|Jan/Feb 2012 Reviews & Interviews|
Faber. 2011. 180 pp.
ISBN 978 1 84668 525 5.
I was bribed to write about this book. My review copy came with an extra package in which I found a paper bag emblazoned in large letters: "WARNING: contains Smut," and in smaller letters, "the wicked new book by Alan Bennett." Inside the paper bag was a lurid orange T-shirt with the command, "Ask me about Smut," splashed across the front.
Alan Bennett is surely well-known enough not to need such gimmicky advertising. Who would wear this T-shirt? Young bookshop assistants perhaps? Literature festival devotees? Certainly not me. And how much does such advertising add to the cost of the book?
More importantly, is the book worth it?
I like Alan Bennett's writing. I like his humor and his generous appreciation of the foibles and quirks of human nature. I would have written a review without the ghastly T-shirt. But there is no doubt that sex sells, and the cover blub of the book says plainly enough what the book is about. It contains, we are told, two "unseemly stories," both of which "concern women in middle life. Mrs Donaldson, whom sex takes by surprise, and Mrs Forbes, who is not surprised at all." And yes, the book is what it says it is: "Naughty, honest and very funny."
The large image of a keyhole on the book's cover is appropriate, because "smut" is what we primly label all those sexy things which go on behind closed doors. In this book, Bennett lets us look through the keyhole at a huge range of sexual antics, predilections, sexual fantasies, and embarrassments. All of which happen to seemingly ordinary, upright (well, not always upright!), moral citizens. Whether readers find this prurient or not depends on their view of sex. Mostly, Bennett enjoys the contradictions between the way in which we humans present ourselves to the world and, often, to our partners, and the secret thrills, untapped desires, and bizarre situations in which our sexual urges are likely (or unlikely) to embroil us.
Mrs Donaldson, after an exemplary moral life as wife and mother, finds unexpected rewards when her husband dies and she takes in a couple of impoverished students as lodgers. One of her lodgers is a medical student, and at her suggestion, Mrs. Donaldson becomes a part-time demonstrator at the hospital, acting out medical conditions to test the diagnostic skills of a group of student doctors. This is just part of her adventure, but when the students fall behind with their rent, the sexual revelations that follow are equally novel to her and unexpectedly stimulating and addictive.
Mrs Forbes's husband is very much alive, but his secret homosexual predilections cause complications that she is well-equipped to handle, having secrets (especially financial secrets) of her own. His troubling and troublesome liaisons are described in some detail, but so, too, are her dissimulations as good, submissive, financially incompetent wife.
In the end, for both women, keeping up appearances becomes less important than the thrills of exploring their own secret selves.
Alan Bennett show us that so-called "smut" is a fact of life. And that the thrill of discovering smutty secrets about others is a common human failing. Look through enough keyholes, and you will no doubt discover this for yourselves. But maybe the advertisers should have added this to the T-shirt: "WARNING: you may never regard your ordinary seeming neighbours in the same way again."