Alan Bennett - Smut (3 stars)

Short story collection undoubtably dirty, but disappointingly dry

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EMABARGOED TIL 28/04 Alan Bennett's short story collection 'Smut' is undoubtably dirty, but disappointingly dry

(Profile/Faber)

In an interview last year, Alan Bennett (76), admitted that as he grew older he cares less and less what people think about him. He wasn’t referring to beastly reviewers and their beastly reviews, but to those who might be shocked at the increasingly overt depictions of the sexual act in his work. Smut with its ‘two unseemly stories’ cranks up this heat to 11.

In ‘The Greening of Mrs Donaldson’, we meet a pleasant middle-class woman and a widower who believes her own marriage would have been pretty much like she imagined many others: good to start with, then ok, and finally stultifyingly dull until the release of one partner’s death broke the tedium. To alleviate her widowhood stasis, she does a bit of acting at her local hospital, throwing herself into various afflictions for the benefit of trainee medics and the pompous Doctor Ballantyne, who clearly has a thing for Mrs D. But the filth only begins when, against the strict wishes of her naggy daughter Gwen, she takes two students in as lodgers. Struggling to meet the backlog of rent, they suggest a novel way to make payment.

For ‘The Shielding of Mrs Forbes’, we meet a typically surface-dull Bennett creation. Graham Forbes is a banker whose mother is disappointed in his choice of wife, though whether she would be keen to know that he has long been paying men for sex is another matter. At the same time, her own husband keeps her away from the internet so she remains unaware of his secret life. Both tales gently shine a light onto the darkness which exists behind the curtains of many conventional suburban homesteads, but a sense of urgency and drive seem to be missing. Bennett may have thrown off certain shackles but it has resulted in his trademark wit being sadly clamped.

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