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.

Similarities?

Kinda sounds like a more tame, English, version of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Garcia Marquez

If I'd read any of his work, I'd be able to respond to that. Unfortunately, while he is firmly ensconced in the TBR pile, I haven't gotten to him yet.

So many books, so little time!

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