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Book Review: Smut by Alan Bennett

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Imagine, if you will, that the cast of Monty Python got together and wrote dirty little stories. Only they wrote them in a somewhat serious mode – of course, being Monty Python they would need to be full of tongue-in-cheek satire and cynical humor that shone a mirror back at the inanities of real life and real people and society in general. Smut: Unseemly Stories is roughly what you’d get.

Alan Bennett is one of Britain’s most beloved playwrights. Oxford-educated, he studied history and performed with The Oxford Revue. He stayed to teach and research medieval history at the university for several years, then his work on the satirical revue Beyond the Fringe at the 1960 Edinburgh Festival brought him instant fame. He gave up academia, and turned to writing full time. His output includes The Madness of George III, the series of monologues Talking Heads, and the play The History Boys.

Keeping that in mind, you can imagine that this collection of two stories is not the usual titillating fare.

Smut is two unseemly stories; the first is called ‘”The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson,” the second, “The Shielding of Mrs Forbes”. In a nutshell, both stories details the ways that people “counterfeit” the selves they project towards society. Not how they adapt, and mold themselves to society, but in how they fake their societal persona in order to fit the mores and expectations that society holds for them. And of course, as the title may allude, in a sexual way.

In our first story, Mrs. Donaldson is a recent widow of upper middle class standing whose husband, upon his death has left her not quite as comfortable as she had thought. Now, because of her standing, class-wise, in society she can’t simply take a job as a clerk in a department store, or the like. And, because of that same place in society, she of course has no skills for a job market anyhow.

So, she hits on the ideal way to maintain that societal façade by “volunteering” at the local teaching hospital. Her duties as a volunteer are to act out the symptoms of patients for the student doctors. Ahh, I see I have your attention. Who doesn’t love a good dirty story about playing doctor? Takes us back to the earliest days of puberty, it does. Well, get your mind out of the gutter, because our Mrs. Donaldson does not need to get undressed or submit to the young interns in a gynecological way.

However, our Mrs. Donaldson does find that she has acting abilities, and quite a good memory for performing the tiniest nuance of symptoms and behaviors for everything from the flu to fallen arches. And she does get to know the naughty thoughts of her fellow volunteers as well as the young doctors and even the instructor and the added income is very helpful in supplementing her retirement. But not quite adequate.

So, she also decides to let out a room in her large home. but she can’t simply rent a room as that also would be unseemly for a person of her standing. So, she decides to “help” students from the college by providing them with a convenient and affordable place to stay. Things get interesting when a young couple get in arrears on the rent and come up with a novel way to catch up. Listen to Bennett read a selection here.

The second story is “The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes,” featuring a comfortable middle-class and middle-aged mother who dotes on her only child, Graham. Graham is stunningly good-looking and he knows it. He is also fastidious in his appearance. Think a cross between Dorian Grey and the man in the Kinks song, “Dedicated Follower Of Fashion”.

Graham is also decidedly gay, but, truth be told, Graham is really only in love with himself. But he does feel he must shield his mother from the truth about his sexuality, so he marries a very plain, but extremely wealth woman. Mrs. Forbes’ thoroughly bullied husband is accepting of the arrangement, but Mrs. Forbes (holding tightly to the belief that her son is the most handsome and desirable man on the face of the earth) believes that Graham could have done better. So the farcical act begins.

Mr. Forbes takes solace in an online relationship with a dark and sensuous beauty in Samoa (but who actually lives in Clitheroe), and he eventually comes to spend quality time with his daughter in-law. Meanwhile, Graham, having decided to perform his husbandly duties, only to satisfy his own curiosity of course, being the self-centered snob that he has been raised to be, finds a bit of enjoyment in the task, even though he can’t stand his wife outside of the marital bed. Eventually he takes up with a paid, gay lover who turns out to be a blackmailing village policeman. Graham is left to depend on his wife, who decidedly proves to be the brains in this farce, to extricate himself, while not disappointing his mother.

Bennett’s humor in this small collection (160 pages) consistently triumphs in the logic of the parenthetical aside, the comedy of false face worn by most of the characters to show society or in the misperceptions of that society and the people who reside there. Mrs Donaldson is not as “green” as she thought herself to be, and no one around Mrs. Forbes is who they pretend to be.

Appropriately enough, given Bennett’s day job, both stories are really about performing, about putting on a show for other people. Most of the characters think they’re fooling the world, and most of them are wrong. The book’s theme isn’t really “smut,” it is “unseemliness,” the pressures and expectations of decorum and social expectations. But it is also about the creative, even eccentric ways in which people use sex.

It’s really about how unconventional we are in our true selves. The only couple in either tale who carry on a conventional, loving and sexual relationship based on mutual affection and pleasure is also an adulterous somewhat incestuous and secret relationship between Mr. Forbes and his daughter-in-law, Betty. The lesson to be taken from these marvelous stories are that appearances are, of course, deceiving.

Bennett’s satire is not really directed at the characters who counterfeit for society’s sake (he actually treats the characters – especially the characters that society has a tendency to judge as deviant to some degree – with tenderness and acceptance). Instead, the satire is directed at the need to perform at all; at a society made up of people who, while probably fooling themselves, still expect others to live up to a collective sense of decorum.

Farcical? Yes. And it is easy to write these stories off as comedy, but the real question is just how farcical is society itself?

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About The Dirty Lowdown

I was born in Pomona, California at a very young age. I had a pretty normal childhood…or I was a pretty normal child hood if mom is telling the story. I was a paperboy and washed cars. I was a soda fountain jock-jerk and a manic mechanic but my first real job was as a labor organizer in a maternity ward. Then, because of the misjudgment of a judge I spent nearly 10 years in the service of our country mostly on KP duty. Our country sure turns out a lot of dirty dishes. I am a past master at pots and pans. They eventually recognized my real talent and let me wander around some very unfriendly places carrying a big radio that didn’t work. Along the way I took up the bass guitar, jotting down stories, electronic engineering and earned a degree in advanced criminal activities. I spent most of my adult life, if you can call it that, working in the I.T. industry, which I was particularly suited for since we worked in rooms with no windows. On and off I taught in colleges, universities and reform schools as a student teacher… I like smog, traffic, kinky people, car trouble, noisy neighbors, and crowded seedy bars where I have been known to quote Raymond Chandler as pickup lines. I have always been a voracious reader, everything from the classics, to popular fiction, history to science but I have a special place in my heart for crime fiction, especially hard-boiled detective fiction and noir. I write a book and music review blog for all genres at The Dirty Lowdown. And another dedicated to Crime Fiction and all things Noir called Crimeways. It’s named after the magazine that appeared in the Kenneth Fearing classic, The Big Clock. There I write scholarly reviews of the classic hard boiled, noir and crime fiction books from the 20's through today. Mostly I drool over the salacious pictures on the covers. I also write for Tecnorati/BlogCritics where i am part of a sinister cabal of superior writers.