Seventy-two this year, Alan Bennett has outlasted his companions from the comedy troupe Beyond the Fringe. No, I do not mean that Dr. Jonathan Miller is dead. But just as Miller was prodigious when young, so he has calmed down lately. He was not just the most chillingly coherent of the four, not just a director of theater, opera and film, not just a doctor capable of doing a brisk television tour of The Body. It seemed only a matter of time before the BBC asked him to be prime minister for a week, as a way of explaining that tricky job–or God. As for the other two, Dudley Moore and Peter Cook, they are gone, as if death were the price of their extra fame and sexual luster. After all, Cook was beautiful in a satanic kind of way, while Moore was married to Tuesday Weld, Susan Anton and nearly every other stunning blonde in California.
Which leaves the fourth man, a phrase that in England is foggy with subtext (usually involving homosexuality and espionage), and why not? For Bennett is still the most recessive of the quartet that went Beyond the Fringe. Or do I mean the one with the most to hide? He was boyish still, with a National Service haircut in the ’60s–he could have been a Latvian spy with a perfect Leeds accent. In Untold Stories, he confesses with exactly the crushed ego that distinguishes him that at least two well-meaning fans of Beyond the Fringe–the writer Edmund White and Prime Minister Harold Wilson–have asked whether he was actually one of the original group. Which is a way of saying that Bennett was not only the least likely satirist but by far the most reticent of the four, the one who sat there as dumb as a sofa when a magnificence like Elizabeth Taylor elected to perch on his lap.
No matter. There are defeats that deepen the soul and quietly whisper to an austerely timid Yorkshire lad (the other three were more or less Londoners) that fate has something else up its sleeve for him. And so it has proved. What that thing is remains hard to define and harder still to grasp in America, because Alan Bennett “at home” is now regarded as a national treasure by many of the classes most readily lampooned by Beyond the Fringe. I mean the people he writes about best: the country people; the provincials; the widowed conservatives; the stranded gentry or gentility who remember county borders, cathedral cities and cricket grounds; the ones who know Milton, Tennyson, A.A. Milne and Larkin by heart; radio listeners; the old English who feel forgotten by progress and Blairism; the lonely; the victims and even their killers; the people afflicted still by shyness and the lifelong search for some love or comfort that will not be mocked by those blithe scummy media Brits; the ones having it so good and so often that they wouldn’t notice if they were being served beef tenderloin or uncooked human flesh.
What has emerged is that Alan Bennett was meant to be a writer, albeit a late bloomer. True, England boasts classier literary names–Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Martin Amis and so on, all the way to the latest Nobelist, Harold Pinter. But it is about time that someone pointed out how reading those blokes is like bitter small talk with a stranger in a bus queue in the rain, whereas Bennett is a full lunch and high tea afterward. It is a glaring example of modern English frivolity, I think, that he is not simply regarded–with awe and terror–as one of the greatest living English writers, and a man whose nose for solitude and its thoughts is so unforgiving that sooner or later he will frighten the life out of you, especially if you cling to the belief that he is an “entertainer.”
Bennett may still be regarded as principally a dramatic writer–of stage plays and scripts for film and television–but Untold Stories settles on a more personal prose voice. Indeed, this is the second “compendium” volume that Bennett has produced. In his introduction he compares Untold Stories with those annual Christmas comic books he loved as a kid. Tread carefully with that comparison and with his further suggestion of many different things “jumbled together,” as in an anthology. Do not fall for the notion that this is youthful reading or even “no less serious because it is funny.” The American publisher repeats that in its blurb, anxious to have Bennett purchased for his comedy. And it’s not that he’s not funny. But the comedy is so often gallows humor, or like tap-dancing in a cancer ward.
The publisher should strain less. The first volume of this kind, Writing Home, was published in London in 1994 and became a huge bestseller in Britain. It was a collection of pieces: on Bennett’s early life in Yorkshire, on close friends, on films and plays he had been involved with, on books and authors. But the two dominating items were about 200 pages of diary extracts from 1980 to 1995 and a forty-page memoir, “The Lady in the Van,” an account of how an indigent but fierce old lady, Miss Shepherd, took root in Bennett’s front garden in Camden Town, intimidated him, seduced him (in the way of a victim seeking a benefactor) and came to dominate his life as a lover or a parent might have done.
“The Lady in the Van” was often very funny, in terms of the clash of misunderstandings and the living theater of embarrassment, and Bennett’s friend Maggie Smith played the part when the strange episode was transferred to the stage. But many writers and Camden Townites would not have tolerated the embarrassment. Bennett went along with it for deep-seated reasons, undoubtedly including a kind of guilt or deference that exceeds the ordinary liberal weakness for charitable cases; a social masochism that comes from not wishing to be bold; and a profound interest in and identification with the distressed, the lost, the deranged and the alone. Most people would have had Miss Shepherd removed, or moved on. Bennett let her linger, as if he somehow reckoned he deserved her. She became a problem visitor, yet this tolerance was accompanied in his diaries by an increasing horror at the spite, the triviality and mercenariness of “successful” England. There’s not much doubt that Bennett is an old Labour voter by instinct, but do not mistake him for a cheerful progressive. Deep in his heart, he is as conservative as his lower-middle-class Mam and Dad from Leeds. That unexpected political nostalgia may have helped make Writing Home a bestseller, but it has also led Bennett away from London modishness and toward a universal fear of lost traditions and surrendered codes of silent honor.
The set pieces in Untold Stories are, again, the diaries–this time from 1996 to 2004, the years of Blair, the era of ultimate betrayal and chagrin for an old socialist. In “An Average Rock Bun” Bennett offers an account of his struggle with bowel cancer (the title refers to its size) in which he is given a fifty-fifty chance. Once he has come through, he is told the real odds were closer to one in five that he’d survive. And then there is “Untold Stories” itself, a memoir of about 120 pages, the opener to this collection and the most Chekhovian piece Bennett has ever written.
It begins with Alan and his father being interviewed by a doctor who is looking into Mam’s depression. This is 1966, and Mam, the capable, hitherto cheerful wife and mother of two sons, is becoming more solitary and sad. Yet she is Alan’s Mam still, nothing like the prima donna Miss Shepherd, a woman who was always crying out for the stage. As for Lilian Bennett, “in all her excursions into unreality Mam remained the shy, unassuming woman she had always been, none of her fantasies extravagant, her claims, however irrational they might be, always modest. She might be ill, disturbed, mad even, but she still knew her place.” That is essential Bennett, both blessing and damnation, and it is not just a first attempt to define his central shyness but a troubled rumination over whether shyness is proper or a form of madness that requires cleansing outburst or outrage.
The doctor asks the father and son if there is a history of depression in the family. Alan automatically answers; after all, he is the educated one, an Oxford graduate, not to mention a stage success, while Dad was never more than a long-suffering butcher. So Alan says, No, none at all. But he hears Dad sigh and feels Dad’s hand on his knee–this from a father who has rarely touched him. There was Mam’s dad, it turns out now. Alan has never heard word one about this, but in 1925, it seems, his own granddad Peel, out of the blue, drowned himself in the canal.
That is the setup for a family memoir from an escaped son–after all, Alan has far outstripped the limits of his family life–but from a writer who cannot shake off the ties and bonds of family, and maybe from an artist who has puzzled over the sources of his own melancholy. Bennett is as good as anyone I have ever read on how this private shyness (the emotional) is inseparable from the English burden of knowing and keeping your own place (political). Put the two together and you have the tormented world of secret lives, where it can take forty years or more for a suicide to be disclosed.
Read this and judge whether any functioning English novelist of today knows as much:
Shyness (which will keep cropping up in this book) is a soft word, foggy and woollen, and it throws its blanket over all sorts of behaviour. It covers a middle-aged son or neurasthenic daughter living at home with an elderly mother, through to some socially crippled and potentially dangerous creature incapable of human response; shy a spectrum that stretches from the wallflower to the psychopath. ‘A bit of a loner’ is how the tabloids put it after some shrinking wreck has ventured to approach or make off with a child or exposed himself in a park, ‘shy’ thought altogether too kindly a description. Because ‘soft’ comes near it, and ‘timid’, too, but without the compassion or understanding implicit in shy. That he or she is shy is an excuse or an extenuation that is made by others (mothers in particular) but seldom by the persons concerned. Because if you are shy then you’re generally too shy to say so, ‘I’m shy’ a pretty bold thing to come out with.
Sheltering under shy, it was a long time before I understood that the self-effacing and the self-promoting, shy and its opposite, share a basic assumption, shy and forward the same. Everybody is looking at me, thinks the shy person (and I wish they weren’t). Everybody is looking at me, thinks the self-confident (and quite right too).
This is the remorseless, probing voice (in which it is impossible not to hear the plangent Yorkshireness of Bennett himself, plaintive, naggy, yet hard) in a memoir that watches over Mam’s slow death while wondering why granddad drowned himself in the canal, and while knowing at the heart of it all that Alan’s own state has to be reckoned with. For just as the above extract indicates, Bennett has come to the realization that there may be a tyrant, a monster–or at the very least a demanding actor–inside that shy soul who does such a good impression of wanting to vanish that it can make people laugh or cry. Hence the abiding hope that Alan Bennett may be merely a funny man, one of those North Country comics who looks so glum the audience starts giggling.
Of course, “Untold Stories” is ostensibly an elegy for Mam, and the kindness of the narrative voice, or the compassion, is all the greater now in that, at 70, Bennett is in full realization of how the stifling, touchless community of his own family built “shyness” in himself. There might be excuse for anger or complaint–there is that need for outrage in the shy once their shackles fall off. They need to seize on mania, or violence, and one version of that is killing the parents. But Alan watches Mam die in the hushed passion of a Lear testing Cordelia for breath:
Once her speech has unravelled, any further deterioration in her personality becomes hard for an onlooker to gauge (and we are all onlookers). Speechless and seemingly beyond reach, she dozes in the first-floor bedroom to the house above the bay, regularly fed and watered, her hair done every fortnight, oblivious of place and time and touch. In the other beds women come and go, or come and die, my mother outlasting them all. On the horizon ships pass and it is as if her own vessel, having sailed, now lies becalmed, anchored on its horizon, life suspended, death waiting and in the meantime nothing: life holds her in its slack jaw and seems to doze.
How can I convey the advance Bennett has made in this book by discarding an earlier tendency to self-pity and reaching for a sublime generosity? Well, let me bring into adjacency Joan Didion’s recent The Year of Magical Thinking. I must begin by saying that I have probably read and reread Bennett and Didion as much as any authors. You will know the legend, that Didion’s book is about the death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne. So it is, but in an awkward way that has not been much noticed. For whereas Didion has for years adopted many of the manners of a shy writer, above all in testing the texture of her feelings, their veracity, rather more than in having them, so the obituary book tells us little about Dunne, and far too little about what he meant to Didion. It is a book about the person left, and I think it’s wrong for close reading to leave out of account how much liberation or exultation there is in that person who has become the center of attention, the mistress of the stage. (Didion has consented to a stage adaptation of the book, with David Hare directing.)
The Year of Magical Thinking may well have been a necessary book for its author, but that pursuit of self does not shut out glimpses of authorial triumph, and even an oblique efficiency. Yet in Bennett’s account of Mam’s death there exists side by side a tender description of her and just as detailed and poignant an account of how her parentage and his family set Alan–their pride, their joy, their reason–back in the gloomy shelter called shyness.
I have a hunch where this insight has come from. I said earlier that Bennett is a dramatist (though he admits that he finds drama hard). As such, he is often interesting–witness The Madness of George III, an unexpected defense of monarchy, illness and the enforced isolation of the old and infirm; and A Question of Attribution, a witty television film in which the current Queen (thanks to Prunella Scales) appeared on the Palace stage with Sir Anthony Blunt, spy, homosexual, aesthete, lonely fellow and Keeper of the Queen’s Pictures. Their talk is Bennett at his best–all polite form, with hidden meanings and masked enmity lurking in patient, or familial, silence. But that talk also offered the suggestion that Bennett the dramatist is handicapped by the very modesty that dogged Mam and the rest of the discreet family, the same fear of open conflict, violent argument and contentiousness. All of those things are anathema to the English family life, pleasant but secret, that Bennett knew and that has struck other authors (Greene, le Carré) as a metaphor for espionage.
In one of Bennett’s best dramatic works, “I didn’t say anything” is a key line delivered with a sigh and a pause (by Bennett himself) as if to make a claim for the tirade that has been smothered. This comes from “A Chip in the Sugar,” one of the first series of “Talking Heads,” monologues or colloquies between a deserted figure and a fond, uncritical camera. The slight undertone of natter or whine in Bennett proves to be grievance talking to itself. In “A Chip in the Sugar,” Graham is a 40-ish son who looks after an elderly Mam. She is flirty and adventurous; he is pessimistic and cautious. She embarks on a late romance; he advises against it–but chiefly because he, the caregiver, may be abandoned. Of course, he knows best, but Mam is willful, so he says, “I didn’t say anything” with the silent volumes being quietly dumped in our lap. But are we really an audience, or a surrogate for the crowd that could drive the Grahams of the world crackers? The suspicion dawns as the “story” unfolds that the monologuist is not just unreliable but closer to the brink than Mam.
This artful form (graced by such skilled players as Maggie Smith, Thora Hird, Patricia Routledge and Bennett) acted like a revelation to Bennett. He loved the calm of interior monologue, the wistful dread; but he was capable of adding hints or innuendo that made us wary of the lecturing voice. It was a perfect medium for him, and done as television or, even better, as radio, where the sense of privacy is enhanced by not having to look at faces, the “Talking Heads” are classics. But the series also drew out the tendency toward paranoia in those living alone, that creepy feeling of being watched. Now we learn that Bennett’s mother had the same worry–it’s the fate of the net-curtain class: that they may be spied upon as they spy on others.
In those first “Talking Heads” (made in 1988), a furtive rebellion is emerging in the shy: above all in the vicar’s wife, played by Maggie Smith, who finds sexual splendor with an Indian shopkeeper. But others are cracking up, and imagining or suffering the scrutiny of strangers–from neighbors or the social services, an aspect of England for which Bennett has little hope or faith. In the second “Talking Heads,” the mood is far more bleak. For here Bennett shifts over to the side of outlaws and criminals–in one case a pederast. It is a sign, I think, first presaged in his taking the side of the spies Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, that this shy bystander could turn nasty, angry and even outrageous in ways that make the angry young men of his youth seem callow.
I have left out plenty in what is a packed suitcase of a book, not least Bennett’s biting observations on the English. These diaries find him rankled by evidence of public unkindness, yet they have a cruelty of their own. In 1999 he wrote:
16 April. Foul young businessman on the train making arrangements for the evening with a girlfriend via his mobile phone. ‘Save some for me,’ he says, and as he signs off: ‘Be kissed.’
There speaks a boy and a young man who tells us he hardly knew how to kiss. (It is another breakthrough in this volume that Alan fesses up to a male companion. For decades, I think, most readers supposed he was gay–not the right word–but still it was hard for Bennett himself to admit any reason for saying so.) But the startling thing in that diary entry, and the warning that shy people may make great killers, is the unaffected use of the word “foul.” If you want to understand the cultural wars in England now, and if you want to come to grips with a great writer and a challenging mind, then Bennett is your man. But understand that he feels he was wrongfully imprisoned for most of his life. He has an edge or an open blade in his raincoat pocket, and it is raw and needy, like stomach trouble.