Writing Home and Untold Stories by Alan Bennett15 September 2007
It seems that the playwright and author Alan Bennett has a new novella out: The Uncommon Reader. So before I purchase it, I thought I’d post my reviews of two of his collected prose writings. In a forthcoming review, I’ll post my review of his play (and now film) The History Boys.
Writing Home by Alan Bennett
The writings and reminiscences in Writing Home form a fairly motley collection. The book includes his diaries (which are not so much ‘diaries’ as they are collected thoughts and musings) from the mid-1980s through the 1990s, prefaces to printed editions of his plays (including The Madness of George III and An Englishman Abroad), and various reviews and other writings collected for the first time. One of the most interesting selections in this collection is ‘The Lady in the Van’, a short story based on the life of an somewhat unbalanced elderly lady who lived in a van parked opposite Bennett’s house in Camden Town. But all in all, Writing Home is a book of observations, some of which reflect on the past and some of which dwell on the present…but all of which are a treat to read.
Bennett’s eye for the absurd and his love of the English language make Writing Home a fine book to have in those moments when you’re looking for something to read that’s light and yet satisfying. It isn’t the sort of book that you’d rave about to all of your friends and try to convince complete strangers to buy; it’s the sort of book that you keep with you and pick up occasionally, flipping through it and reading a selection or two before putting it down and puttering off to do something else. Like the other books in this set of reviews, I don’t recommend reading through it all at once. It’s meant to be read in small chunks, and then re-read in different chunks. Or at least, that’s how I found that the book read best.
Untold Stories by Alan Bennett
In Untold Stories, Bennett has pulled together another selection of writings and speeches that pick up where Writing Home left off — the materials in this book cover the years from around 1995 to 2004. Some of the untold stories in the book come from Bennett’s past and family life. There’s a quiet, sympathetic pen-portrait of his extended family, weaving in stories of a grandfather whose suicide was hushed up by his children, and his mother’s sisters and their lives in and out of the dingy Leeds community where they (and he) grew up. He writes about his mother’s struggles with depression and later with dementia, and the patient care and concern that his usually undemonstrative father showed in those dark times. Some of the other stories are about himself as a young man, uncertain of nearly everything including his sexuality and his religious faith. Included in Untold Stories are the diary selections that were printed every year in the London Review of Books, his reflections on the past year. And also included in the book is a lengthy account of his experience undergoing treatment for bowel cancer, which was diagnosed in 1997 and which until now he has been reluctant to discuss.
Not all of the stories in the book are so intimately personal. There is an interesting account of the writing and production of The History Boys, his most recent play (which I had the good fortune to see at the National Theatre, and which was made into an excellent film). There are a number of amusing anecdotes featuring the actors he has known and worked with, including Dame Thora Hird, Sir Alec Guinness, and Dame Maggie Smith. Untold Stories is a pleasing blend of Bennett’s personal and professional life, all written about with the same deft touch and careful feel for language that makes his writing a delight to read.