Alan Bennett, “Smut”

I’ll admit I got a little kick out of sitting on the subway reading a book called Smut. But the cover, with its pattern of tea-cups, its genteel blue background and upright type, goes far to undercut the title. And, after all, this is Alan Bennett. So while he delivers what is promised, it’s not what you imagined. Isn’t that why we read him?

The teacups are actually a better indicator of the contents than the title. The first little novella is called “The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson” and it is just awash in tea, for Mrs. Donaldson is a middle-class suburban widow who might have come to us right out of a Barbara Pym novel. Only — no, not really. The Bennett genius is that Mrs. D., to help make ends meet, takes two steps. One is to rent out a room to a pair of young students: the other is to accept a job as a Simulated Patient at the medical school where her lodger Laura studies. Both of these income sources arouse the disapproval of Mrs. Donaldson’s daughter Gwen whose function here is to be unpleasant.

As you may know, if you’ve read the reviews, the source of smut in the first tale is the unconventional payment arrangement arrived at by the lodgers. But the source of giggles for me was Bennett’s deft narrative handling of the medical school shenanigans. In particular, it’s what Bennett as narrator chooses to elucidate or confuse. He often permits the characters — and their assumed characters in the charade of illness and diagnosis — go on at hilarious cross-purposes for quite some time. For instance, let’s have the opening:

‘I gather you’re my wife,’ said the man in the waiting room. ‘I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure. Might one know your name?’

Middle-aged and scrawny, he was bare-legged and underneath his shortie dressing gown Mrs Donaldson thought he might be bare altogether.

‘Donaldson.’

‘Right. Mine’s Terry. I’ve been away.’

He put out his hand and as she shook it briefly the dressing gown fell open to reveal a pair of tangerine Y-fronts with, tucked into the waistband, a mobile phone.

‘Trouble in the back passage,’ he said cheerfully.

‘No,’ said Mrs Donaldson. ‘I don’t think so.’

‘Mine, not yours, dear,’ said Terry. ‘You’re just my wife.’

‘I was given to understand,’ said Mrs Donaldson, that it was your waterworks.’

‘No fear.’ Terry hitched up his Y-fronts. ‘No way.’

There’s a dizzy “who’s on first” quality to this exchange that recurs every time the medical charade comes up, and I enjoyed it more each time for the jolly virtuosity. Bennett treats Mrs. Donaldson quite tenderly, despite the potential humiliations she undergoes.

The second story is entitled “The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes” and that formidable lady also gets what she deserves, more or less. Certainly her resistance to some crucial perceptions about her nearest and dearest provides the plot. Here, Bennett is a little less whimsical, a little more graphic, and equally funny. I’ll give you a hint: Graham Forbes is the handsome light of his mother’s life. When he finally marries, “At the reception both Betty and her new mother-in-law were surprised by what good dancers many of Graham’s friends turned out to be …” Oh. I’ve given it away. Never mind, Bennett does, too, and it’s the least of what he has up his sleeve, the sly dog.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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