“But my brother Esau is an hairy man, and I am a smooth man.” Expounding in nasal tones upon this Biblical verse and forever consigning it to comedy scripture, Alan Bennett began his career in the now-legendary British troupe Beyond the Fringe. Fifty years on, Bennett still doesn’t miss a trick as our most reliable bloodhound of the absurd in everyday life. In Smut, his latest collection, Bennett’s comic vision reaches Shakespearean heights of melancholy—a communion of disillusionment and laughter, of disgruntlement and euphoria, that is peculiarly British. The pleasures for the reader are sheer gruntlement.
The heroines of these two stories earn our affection by virtue (!) of their foolish trust in other human beings, which ultimately grants them inadvertent rewards. There is an old-fashioned name for the little miracles vouchsafed to these ladies: it used to be called grace. In “The Greening of Mrs Donaldson” and “The Shielding of Mrs Forbes,” however, no whiff of theological election attaches to their condition. Rather, what motivates their spiritual ascents (the Catholic term “assumption” is too good to be true) is the naïve principle working within their natures and motivating the sublimely sad hilarity of their tales.
If Mrs Donaldson does not adequately reckon the psychological cost of providing free rent in her house to young couples in return for voyeuristic delights, or if Mrs Forbes never once suspects the remarkable sexual deviancies of various family members going on right under her prim nose, that’s literally not their lookout. The perpetrators of said sordid designs upon Mrs D. and Mrs F. alchemically transform into bestowers of unaccountable harmony. The “smut” of the book’s title morphs into a “must.” Shakespeare’s Puck could not have managed it so well. In company with that good fellow, Alan Bennett shall restore amends.