Saturday, February 24, 2018
Books

Review: 'Smut,' by Alan Bennett, takes British matrons to unexpected places

Alan Bennett may be best known, both in this country and in his native England, as a playwright (The History Boys, The Madness of George III) and a television writer, but for me, his signature work remains the 2007 short novel The Uncommon Reader. In that book, Queen Elizabeth II discovers the discomforting pleasures of literature, with results that are disruptive, to say the least. Before long, she is missing appointments and neglecting her appearance in the interest of getting a few more minutes to read. She starts thinking also, which is dangerous for anyone who wants to be a head of state.

Bennett's new book, Smut, which collects two novellas, is of a piece with The Uncommon Reader: a bit of (apparently) light farce that packs an unlikely punch. As the title suggests, the subject is sex, although in keeping with Bennett's aesthetic, it's approached with tongue-in-cheek reserve.

In the first story, The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson, a proper British widow named Mrs. Donaldson takes in a pair of young lodgers. When they can't pay the rent, they suggest an alternate arrangement, one that titillates their landlady in unanticipated ways.

In the second, The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes, another British matron watches as her gay son gets married; the ensuing machinations unfold like a game of social dominoes.

What both narratives share is a sense of the life that is lived beneath the surface, in which our longings, desires, predilections don't have anything to do, necessarily, with our public facades. "What kind of person was she?" Bennett asks of Mrs. Donaldson. "She was now no longer sure."

The idea is that, like the queen in The Uncommon Reader, we are all more complicated than we let on. Still, where do these complications leave us but with more complications? That's the larger question Bennett poses here. Or, as he writes of Mrs. Donaldson: "It had been a holiday from respectability and not to be repeated, a one-off, the chance of her coming across any other lodgers as open-minded (and penurious) … very slim. No. That chapter was closed. Regretful though she was, it had all been too much of a strain."

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