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Review: Smut: Two Unseemly Stories

Book by Alan Bennett


 

Smut: Two unseemly storiesOne of the odd small charms of the two novella-length stories that comprise Smut is that they aren’t in the least smutty. That’s an accomplishment given how much sex they contain—straight, gay, marital, extramarital, dutiful, enthusiastic, exhibitionistic, voyeuristic, virtual, even bedroom farce. But Bennett’s wry, occasionally arch style tamps a tight lid of British repression on any erotic proceedings to focus on his characters’ preoccupation with what’s seemly and unseemly, which in an age of twittered crotch shots is far more provocative.

“The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson” and “The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes” share quaint titles and middle-aged protagonists far less hidebound than they appear. Donaldson, 55, a recent widow, finds renewed vitality when she takes in a young couple as lodgers and becomes a part-time “demonstrator” at a university. Feigning illnesses to help medical students conduct examinations unleashes a flair for theatrics, and paves the way for her surprising willingness to accept her boarders’ offer to “pay off” their overdue rent by letting her watch them in carnal congress. Mrs. Donaldson’s droll observations (she feels “not unlike a tennis umpire overseeing a particularly close-fought match” and compares it to her own dull conjugal comingling with Mr. Donaldson) render the spectacle more farce than erotica. But it’s a watershed that unleashes in her a hunger for erotic possibilities—along with worry about how that will appear.

Social pretensions animate the second tale about Mrs. Forbes and her son Graham, a handsome, narcissistic closeted gay who marries rich, dowdy Betty to appease his mother. The plot’s busy with 1950s-style extortion plots, Mr. Forbes’s online seductions, and open secrets. Again, everyone’s putting on a show, a theme expected from Bennett, a national treasure famed for Beyond the Fringe and The History Boys. His omniscient narrator is less interested in foreplay than wordplay: Graham delights in the “burglarious” nature of sex with his wife and Betty expresses reservations about her husband: “She wasn’t wholly infatuated, though she liked the way he looked; but, so too did he and that unfatuated her a bit.” For those for whom wit trumps sex, it’s titillating stuff.


 
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