Picador: 152 pp., $14 paper
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 a certain tongue-in-cheek reserve.
In the first story, “The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson,” originally published (as was “The Uncommon Reader”) in the London Review of Books, 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 façades. "[W]hat kind of person was she?” Bennett asks of Mrs. Donaldson. “She was now no longer sure.… She was playing a part both at home and at work, she was quite candid about that. She was learning to pretend whereas previously (when her husband was alive) the closest she got to pretence was politeness. Until now, pretence with her had never been, as they said nowadays, proactive.”
Here, Bennett highlights a conflict central to both novellas: that there is a difference between pretense and self-preservation, and the roles we play (matron, widow) often serve to protect our inner selves. At the same time, there’s more at work here —since what we try to conceal is often obvious anyway.
That’s the point of “The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes,” in which the main character needs no shielding, despite what her family believes. It’s not that she doesn’t hide behind appearances, just that she knows, in a way no one else can recognize, exactly what they’re worth. Thinking about her son Graham, she reflects on how names can shape us, noting that "[i]n the years since he was born her sights had risen and Graham was not nearly the classy name she’d once thought. She wished now that she could get rid of it as she had got rid of the dark oak dining suite that belongs to the same period. But though carboot sales exist to dispose of discarded aspirations there are no stalls dealing in our most unwanted commodities like names, relatives or one’s own appearance in the glass.”
If on the surface that seems a bit superficial, Bennett turns it in the final sentence, framing Mrs. Forbes’ dissatisfaction as more existential, a matter of what can’t be changed. This is only reinforced when, during a dance at their son’s wedding, Mrs. Forbes’ husband taunts her exaggerated sense of propriety by uttering a stream of sexually suggestive words into her ear. “He might have been murmuring endearments,” Bennett writes, "… and it could have been a touching spectacle. Certainly as the number ended the guests broke into spontaneous applause which Mr. Forbes acknowledged as holding his wife’s hand she gracefully curtseyed. She had never been so unhappy in her whole life.”
It’s a vivid moment, and it almost gives us sympathy for a character who is otherwise largely unsympathetic, controlling and cold. And yet, sympathetic or otherwise, there’s no epiphany, no life-changing moment of realization, just the day-in, day-out effort to get along. “The adjustments consequent on either of them coming clean,” Bennett writes of Graham and his wife, Betty, “were too radical (and too tedious) even to contemplate … his bluster, her forbearance, no: cards on tables was not a solution.” The same is true for Graham’s parents, who never part with their own secrets, or for Mrs. Donaldson, who, after her whisper of impropriety, is left “with a curiosity, a prurience even, that, associating it with freedom, release and a new life, she was not now anxious to suppress.”
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.”