Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Alan Bennett, _Untold Stories_

I HAVE BEEN plugging away at this since, I think, 2008.  Took a while not only because of its length (630 pages) but also because it is one of my bedside table books, and since my spouse typically retires well before I do, I rarely have need to resort to one of my bedside table books; they tend to linger there for years. Zeitoun has been there for about three years.

Bennett is better known in England than he is here; in England, I gather, he is a national treasure on the order of Garrison Keillor, both graceful writers with a distinctive vein of mainly gentle but occasionally tart humor, with some high-culture credentials (Keillor's novels, Bennett's plays, though Bennett seems to have higher standing as a playwright than Keillor has as a novelist).

They are easily distinguished, to be sure--Bennett is gay, Keillor straight, Keillor went to the University of Minnesota, Bennett to Oxford, Bennett will bring up cathedral architecture or Pre-Raphaelite painting where Keillor would bring up baseball or F. Scott Fitzgerald--but the two are still highly comparable. Both grew up in humble, pious families in the provinces in roughly the same stretch of the 20th century (Bennett born 1934 in Yorkshire, Keillor 1942 in Minnesota).  Both were raised by parents who didn't expect or ask for much, and taught their children not to expect or ask for much. Both can be hilarious about the world they grew up in without tipping over into mean-spirited satire on the one hand or gluey sentimentality on the other. Both embrace the politics of the underdog, staunch defenders of what government can make possible for ordinary people; as Keillor excels as deflating a certain kind of entitled, puffed-up, self-righteous Republican, so Bennett does in skewering the Thatcherite Tories.

Untold Stories is a collection of largely autobiographical or memoiristic essays with a generous section (close to 200 pages) from Bennett's published diaries (which appear annually or so in the London Review of Books).  Everything in here is worth reading, and a couple of pieces are the sort you immediately wish to tell all your friends to read: the book's opening piece, "Untold Stories," a long essay about Bennett's parents' lives and deaths, including his mother's slide into dementia, told with candor, extraordinary attention to detail, and love; and its closing one, "An Average Rock Bun," about Bennett's ultimately successful battle with colon cancer.

I already have a similar volume of Bennett's, Writing Home, which I imagine I'll be dipping into over the next four years.

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