Here, at last, is the astonishing sequel to Alan Bennett's classic Writing Home, in a beautiful hardback edition. Untold Stories contains significant previously unpublished work, including a poignant memoir of his family and of growing up in Leeds, together with his much celebrated diary for the years 1996-2004, and numerous other exceptional essays, reviews and comic pieces. Bennett, as always, is both amusing and poignant, whether he's discussing his modest childhood or his work with figures such as Maggie Smith, Thora Hird and John Gielgud. Since the success of Beyond the Fringe in the 1960s Alan Bennett has delighted audiences worldwide with his gentle humour and wry observations about life. His many works include Forty Years On, The Lady in the Van, Talking Heads, A Question of Attribution and The Madness of King George. The History Boys opened to great acclaim at the National in 2004, and is winner of the Evening Standard Award, the South Bank Award and the Critics' Circle Award for Best New Play. Untold Stories is published jointly with Profile Books.
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Alan Bennett has been one of our leading dramatists since Beyond the Fringe in the 1960s. His television series Talking Heads has become a modern-day classic. The History Boys won numerous awards both at the National Theatre, London, and on Broadway. Also at the NT: The Habit of Art, People and Cocktail Sticks. He received an Academy Award nomination for his screenplay for The Madness of King George, and appeared with Dame Maggie Smith in a radio adaptation of his The Lady in the Van. His collection of prose Untold Stories won the PEN/Ackerley Prize for autobiography. Fiction includes The Uncommon Reader and Smut: Two Unseemly Stories. His most recent publication is Six Poets: Hardy to Larkin.From The Washington Post:
"Literature," said Ford Madox Ford, "is that writing which most reveals the personality of the writer." Given this, the diary and memoir should be the most demanding of genres because they are the most intimate -- and the flashiest. Success or failure depends almost entirely on personal style, on matters of tone, voice, sex appeal. It obviously helps to be cranky and eccentric like Evelyn Waugh or as smart and mean as Virginia Woolf. It certainly doesn't do to be shy and decent.
And yet, paradoxically, this is the secret of Alan Bennett's success with his two largely autobiographical collections, Writing Home (a No. 1 bestseller in Britain 12 years ago) and this latest, Untold Stories (a No. 1 bestseller in Britain last fall). These books consist of extracts from Bennett's diaries; homages to dead friends, both famous and not; recollections of his childhood and early life in Leeds; talks or articles about the theater, art and film; and a handful of book reviews. All this casual-seeming writing, no matter what the occasion, possesses a kind of Anglican quietness, refusing the histrionic or grandstanding while still managing to be humorous, surprising, disarmingly human. There is probably no other distinguished English man of letters more instantly likable than Bennett. What other successful playwright, after all, rides around London on a bicycle?
Alan Bennett? To be famous in Britain isn't necessarily to be famous in the United States. (And vice versa: At one point in Untold Stories, Bennett reads with great admiration a book by the noted American food writer M.F.K. Fisher and admits he's never heard of her.) The son of a butcher, Bennett won a scholarship to Oxford, received a First Class degree (by a fluke, he claims), then studied and taught medieval history to undergraduates for five years. In his middle twenties his life again changed when he and three friends joined forces in the 1960s to create the celebrated satirical revue "Beyond the Fringe." Once launched into the theater, Bennett found his real vocation and went on to write stage and television plays (and sometimes to act in them). Perhaps he is best known here for the Academy Award-nominated film based on his drama "The Madness of George III."
Despite having garnered a variety of glittering prizes, Bennett declines to take his success too seriously. He has, for instance, turned down numerous honors, including a knighthood. An easy mark, he (now famously) allowed the derelict and half-mad Miss Shepherd to park her van in the garden of his Camden Town house, where she proceeded to live until her death nearly 15 years later. Most of all, though, Bennett values what one might call his domesticity -- writing, listening to music, visiting museums and old churches, occasionally lunching with friends.
Only in this latest volume does he speak about the sexual anxieties of his early years, his homosexuality and his treatment for cancer. Yet even in these highly charged areas of life, the voice on the page remains calm, kindly and sensible. When he was diagnosed with colon cancer, he says, "people talk of courage as if there were a choice, whereas one shows courage very often because there doesn't seem to be much alternative."
The longest single piece in this book, "Untold Stories," is a masterpiece of reminiscence, one in which Bennett recreates both his early family life and the old age of his mother and father:
"The nearest my parents came to alcohol," he recalls, "was at Holy Communion and they utterly overestimated its effects. However bad the weather, Dad never drove to church because Mam thought the sacrament might make him incapable on the return journey." Alas, his mother's inclination to fret became worse in later years when Mam unexpectedly began to worry more and more about people spying on her. The woman who always dreaded the spotlight gradually grew increasingly paranoid, frozen with fear, and eventually needed to be hospitalized. For weeks at a time, Bennett's father drove back and forth a hundred miles every day to visit the girl he had loved since childhood, and the strain soon took its toll -- he died of a heart attack at 71.
For 20 years, Bennett visited his mother's nursing home every two or three weeks, even when Mam no longer knew his name or recognized his face. (She finally died at 91.) This will be, for many older readers, a distressingly familiar story, yet Bennett leavens its pathos by moving in and out of the past, bringing into a timeless present the family's laughter, the outings to the movies, the holiday feasts. "With her regular gifts of shoe-trees Aunty Kath had hitherto held the record for boring Christmas presents, but [her new husband] Bill shows he is no slouch in this department either when he presents me with the history of some agricultural college in New South Wales (second volume only).
" 'You did history, Alan. This should interest you.' "
As he would doubtless acknowledge, Bennett's values and firm character -- in every photograph he wears a jacket and tie and frequently a sweater as well -- derive from the example of his parents. But his humor, I suspect, is his own, and certainly his genius for description. In "Seeing Stars," he recalls the screen legends of the 1930s and '40s, including that "whole string of tall, elegant 'professional women' . . . Alexis Smith, Rosalind Russell, Eve Arnold -- women who could perch casually on the edge of an editorial desk, toss one long silk-stockinged leg over the other while lighting a cigarette or consulting a powder compact. Graceful and expensive as racehorses, they were amused, ironic, and sceptical; they wrote newspaper columns in papers, edited magazines and were funny about love and romance with men just their playthings."
Readers of the London Review of Books know that one of the highlights of the Christmas season is its selections from Bennett's diary for that year. Untold Stories reprints those published between 1996 and 2004. In these pages, Bennett attends the memorials for John Gielgud and Alec Guinness, rages against the inhumane policies of modern governments, visits art galleries in Venice, New York and the Netherlands. At a Vermeer exhibition, this trustee of the National Gallery frankly thinks to himself, "If I were to put my fist through this painting . . . things would be irrevocably changed and my whole life be seen as leading up to this act." Another day he notes that "it's thought that most of the frocks that Princess Diana is selling off will end up in the wardrobes of transvestites." He repeatedly laments the further degradation of his classical musical station, wishes that the people who so efficiently fix his car's flat tire could take charge of his entire life and comments sharply on the books he is reading. Of Saul Bellow's Ravelstein he writes, "I'm never entirely comfortable with (and never unaware of) Bellow's style, which puts an almost treacly patina on the prose -- designer prose it is, good, tasteful and self-evidently rich."
Toward the end of this wonderful book, Bennett reflects on the perennial insecurities of the writer's life -- and here, as nearly always, he strikes on the simple, yet often unacknowledged truth: "The evidence of a lifetime's work, his or her books ranged on the shelf (or shelves), ought to reassure someone who writes that he or she is indeed a writer. But nothing, not the books in the shop window or the play on the stage or shoals of letters from delighted readers, furnishes such assurance but only the act of writing itself, the fingers flying over the keys or, in my case, pushing the pen across the paper."
Let me close with a sentence that neatly summarizes why Bennett is so endearing. It's from the opening to his appreciation of the director Lindsay Anderson:
"At the drabber moments of my life (swilling some excrement from the steps, for instance, or rooting with a bent coat-hanger down a blocked sink) thoughts occur like 'I bet Tom Stoppard doesn't have to do this' or 'There is no doubt David Hare would have deputed this to an underling.' " There you have the glory of Alan Bennett: You don't have to be a famous playwright to know just how he feels.
Copyright 2006, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
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