I’ve been trying to write to you since the beginning of June, when I read your novel The forgotten Smile (1961). It took me a while to be able to assemble my thoughts on your book, because there are so many doors to enter it!
The novel is mostly set in Keritha, a mysterious Aegean island, and centers around three intertwined subplots. A Classics professor named Dr. Challoner travels to Keritha, after the death of his eccentric uncle, in order to manage the inheritance. While he is on his way, he casually bumps into Selwyn Potter, an old pupil of his. Sewlyn, formerly a brilliant student and glass artist, is now an awkward high-school teacher.
As Dr. Challoner cannot speak modern Greek, Sewlyn accompanies him, to act as his interpreter and translator. Once in Keritha, they meet Kate Benson, a middle age woman who had landed on the island years ago, by chance, while she was on a cruise. There she had run into old childhood friends of hers, the two siblings Freddie and Edith Challoner.
Keritha itself is a paradisiacal landscape, primitive, pagan, and ripe for magic. The island has been kept mysteriously untouched, protected against change, unvisited even by tourists. Once the three main characters meet, the stage is set, and we are thrown back to their individual past lives.
You use a fragmented structure, alternating between England and Greece, and tying each section of the book randomly – very much like the characters’ lives are arbitrarily tied up together. As slowly as the characters themselves, we are able to understand the reasons beneath their present situation and mood.
Kate resents having been taken for granted by her now grown-up children. She has been also overlooked by her unfaithful – and somewhat silly – husband. In more than one sense, she has no place in her old life as housewife anymore. Presumed dead by her family after the cruise, later she returns to a home that no longer exists. “The more we love people the more we have to change when they die. If the dead could come back, those who loved them most would seem to them the most changed.”
Sewlyn, in turn, has experienced both the most blissful relationship and the ultimate loss: the gods never tolerate too much happiness. “(…) He subsided once more into a sadness so complete that he scarcely knew himself to be sad. No part of him remained detached from it to observe or to comment on the rest.”
Dr. Challoner, for his part, seems to be an emblem of a certain kind of egocentric, competitive and inevitably empty academic. Despite his arrogance, he lacks any substantial knowledge outside his – conveniently narrow – area of expertise. “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.”
To make matters worse, Challoner is horrified by what he considers ‘the barbarous ways’ of the islanders: he disdains the raw material of which the Classics he teaches are made. For him, the dead page is more important than the lively reality it represents or is based upon.
“‘I’ve never felt the least desire to come. What is there to come for? All this…’ Challoner waved towards the quay and the squid, ‘… what has this to do with literature?’
‘It had a lot to do with it once.'”
One of the doors to your book, my dear, is precisely this first one, which is wide open: yours is a comedy of manners, marked by a combination of lightness of plot and mordant sense of humor. Another door, this time half-open, would be the exploration of different representations of chance, destiny, happy accidents, venture, haphazard, hap. “So happy? What does it really mean? Must come from hap. Chance.”
Chance is the spell the island casts on each character, changing them; serendipity is the force which drives the story-line forward, and also the invisible thread which neatly ties the subplots together: Sewlyn had once attended a party at Kate’s house; Dr. Challoner’s uncle is one of Kate’s old friends; Kate bumps into Freddie and Edith Challoner; Dr. Challoner bumps into Sewlyn.
Chance is also linked to the idea of grace. Both Kate and Sewlyn come to the island as people who have come back from the dead, people who have gone astray and who, by chance – or by a random act of grace -, learn to finally reassemble themselves again. Freddy and Edith Challoner seem to have had a gift to be able to live fully in the present, outside the usual social categories, and even as outcasts.
The island has the power to bring each of these characters to the present. Only in Keritha, can they finally be able to take off from themselves the label that had been imposed upon them. Keritha sharpen their senses, and offers a reprieve where they can forget their past losses and simply be in the present, completely handed to chance, hap, happiness. “In the earliest sculpture they are smiling. It is this forgotten smile, sometimes called ‘mysterious’, which I have sometimes seen on Keritha.”
Dr. Challoner, on the other hand, with his obsession for control, judgement, labels and social demands, is not even able to receive the grace the island casts upon its inhabitants – the professor is doomed to remain with the dead wherever he goes. And here, much as the main characters themselves, I bumped into yet another half-open door: your book can be entered into as an allegory for the destructive facet of civilization – and, ultimately, for the dangers of knowledge when used as a self-centered means of trying to control what one cannot understand. Dr. Challoner, in his shallowness, seems to kill the very subject of his studies by dismissing its substance; it is he, in the end, the one who threatens to destroy Keritha and its magic. The immediate corollary of superficiality is, after all, cowardice.
My reading of your book seems to have been a serendipitous one, my dear. I only found its doors as I dared to really look for them. That you managed to write in so many layers with the most self-effacing lightness of touch, is no fluke – there is no such thing as coincidence, is there?
“He had been, she perceived, too happy for safety.No refuge was left to him in a world which had completely disintegrated.”
– Margaret Kennedy, The Forgotten Smile
“Then he turned to look at the laughter of the sea below. He was waiting for something. A few moments later it happened. Cosmos turned a somersault. The scene steadied and took on an extreme actuality, as though loudly asserting itself.
Now, as before, he was out and in again between one breath and another. The trees, the sun, the sea, and the stream had all taken a look at him, made him a target of life, before his prison walls closed again, leaving him with keener eyes and ears to make what he could of them.”
– Margaret Kennedy, The Forgotten Smile
About the book
- Vintage, 2014, 288 p. Goodreads;
- First published 1961;
- My rating: 3,5 stars;
- This book was read for Margaret Kennedy Day, Women’s Classic Literature Event and 20 Books of Summer.