Sunday 4 December 2016

Review: Fiction: Smut: Two Unseemly Stories by Alan Bennett

Faber & Faber, £12

Published 02/07/2011 | 05:00

Notably reticent throughout most of his career on sexual matters, not least about his own preferences, Alan Bennett has been addressing these things more openly in recent years and, if this new book is an indication, is getting quite raunchy in his old age.

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The first of the two stories (novellas, really) concerns Mrs Donaldson, a "fragrant 55-year-old widow" who has a part-time hospital job that requires her to feign illnesses for the diagnostic education of medical students. She also keeps two young lodgers, Laura and Andy, who, unable to come up with the rent, suggest having sex in front of her as payment in kind -- an offer that Mrs Donaldson, frustrated relic of a dull marriage, accepts.

In the second story, Mrs Forbes is aghast that her darling son Graham is marrying Betty, a plain girl of no background. In fact, Graham has been living a double life with casual gay lovers, one of whom -- a blackmailing community policeman -- threatens to upset his domestic security. In the meantime, his father and daughter-in-law are contentedly having a clandestine affair. And as for Mrs Forbes ...

In both of these stories, Bennett is having fun with notions of respectability and gentility that will be familiar to anyone conversant with his dramas and essays. And there's a lot of fun for the reader, too, in Bennett's sardonic observations. Mrs Forbes, we're told, "was often taken for a widow. She had so much the air of a woman who was coping magnificently that a husband still extant took people by surprise". For his part, Mr Forbes, courtesy of the internet, "had just made a new and unseemly friend in Samoa".

Yet despite that reference to chat rooms, the characters seem to exist in a time warp -- in the lace-curtained repressive England in which Bennett grew up rather than in the one he now inhabits.

Even the titling of the stories -- 'The Greening of Mrs Donaldson', 'The Shielding of Mrs Forbes' -- is archaic, suggesting a time when women's identities were so muffled that even vibrant 50-somethings were designated in such a manner.

Indeed, Mrs Forbes is essentially a caricature, a bygone figure who can observe that "there was little to choose between Jews and Catholics. The Jews had holidays that turned up out of the blue and the Catholics had children in much the same way".

Does anyone think like that anymore?

This is minor Bennett, never less than entertaining but nowhere as shrewd, perceptive, funny or poignant than the wonderful pieces to be found in his two essay collections, Writing Home and Untold Stories.

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