspection. Sylvia Smith doesn't even read other books, it seems to exist outside literary influence, which makes it genuine - like a child's unfiltered comments. Thus I suspect it will be a great source for future anthropologists, she may live on longer than most writers."

Yeah, she might be a modern Samuel Pepys. An invaluable source of information on 20th century daily life that historians dig out of the archives long after all our electronic information vanishes. Kind of odd to think that people might be reading about her luncheon schedule hundreds of years from now, after millions of blogs and Facebook accounts have come and gone.

I don't think that most people would write like her, though, if they happened to write a book. Everybody has stories, and when you get to know them well enough they may open up and tell you some of them. (Kind of like hidden treasure.) Storytelling tools like characterization and building events to a climax are deeply ingrained in everyone that's been exposed to culture of any sort, and we all use them to one degree or another. That's why we respond to literature. This sort of flat, affectless writing is probably the result of someone who is consciously trying not to tell a story. Just the facts, ma'am.
posted by Kevin Street at 10:50 AM on February 28, 2013


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