SMUT By Alan Bennett


Alan Bennett at Edinburgh's Book Festival on Aug. 11, 2002.

Colin Hattersley, Associated Press


By: Alan Bennett.

Publisher: Picador, 152 pages, $14.

Review: Bennett's witty stories are rich in innuendo and wordplay and provide a sly, very funny look at middle-class notions of propriety.

FICTION REVIEW: "Smut," by Alan Bennett

  • Article by: KATHRYN LANG
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • January 7, 2012 - 4:19 PM

In two ribald stories, British playwright Alan Bennett ("Beyond the Fringe," "The History Boys," winner of six Tonys) skewers commonly accepted ideas of middle-class decorum, showing that often our dull lives can use a spicy "holiday from respectability" or, as the Brits say, "a one-off."

In the first, "The Greening of Mrs Donaldson," Bennett shows us the "loosening of the proprieties" in the life of the 55-year-old title character, who, as a new widow, has been released from the "knuckling down" that marriage required of her. To augment her income, she's recently taken the job of role-playing for medical students at the local hospital. She acts the part of a patient or a patient's "carer," to give students practice diagnosing diseases and prescribing treatment.

Jane Donaldson is very good at her new job, playing a believable sufferer of anything from gastric distress to cancer. She's become known around the hospital as "Bickerton Road's answer to Meryl Streep." But since the work is initially only part-time, she decides to take in lodgers for extra cash, and it's around this latter role as landlady that the bawdy humor turns. She knows her interaction with her lodgers is uncharacteristically "unseemly," but she also knows "that was why she did it."

In the second story, "The Shielding of Mrs Forbes," Bennett riffs on and updates Chaucer's earthy tales of reversal, wherein the biter is himself bitten. All the members of the Forbes family, except the newest, Betty, who's just married the foppish only son Graham, demonstrate their "self servingness," and, as in all good comedy, receive their comeuppance. Mr. Forbes senior has an Internet dalliance with a Samoan "snake-hipped dusky beauty" that provides him escape from his overbearing wife. The imperious yet shallow Mrs. Forbes, who, it turns out, knows more about her son's proclivities than he gives her credit for, has her own unseemly urges. All of the Forbeses are lusty and secretive, some less discriminate in their liaisons than others.

In both tales, Bennett indulges his love for innuendo and wordplay: of Betty's maiden name, the elder Forbes tells his wife, "It's actually Greene ... like the novelist. There's a silent 'e.'" Then the authorial voice interjects, "Graham's father was understandably sensitive to this spelling, being something of a silent he himself."

Though both stories revolve around risqué behavior from unlikely characters, Bennett's real aim is not to titillate, but to show in clever and risible fashion that "people are peculiar."

Kathryn Lang is former senior editor at Southern Methodist University Press in Dallas.

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