Smut by Alan Bennett

SmutAlan Bennett is a prolific writer whose works include plays, screenplays, short stories and novels. Not to mention that he’s also an actor. I’ve read a bit about certain works of his and I’ve heard a lot about them. And I’ve finally read one of his books. I found the book Smut on a ‘bargains’ shelf in a bookstore and it was too tempting to ignore buying it.

The Stories

Smut is a collection of two novella-like short stories: ‘The Greening of Mrs Donaldson’ and ‘The Shielding of Mrs Forbes’.

The first story is about a widow, Mrs Donaldson, who works part time in a university hospital as a patient (acting out symptoms) for students to figure out as part of their studies. She also rents out a room in her house to a student couple and when they fall behind in their rent, they approach her with the proposition to let her watch them having intercourse. She agrees and to her surprise, discovers how enjoyable the act of voyeurism is. Later on the students move out and another couple want to move in (friends of the previous tenants) who then hint at the possibility of… Yes, the question is what will Mrs Donaldson do? I’ll not spoil it further and my excuses for having revealed this much already but it is necessary for a point I want to make later.

The second story is about a gay man, Graham Forbes, who’s basically a mama’s boy, only think posh, British and stuck-up. He marries a rich woman to keep up appearances. {*Spoiler alert!} His stepfather sleeps with his daughter-in-law (Graham’s wife), his mother sleeps with the policeman that Graham sleeps with as well and the best pert, no one knows what’s going on. And, his wife who comes across as much more intelligent than Graham and is also money wise, downplays herself for the sake of appearances with regards to both Graham and his mother.

The Ups and a Down

The stories are certainly interesting with the first exploring voyeurism from an elder woman’s perspective, and the second coming across as a relationship farce. They are well paced for the most part, except when the actual sexual scenes take place, I felt that these are rushed. The narrative is tight and beautifully balanced. Especially engaging is the dialogue, which is quick, revealing and life-like, basically a joy to read as one would expect from a successful playwright.

The one factor I had trouble with in this book is the way the themes are introduced. They are dropped in there in a matter-of-fact fashion and I’m expected to take this on board and continue with the story. The problem is that these are sudden and jarring. Reading ‘The Greening of Mrs Donaldson’, there is no way I could see the direction the story was going to take. While this is generally an excellent trait in a story, here it failed to convince me and it became an element bordering on sensationalism. The end result is that the story lacks credibility. I think if Bennett had expanded these stories some more and exposed more about the characters and their backgrounds and, perhaps even steered us towards these themes, they would have maintained their credibility, even in the farcical nature of ‘The Shielding of Mrs Forbes’.

Final Thoughts

Nevertheless, it’s an excellent little book to read. It’s entertaining, surprising and well written. The second story is more to my taste; I find it refreshing to read a farce about relationships of this caliber.

I’ll be looking out for more of his books in the near future.

Samir

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4 thoughts on “Smut by Alan Bennett

  1. Not having read either of these stories, I’m wondering why Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” works for readers, given that there is no gradual “set-up” for the story. You just plunge in. Or do you have the same criticism of Kafka’s story? Perhaps Bennett’s work is missing some vital component that makes the reader feel jarred out of this story’s fictional “world”?

    1. Jilanne, the key difference between Kafka’a “Metamorphosis” and the stories here is that Kafka begins in media res whereas Bennett does not. The later is more of the traditional build up so when the sexual scenes come up, they feel somewhat forced and out of character – yet they’re a lot of fun, too. Do try to read the book if you get the chance, I’d love to know your thoughts 😉

  2. It’s on my ‘to read’ list. I bought a copy for a friend on a whim, the title amused me, and now she’s read it I’m planning on borrowing.

    1. Kate, I had the same first impression: I came upon the title in the New York Review of Books and decided I had to read it at one point. It’s certainly entertaining 🙂

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