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Sylvia Smith, 67, deadpan chronicler of ordinary life

With detachment and thoroughness, Sylvia Smith’s work was like a bookkeeper keeping a ledger of lives’ loose ends.

Rex USA/NEW YORK TIMES

With detachment and thoroughness, Sylvia Smith’s work was like a bookkeeper keeping a ledger of lives’ loose ends.

NEW YORK — 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.

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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.’’

In another passage, Ms. Smith described training as a hairdresser. She liked it well enough. Then one day she ‘‘got put off when I was shampooing an old lady’s hair and my fingernails got caught in a growth.’’

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 Ms. Smith had written an existential classic, a work of dry, mordant wit that pricked the fakery in most celebrity-memoir writing.

Comparisons were drawn with George and Weedon Grossmith’s deadpan comic masterpiece, ‘‘The Diary of a Nobody,’’ and with Helen Fielding’s ‘‘Bridget Jones’s Diary.’’ Though not quite a bestseller, ‘‘Misadventures’’ nevertheless sold about 15,000 copies.

Ms. Smith, who died Feb. 23 in a hospital outside London, at 67, said she had intended her books simply to be ‘‘hysterically funny.’’ She often laughed out loud while writing them, she said, and never gave a thought to existential philosophy.

‘‘I just liked writing books and wanted to get published,’’ she said.

She published two more memoirs, ‘‘Appleby House’’ (2003) and ‘‘My Holidays’’ (2004). She had completed a fourth installment of her memoirs, still unpublished, and started on a fifth when she became too ill to keep working a few months ago, said Caroline Dawnay, her literary agent. The cause of death was pulmonary disease, she added.

Dawnay had come to know Ms. Smith through Jeremy Lewis, an author of literary biographies, who in the 1990s was employed part time by a London publishing house as a reader. He was skimming through unsolicited manuscripts one day, he recalled in an e-mail on Thursday, when he plucked Ms. Smith’s from ‘‘the slush pile’’ and started reading.

‘’It was a fairly unwholesome-looking document,’’ Lewis wrote, ‘‘yellowing and dog-eared and bashed out on an old manual typewriter, and I assumed I would read a few pages at most and give it a quick heave-ho.

‘‘To my amazement,’’ he wrote, ‘‘I found myself gripped by this simply written, blow-by-blow account of what was, by most standards, a numbingly tedious everyday life.’’

Her reflection-free narratives had a convincing authority, he added. ‘‘She created a world that was — to her admirers, at least — credible, self-contained and self-sufficient.’’ He took the manuscript to Dawnay, who shopped it around for two years before finding a publisher, Canongate, to accept it.

After ‘‘Misadventures,’’ the publisher brought out ‘‘Appleby House,’’ which Ms. Smith had written first, then consigned to a closet after rejections.

As in all her books, ‘‘Appleby House’’ — the title comes from a rooming house she lived in during the 1980s — chronicles her life with detachment and thoroughness, like a bookkeeper keeping a ledger of lives’ loose ends: the marital histories of friends, lists of gifts from Christmases past, a roster of people who had aged badly since she had last seen them at the pub, the names of childhood pets in the order of their deaths.

‘‘There was a single bed against the far wall,’’ she writes of her room, ‘‘and everything was shabbily furnished in either red or white, with the walls, wardrobe, wall cupboard, bedside chest of drawers and fridge in white, and two armchairs, the carpet and curtains in red.’’

On her first meeting with the owners: ‘‘He looked much younger than her, but I was later to find he simply looked younger than his years.’’

On comforting a neighbor who lost her job: ‘‘As I couldn’t help her, I said, ‘Sit down. I’ll make you a cup of tea.’ ’’

About apportioning her visits to her parents, who were separated: ‘‘I would visit my father every other Sunday, as he lived alone. I would see my mother the last Saturday of each month — she shared a flat with her sister.’’

Sylvia Smith was born on May 2, 1945, ‘‘in Walthamstow, six days before the end of the Second World War,’’ she wrote in ‘‘Misadventures.’’ ‘’I grew up an only child, as my elder brother, who was born the year before me, died of convulsions when he was 3 days old.’’

Ms. Smith had no known survivors.

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.

For a time, however, Ms. Smith was able to enjoy the life of an author. In September 2001, she and her agent visited New York to promote her books. She was interviewed and feted. But perhaps as an omen of her literary eclipse, she found the level of interest in her work disappointing and became eager to return home. She booked a flight for Sept. 12. Her plans, however, were postponed.

‘‘Something always goes wrong when I go on holiday,’’ she told Dawnay.

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