Carrie Snodgrass in “Diary of a Mad Housewife” is weary of decluttering.
I am not really a decluttering person.
Except now I am.
Number of bookcases: 17. Number of boxes with books: 20. Number of books on the floor: 100 (before this weekend).
And so, even though I have not yet read Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, I set to work.
When I declutter, I don’t mess around. FIRST, GET RID OF THE FURNITURE. Not all of it. But only the cat ever liked the broken chest of drawers in the bedroom.
One of the drawers was devoted to single socks. Yes. A whole drawer-full. Did I think the sock-mates would come back from the dryer and jump into the drawer?
I threw them all in the trash. Perhaps there is a single-sock recycling center in a Third World country where all the yarn is unraveled and reknitted, but I do not know of it.
Then there was the drawer of the tiny threadbare L. L. Bean turtlenecks and t-shirts that I have kept in case I lose weight someday. It’s been ten years… So valete!
And the bedroom now looks spacious. We have piled the boxes neatly in the corner, and there is still a lot of room.
Then I got right down to weeding books. My goal is to have only 17 bookcases! No books on the floor ever. So I weeded: I got rid of all the SF (except John Wyndham) and mysteries (except Dorothy Sayers). I also discarded several excellent novels I will never reread. They are the kind of books I deem library reads, though unfortunately my library doesn’t have them.
GIVEAWAY: If you would like my copy of Beryl Bainbridge’s Sweet William (Virago: I wrote about it here), Rosamond Lehmann’s The Weather in the Streets (Virago; I wrote about it here), or Margaret Kennedy’s The Forgotten Smile (Vintage: below), write me at email@example.com
All right, now on to Margaret Kennedy’s The Forgotten Smile.
I have enjoyed several books by the English novelist, Margaret Kennedy (1896 – 1967), reissued by Virago in the ’80s: my favorite is Together and Apart, one of the most stunning novels about divorce I have ever read.
She is an intelligent middlebrow writer of domestic comedies. She is an elegant writer, though her books tend to be unevenly plotted and structured. I recently read The Forgotten Smile, first published in 1961 and reissued by Vintage Classics in 2014. I bought it because of the attractive cover, always a wholesome influence on us readers!
Kennedy is a mistress of comedy. The first chapter opens in Greece, with a humorous encounter between Selwyn Potter, a former editor, artist, and brilliant classicist, and a smug, nasty eccentric classics professor, Dr. Percival Challoner. At first Dr. Challoner does not recognize Potter as his former student: he is one of those annoying academics who doesn’t notice people and cannot enjoy anything out of his narrow area of expertise. He is standing in front of the sculpture of a griffin. When he says the griffin looks familiar, Selwyn suggests he might have seen one in a contemporary art gallery. (Actually, the griffin looks just like Dr. Challoner.)
Dr. Challon congratulates himself on not knowing art. He disapproves of art.
This was another penny for the slot and it drew from Dr. Challoner a smug assertion that he knew nothing whatever about contemporary art. He had always taken a kind of pride in confessing total ignorance of any subject save one: upon late ancient Greek he claimed to be an absolute authority; and this claim was, it seemed, partially based on a determination to know nothing whatever about anything else.
Very funny and believable!
Dr. Challoner is there for a reason: he has inherited a house on a tiny Greek island, Keritha. Since he knows no modern Greek, Selwyn acts as interpreter and accompanies him on the boat to the island. Once there, they discover that the island is very primitive, aside from the fact that the islanders have discovered Coca-Cola. But the elegant house, occupied for years by two siblings, Freddie and Edith Challoner, is beautiful and huge: it is known on the island as “Freddie’s palace.” Freddie was not only benevolent and a lover of poetry, he was also the unofficial governor of the island, who discouraged tourists and protected ancient Greek culture . Naturally, Dr. Challoner is horrified by the islanders’ belief in the gods. He hates magic and, frankly, mistrusts the stuff of the Greek poetry he reads and lectures on. For him, that is just on the page.
Just as Selwyn is Dr. Challoner’s interpreter, Kate Benson, an Englishwoman, becomes their interpreter of the island culture. The reserved Kate left her family in England to spend time with the Challoners: she took care of Edith when she was very ill with diabetes. After Freddie died, she stayed on to welcome Dr. Challoner.
It is a shock to both Kate and Selwyn to discover they have met before. (Another coincidental meeting.) As an undergraduate, Selwyn once attended a party at her house : he broke a table. Kate is not eager to know him, thinking of the big man as a bull in a china shop, but they have more in common than they think t. Selwyn, an orphan, has always thought of her as an ideal mother . His wife used to ask him when the children misbehaved, “What would Mrs. Benson do?” Kate is touched by his simple liking for her.
Kate is by far the most interesting character. Does Kennedy write better about women? Kate has temporarily left her family. Her lawyer husband may or may not be having an affair with a rich client, Pamela, but he is certainly indifferent to Kate.
Downright infidelity in Douglas she could have forgiven and understood. Had Pamela been his mistress there might have been more sense in it. With mere sentimental philandering she had no patience. Sherry, sighs, lingering looks, expressive silences, and flattering attention were all any man ever got from Pamela.
When she discovers that, behind her back, her son Andrew has been scheming with Pamela to land a new job and move into her elegant home, Kate is furious. She is determined to defy them all by leaving on a very disorganized Aegean cruise that prides itself on not having tour guides. While traveling, she receives some extremely cruel letters from her children and husband, harping on her shortcomings. When the boat stopsont the island of Keritha, she coincidentally runs into her childhood friends, Freddie and Edith. They were outcasts in England, but are aristocrats on Keritha. And the island is so lovely there that she stays. The Challoners say there is no such thing as coincidence. She was meant to come.
A good thing she stays, too, because almost everybody on the cruise dies. Kennedy has a mordant sense of humor.
Much of this book does depend on coincidences, but it is not always clear what line Kennedy takes. Death (Charon the ferryman, who charges an obol for the boat ride) technically brings both Dr. Challoner and Selwyn to the island. Dr. Challoner is the heir of his more liberal, artistic relatives, and Selwyn is mourning the death of his beautiful wife. The story of his romance with a well-educated ex-debutante is almost incredible both to him and to Kate. But Kate realizes they had been blissfully happy. Too happy for the gods tolerate. Clearly the island of Keritha operates on more than a literal level in this novel. Free of tourists and commerce, it guides Kate and Selwyn.
Kate, too, has come back from the dead: she was presumed dead by her family in England because her letters went astray and many died on the cruise. . And her husband and children having divided her goods and sold her house, had no place for her. They encouraged her to go back to the island.
This is a graceful, richly-colored novel, though the multiple story lines are not always quite in sync. Kennedy tries to do too much, alternating in time and space between England and Greece. We get to know quite a lot about Kate’s horrible family, who take her for granted and consider her a bored housewife, and Freddy and Edith Challoner, with their gift of living in the present. Then there is the thread to the hidden Greek island. How we’d love to go to there! But it may be in danger , because of Dr. Challoner’s fear of the gods. He wants to bring in someone who will dig up artefacts and denounce the island’s heritage. He’s a classicist, but one who hates Greek culture. How strange!
I’m sure a reread would make this clearer!
It is a very good read, with parts that are above “good read “status.”
It is one of my giveaway books, so if you want it let me know.