Alan Bennett. “Smut: Stories”, Picador, 2012.
Nothing Smutty Here
Alan Bennett, master storyteller gives us two stories of the unexpected in what are ordinary people’s lives. The first. “The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson” is about a woman who has lost her husband and finds an interesting way of adding to her income by becoming a patient for medical students and also by renting out a spare room. Before she realizes it, she enjoys both.
In “The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes”, a mother who dotes on Graham, her only son who hides something from her. However as his double life becomes complicated, we see that he is in the dark about his own desires and those of his mother.
I suspect that Bennett chose the name for this book when these stories were considered off-color. But times have changed and the voyeurism of the first story and the homosexuality in the second story are no longer taboo topics. In comparison to some of the stuff being written and published today, these stories are quite mild and actually are somewhat endearing. Bennett has been a writer that deals with what we might call “transgressive behavior” and he does so again here as he gives us characters that we know we should not be observing. He draws them a little at a time and we learn about them slowly. They are characters trapped by relationships. Mrs. Donaldson is tormented by her daughter who does not approve of her mother’s new profession as a patient and really dislikes that she has taken in boarders. It is through these two activities that the widow discovers her sexuality and her autonomy and independence. But she must keep this a secret.
In the other story, Graham is a gay man who is both vain and handsome and his mother adores him. The secrecy of this weighs heavily on the dynamics of the family. Aside from being a wonderful storyteller, Bennett is a master of satire. Sex is important in both stories but it is merely the way that the characters discover their true selves. The humor is dry and wry and Bennett uses it wonderfully to show the relationship between age and sex and he really concentrates on the way he observes modern life. And he observes life through his characters who are the propelling forces in his stories.