Smut: Stories by Alan Bennett

Smut: Stories
Alan Bennett
Picador, 2012
Trade paper, first edition
ISBN 978-1250003164
160 pages; $14.00

It came as something of a surprise to find that Alan Bennett, author of the gentle and genteel The Uncommon Reader (briefly reviewed here) had written a book entitled Smut: Stories. How could this writer go from his bonbon of a book about the Queen of England’s imagined reading habits to a book that borders on pornography? It seems out of character.

But when one reads the two stories that make up this slim volume, one realizes that “gentle” and “genteel” are adjectives that apply to this book as well as to its predecessor. Bennett is having his fun with his readers, teasing them with mildly dirty situations that he is able to describe without a single profanity. It’s a charming book; one imagines the delight with which Bennett wrote it.

“The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson” is about the sexual reawakening of a widow through fairly perverse means. It seems Mrs. Donaldson needs to bring in some income after the death of her husband left her less well off than either of them had anticipated. Her first method for doing so has the salutary effect of getting her out of the house as well: she works as a mock patient for a nearby medical school, helping young students figure out how to properly approach and diagnose patients. Dr. Ballantyne, who runs the program, takes a shine to Mrs. Donaldson, who proves to be an excellent actress. Mrs. Donaldson’s daughter Gwen, however, objects to this money-making scheme, as well as her mother’s decision to let a room to a couple of medical students, though apparently without offering to supplement her mother’s income. Gwen would be all the more dismayed if she knew that the young lodgers, having come up short on the rent, offer to let Mrs. Donaldson watch them having sex instead. Mrs. Donaldson feels it only polite to accept the offer.

It’s a very funny situation, and Bennett plays it up to maximum effect without once slipping into the vulgar. Mrs. Donaldson never once stops being a lady, despite the medical stories she acts out and the sexual situations she watches. It’s hard not to picture one’s own grandmother as one reads this story, smelling of the cookies baked that morning and still wearing an apron. One doesn’t laugh out loud, but this story definitely tickles.

“The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes” is just as delightful. Graham Forbes is a handsome man with a possessive mother and a greedy disposition as well as a generous and universal sexuality: he enjoys his wife fully as much as he does the young men he regularly pays for pleasure. Everything is going well until one of those young men decides to blackmail him, and he begins embezzling from his employer, a bank, to pay. One would expect the story to turn black at this point, but this is a comedy of modern manners; Graham and his blackmailer are “handled” by Graham’s women to a fare-thee-well. It’s another amiable tale told with the utmost finesse by a writer who knows his characters intimately, and loves them even as he points out their foibles.

This is a book to read with tea and crumpets, beautifully English in its sensibility. Jane Austen would have felt right at home with these stories, and so will you.

Sunday Links for February 26, 2012

The Nebula Award finalists have been announced. Some excellent reading in this list. Omnivoracious also lists the nominees, and also mentions a few novels that could just as easily have been nominated but were not.

The Bram Stoker Award nominees have been announced. I always find it frustrating when nominations for one of my favorite awards demonstrates so conclusively how behind in my reading I am: not only have I not read a single one of the nominated novels, I don’t even own any of them. Worse, one of them (Not Fade Away by Gene O’Neill) isn’t even available except as a $50 limited edition direct from the publisher (and a similar problem applies for one of the first novel nominees: Isis Unbound, by Allyson Bird, is only available under the same circumstances, for $45). My Amazon cart is full to the brim with award-nominated books; if only my bank account were similarly flush!

The winners of the Readers’ Choice Awards have been announced. Nice to see an award that uses an apostrophe correctly.

The 2011 Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalists have been announced.

Omnivoracious highlights a recent urban fantasy anthology that is in that same overstuffed shopping cart: Down These Strange Streets, edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois.

It’s such a loss to the world of letters that David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008. He would have been 50 years old this year, and in celebration of that anniversary, Salon has an interesting piece on his journalism. Consider the Lobster and Other Essays is one of the finest books of essays I’ve ever read, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments is on my shelf, and this piece has encouraged me to take it off and dig in. One of these days I’ll get to Wallace’s fiction, daunting as Infinite Jest seems to be (a friend told me that it was the most brilliant thing he’d ever read, but that he could not finish it; it was just too much work to keep up with that brilliance); but in the meantime, those essays continue to resonate for me.

Lots of lists out there this week: the 10 best alternate universes in science fiction television and film; the 22 most awful moments in science fiction (though some of these will likely have you wanting to throw something at the author; I thought him far off-base in at least a few of his choices); and 10 must-read science fiction masterpieces (some questionable choices there, but that makes the list all the more interesting).

Who do you consider the sexiest characters in science fiction? Vote here.

At the end of last year, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer published their huge, varied, fascinating collection called The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. SF Signal has a piece entitled ”Eight Weird Thoughts I Gleaned from The Weird”, which might give you some insight into whether this mammoth anthology is one for you. I can’t wait to get to it myself; weird is where it’s at, as far as I’m concerned.

The history of computer hacking is pretty darned interesting.

The publishing world continues to change at an unholy pace. These 10 predictions for the future of the industry sure point me up for the dinosaur I am, with all my paper books (a retronym that makes me pretty unhappy). I’m glad to read, though, that the publishing industry is expected to pay higher royalties on ebooks in the near future – that seems only fair.

How about some silly to close things off? Here are 20 cats imagined as fonts. My Cordelia is the Courier type, I think.