Sylvia Smith — who dropped out of high school at 15, never married, lived most of her life in London rooming houses, never had a great adventure or suffered a great misfortune, and never read books by most accounts — began writing her memoirs in her late 40s, when illness and a government disability pension had allowed her to quit the last of a long series of secretarial jobs, most of them as a temp.
It was an unlikely foundation for a literary career. Just as unlikely was the literary stir she created with her first book, “Misadventures," published in 2001 when she was 55 after years of work and hundreds of rejection letters.
The book, a plainly written, deadpan chronicle of an ordinary life, seemed to push the allowable boundaries of ordinary, entering an edge-of-space world where critics quarrel over literary metaphysics. Reading “Misadventures," they were divided over whether they saw a bad joke or a kind of outsider-art masterpiece in a passage like this:
“Early in December, Carol asked me, ‘What day is Christmas?’ I replied, ‘I don’t know.’ The following morning she told me, ‘Christmas Day is on the 25th of December.’ I replied, ‘I know that, but I thought you meant what day of the week.’ She didn’t believe me."
One critic said the “unremitting banality" of “Misadventures" had put “another nail in the coffin of our cultural life." In the other camp, reviewers said Smith had written an existential classic.
Her literary celebrity was short-lived, and not very lucrative. After a round of television appearances and interviews, the public gradually accepted that she was neither a publisher’s gimmick nor a literary hoaxer but rather exactly who she said she was — a former office temp who wanted to be a writer — and the debate over her work died down.
She died on Feb. 23 in a hospital outside London, at 67.