I don’t know how Sylvia Smith might have reacted had she known she had become the subject of an obituary in the Daily Telegraph. True, she was a published author with three books to her name; but those books were distinguished – if that’s the word – by the flatness of the prose and the banality of the content, most of it being short anecdotes of her apparently entirely humdrum life. It’s the combination of style and content that makes her works remarkable, I guess. There’s nothing wrong about detailing the minutiae of everyday life if you do it in an interesting way (see The Mezzanine, Nicholson Baker’s debut novel, which teases interest from a superficially mundane lunch hour, rather as artful editing and stage management moulds the stars of structured reality TV into supposedly compelling viewing) or applying a flat style to interesting goings-on (I’m currently reading Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, in which the extraordinary back story of the titular character is thrown into hilarious relief by the artfully artless prose).
There may be a feminist subtext in the acclaim bestowed upon Smith’s work; I’m reminded of Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, in which the heroine’s domestic drudgery is portrayed in real time; yeah, you may be bored as a viewer, but think what it must be like to live this way, day in, day out. On the other hand, towards the end of the film, Dielman indulges in a little discreet prostitution, has an unexpected orgasm and kills her client. If that sort of thing had happened to Sylvia Smith, would it have made her books better or worse?
And on similar lines, here’s a piece of radio that left me and plenty of others, including the show’s presenter Paddy O’Connell, more than a little choked up on Sunday. It’s by Emilie Blachere, who wrote a love letter to her partner, war photographer Remi Ochlik, after he died in Syria last year. At times she seems to be reading the text out phonetically, almost as if she’s not quite sure what it means; but by the end, as she recites the lyrics of one of the happiest songs ever written, her halting, heavily accented voice feels perfectly suited to the almost unbearable sadness of the whole story.