Classic is not a word that generally should be used about contemporary fiction. It’s probably best not to use the word until at least fifty years after publication–when the critical reception has at last been settled. Nevertheless, Alan Bennett’s new book already feels like a classic to me.
Two long short stories comprise Alan Bennett’s new book which is entitled: Smut. In the first, “The Greening of Mrs Donaldson”, a forty-nine year old widow finds herself taking in a couple of lodgers and working during the day performing as a patient for medical students. Pretending to have specific diseases so that second year med students can diagnose them is funny already. And the humor that arises from this situation feels entirely realistic. But it’s on the homefront where this story really kicks in. Because after two months of not paying rent, her lodgers have come up with a proposition: might she consider watching them have sex as payment? I won’t give away anymore. Except to say this story is perfectly plotted, with a few twists along the way and an ending that is both surprising and entirely logical.
In the second story, “The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes,” a homosexual man, Graham Forbes, decides to marry a somewhat homely straight woman. His mother strongly disapproves of the marriage perhaps because she has come to tacitly accept her son’s extremely discrete homosexuality. The entrance of another woman into this family represents everything Mrs. Forbes has been shielding herself from. Namely: sex. A conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Forbes sums it up:
“I suppose they’ve…had it off.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Done it. Got his leg over.”
There was a pained silence. It was an ancient battleground…What she called it, what he called it and whether he was allowed to call it anything at all.
“I suppose you mean ‘made love’. Because I prefer not to think of it.”
“She’s probably,” said Mr. Forbes warming to the fray, “a bit of a goer.”
“A goer?” Edward, When are you going to learn that there are certain phrases you can not use?”
“I’ve heard Graham use it.”
“Graham is different. Graham is young, attractive and drives a sportscar. He has a life with the top down and language to match. He can say ‘guy’ and ‘bird’ and ‘cool’, all the things young people say. You can’t. I heard you say “tits” the other night at Maynard’s. You’re too old to say ‘tits’.”
Mrs. Forbes is not mistaken. Her son’s marriage does become the catalyst for sexual anarchy for the whole family. And the telling of this story–with lies heaped and piled–reveals much about hypocrisy and society’s need for secrecy.
If there is one thing that makes these stories great, it isn’t the plotting, the description or even the quality of the dialogue; it is the characterization. For whatever situations they might find themselves in, these characters are so lovingly rendered, so three dimensional that the reader can never doubt them. Perhaps that’s why these stories already feel like classics to me.
Alan Bennett’s Smut is published by Picador.