by Alan Bennett
I’m a fan of Alan Bennett’s wonderful plays, but my greatest affection is reserved for his charming novella The Uncommon Reader. Coming in at a slight 160 pages, Smut is similar in length, but this book is made up of two brief stories. In content, they have nothing in common with that earlier tale, but they exhibit the same trademark humor and warmth. This is a writer it’s difficult not to like. Therefore, it may be surprising to hear that Mr. Bennett is writing Smut. These tales are about sex—at least in part. And though it’s been years since I read them, these stories remind me of nothing so much as the “adult” stories of Roald Dahl.
The first and longer of the two stories was my favorite. “The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson” involves a middle-aged widow who supplements her income by acting out symptoms for medical students to diagnose. There’s much more to it, of course, but half the pleasure here is in the discovery. The other half of the pleasure is the loveable and very human Mrs. Donaldson. And then the third half of the pleasure is the gentle humor.
I didn’t like the characters in “The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes” quite as much, but they weren’t meant to be as likable. The vain Graham Forbes has several secrets he’s keeping from his new wife, but it turns out she has an agenda of her own.
Despite Bennett’s natural sweetness, these stories really do discuss sexual matters in a very frank and adult manner. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t describe them as graphic. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend The Uncommon Reader to anyone who’s ever loved a book. I won’t be recommending Smut quite as unreservedly. I think more open-minded readers will enjoy these stories the most. But I enjoyed them immensely, and I do recommend them.