Wednesday, 16 March 2011

GREAT BOOKS: Alan Bennett, "Untold Stories" (2005)

It’s impossible to write a review of Untold Stories without mentioning what made Alan Bennett write the book in the first place. Well, as it happens, Bennett wrote Untold Stories in what must have been his most dark, depressive period: after being diagnosed with cancer and given an unsettling less-than-50% chance of recovering from the disease. Inevitably fearing the worst, Bennett gathered up his strength, humour (remarkable given the circumstances) and his considerable wit to produce a book that was supposed to be his last. Fortunately, if somewhat ironically, Alan Bennett recovered. 

Alan Bennett seems to me the kind of writer who totally gives himself away in his books. So much so, in fact, that after seeing or even reading a couple of his plays (yes, even those that don’t contain a Bennett prototype) one might get a feeling he knows the man quite intimately. Yet Untold Stories is his memoirs, and one might wonder: is his secluded, detached life worth telling?.. Well, that would be an unquestionable, gleaming Yes. 

Alan Bennett is, in a way, a Philip Larkin sort. Private man, a recluse (“I should go out more – if only for the sake of diary”), Bennett leads a relatively uneventful life, definitely not the kind that could make it into an explosive autobiography. And explosive these stories are not; actually, one would hardly consider them even mildly revelatory. But the book is still a fascinating read, mainly because Bennett is a first-class storyteller who can amuse and entice you with the plainest of recollections. “Sensitive boys are never happy”, he mentions halfway through the book, itself a quote from one of his plays. You certainly can believe him, and you sympathize, but it is this sensitiveness of his that made these stories so gripping, so emotional, and so sharp. 

Untold Stories doesn’t read like the man’s ultimate autobiography. These are just some stories from his past that he felt like relating to the world. Narrated in his simple, self-sufficient style and in amused, amusing tone, the largest portions of the book are devoted to his quiet, troubled family, sexuality, film stars, college years. In part fresh recollections, in part excerpts from his diary, the book is rich in Bennett’s views on all kinds of issues, from acting to politics to education. His observations are consistently brilliant and slightly whimsical (British people intolerable in their victory; Blair stressing the word “honest” in his speech, etc.), and his humour is, as ever, clever and affecting. But considering that Bennett was battling cancer and viewed Untold Stories as a posthumous proposition, it’s astonishing this humour is there at all. But I guess Bennett being Bennett, well, it just couldn’t be otherwise. 

There are numerous examples in literature (as well as in music and other art) of an artist working on something that he believes, knows, anticipates, fears will be his last. There have been some quiet failures, some modest masterpieces, but most of the resulting works seem understandably over-serious and over-dramatic. Alan Bennett’s Untold Stories doesn’t seem like that at all. It is exactly the kind of insightful, well-honed memoirs he would have written under normal circumstances. It’s just that under normal circumstances there might have been no book at all… Life is cynical; cynical yet sweet. 

So thankfully these stories came to be unearthed. Reminiscing about his college and the way he got his scholarship, Bennett writes: “What had happened so unforgettably to me, couldn’t happen anymore”. Which should be reason enough for anyone to pay attention. There’s a great story, and the story is greatly told. One of the most beautiful, essential autobiographies in recent memory. But I’ve started reading too many of those – I’m nearing 30 or what?..


No comments:

Post a Comment