segunda-feira, 8 de julho de 2013

Alan Bennett’s Tales of Vice By THOMAS MALLON

Alan Bennett’s Tales of Vice

By Alan Bennett
152 pp. Picador/A Frances Coady Book/Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Paper, $14.

On Sept. 24, 1986, in one of his published diaries, Alan Bennett — the British dramatist, screenwriter and master of the long short story — sighs over a spate of mixed reviews: “Well, one must take it like a man,” he supposes. “Which means that one must take it like a woman — i.e., without complaint.” Admiration for female stoicism abounds in Bennett’s work, along with a desire, where possible, to engineer overdue rewards for heroines who have done too much suffering in silence. In “Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet,” he makes sure his main character gets more than pedestrian relief from her new podiatrist. And in “The Clothes They Stood Up In,” he nudges the uncomplaining Mrs. Ransome toward rejuvenation after a mysterious performance-art burglar snatches and then reassembles, in some other place entirely, every single object from the flat she shares with her tiresome husband.
Bennett’s philogyny made a notable exception for Margaret Thatcher in her heyday, but it has otherwise extended from “Miss Shepherd,” the real-life madwoman he allowed to live for more than a decade in a van outside his house, all the way to Her Majesty the Queen. In 2007, he scored a hit with “The Uncommon Reader,” a novella that imagined Elizabeth II’s late-life discovery of reading: “As a girl, one of her greatest thrills had been on V-E night when she and her sister had slipped out of the gates and mingled unrecognized with the crowds. There was something of that, she felt, to reading. It was anonymous; it was shared; it was common. And she who had led a life apart now found that she craved it.”
Bennett’s latest work of fiction consists of two substantial stories in one slight volume. Each carries a primly inoffensive title (“The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson,” “The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes”) while the collection itself goes by “Smut,” something he seems to regard as a fine tonic for the too tightly wound. And it’s something of a triumph that the smut in “Smut” is not just the incidental sooty fleck. Bennett may sprinkle double entendres and fire off the occasional Tourette-like burst of blunt common nouns, but he really does manage to startle his supposedly unshockable modern readers with each story’s very premise, slowly revealed and, yes, smutty.
The “greening” of Mrs. Jane Donaldson, the 55-year-old heroine of the first tale, gets under way thanks to widowhood, which propels her into the work force. She finds part-time work as a “demonstrator” for the local medical school, role-playing various patients and relatives in exercises designed to improve the diagnostic skills and bedside manner of the “budding healers.” One day she’ll be called upon to portray a transvestite with knee trouble, the next someone whose mother has gone into a coma. The execution of these little dramas, rife with possibilities for cross-talk and misunderstanding, allows Bennett to draw on the sketch-comedy skills he acquired half a century ago with his colleagues in “Beyond the Fringe.” But, more important, the hospital improvisations reveal Mrs. Donaldson’s reserves of empathy and anger, a whole range of emotions stifled during her middle-class married life.
Still, medical acting doesn’t pay much, so she must also take in a pair of 20-year-old student lodgers who, once they fall behind on the rent, offer to make up the deficit by allowing their pleasant landlady to watch them having sex. The bartering possibilities envisioned by Mrs. Donaldson had been “running to housework” and gardening, but she’s too polite to refuse what’s actually proposed.
At first she’s a reluctant observer (“she found herself looking at the floor and wondering if it was time she had the carpet cleaned”), and so, truth be told, is the reader. But there’s little disputing that voyeurism does our heroine quite a lot of good. Having a secret plumps up her feelings of attractiveness and self-confidence; she even acquires enough strength to weather the nasty realization that the lodgers have spilled her secret to the people she works with at the hospital. “What kind of person was she?” Mrs. Donaldson has begun to wonder. To Bennett’s way of thinking, it’s an excellent question, one he hopes will set his character en route from spectatorship to full participation.
When he turns from greening Mrs. Donaldson to shielding Mrs. Forbes — adoring mother of handsome, narcissistic Graham; disapproving new mother-in-law of “plainish,” capable Betty — things become a bit less kinky (for a while) and rather more dicey. Graham is surprisingly happy with his new wife, but he still enjoys being “Toby” during closeted gay trysts with “Gary,” until Gary turns out really to be Kevin, a blackmailing policeman. It is Betty who takes effective action to protect not only herself and her husband but also her gorgon of a mother-in-law, with reasoning that further stretches Bennett’s championship of women. Never mind the elder Mrs. Forbes’s snobbery and possessiveness; she is “a survival and on that score alone her outlook and her armor-plated ignorance merited preservation.”
All, of course, is not as it might seem. Mrs. Forbes is actually less ignorant and vulnerable than she appears, while unflashy, competent Betty is hoping to sustain not only the satisfactions she gets from Graham, but also those she’s begun to derive from an affair with his father. The elder Mr. Forbes had been getting up to speed with the Internet, enjoying chats with a “snake-hipped dusky beauty in Samoa . . . who actually lives in Clitheroe,” when Betty came along to offer the more genuine and familiar article.
Bennett rushes this second set of characters through a headlong kind of epilogue, showering them with farcical fulfillments or nasty surprises before leaving them to their own devices (“And so they go on”), muddling through and canoodling along. We believe in their continuing existence off the page because Bennett is so expert at letting them be themselves while on it. His characters may be types, but they maintain a deadpan unawareness of this fact, thus avoiding a theatrical pitfall their creator notes in his diaries: “The mistake in dramatizing Kafka is always the same: . . . actors and directors don’t play the text, they play the implications of the text.” Bennett himself often speaks in an old-fashioned narrative voice (“So in due course”), and he sometimes clots the cream of his prose with a syntax all his own, danglers and punctuation be damned: “Careful about money an offer like this would normally have appealed to Graham. . . .”
For all his liberal social views, Bennett doesn’t mind seeing vice continue paying its old tribute of hypocrisy to virtue: “The vicar likes you to pretend you believe in God. Everyone knows this is a formality. It’s like the air hostess going through the safety drill.” What counts is to keep the sizzle going underneath whatever suppressions we impose on ourselves. Imposing them on others is another, quite nasty matter, and Kevin, the bad, blackmailing policeman, will soon — if only in the interest of “narrative tidiness” — be finding that out.
Thomas Mallon is the author of eight novels, including “Henry and Clara,” “Fellow Travelers” and the forthcoming “Watergate.”

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