Whether or not it’s because I’ve left it too long since finishing this I’m not sure, but I’m finding it difficult to get a handle on Untold Stories, at least for the purposes of writing about it. Reading it was a different matter: it delivered the necessary pith, dry wit and calmly observed misery. It had me wondering what the hell Alan Bennett was for, and then wondering how I ever got along without him. He has a knack of seeming as open and honest as an old friend, and as walled up and infuriating. If these large books he produces every ten years (will 2014 see another?) are his golden eggs, there is a strong sense that any attempt to hurry him along would be the equivalent of killing the goose that lays them: they are accumulations more than constructions. In his introduction Bennett compares them to the Beano and Dandy annuals with which he grew up: miscellanies, drawing their charm from their diversity. And so it is that in the same volume we have ‘autobiography, diaries, lectures and occasional writings’ (p. x) which lurch from heightened emotion to everyday observation, from the extremely personal to detached criticism. It is difficult to know how to put it back together again.
That autobiographical writing takes up the first hundred and fifty pages and much of the last seventy is an indication of its relative importance here. Reading Writing Home last year, I concluded that the important thing one came away with was a reassurance about the value of certain writers (Auden, Proust, Kafka, Larkin), that these dead men were a solid core around which to build a useful world view. Untold Stories differs, and is far more comfortable with the idea of living in life rather than in books. An introduction to a selection of Larkin poems appears as ‘England Gone’, and the dominant tone is one of suspicion. Still in awe of Larkin, Bennett feels this as more of an annoyance than previously, and it would appear that this is because he is more fulfilled in his own life now. Never quite exuberant, but settled, content. Reflecting on being examined during his brush with cancer in the late ’90s, he writes:
Living is something I’ve managed largely to avoid so, naked and shivering on the bed though I might be, for all that I could reflect that something at least was happening. (p. 615)
I wanted to cheer at that.
The longest autobiographical piece is ‘Untold Stories’ itself, a deeply affecting (and depressing) account of Bennett’s mother’s mental illness, and later her dementia, intertwined with the stories of his grandfather’s suicide and his aunts’ late marriages and deaths. His mother, living into her nineties, outlives everyone else, and by the end you feel the weight of the decay of generations: nothing and no-one lasts, and there is an unbearable sadness at the deaths of such modest people. His father in this account is a lovely man, a butcher by trade but also a toymaker and violinist, a shy man who hates fuss and has a fantastic word for it: ‘splother’. When his wife is ill and in hospital he never misses a visiting hour, the strain caused by this situation contributing, reckons Bennett, to his death. His parents both aspire to a social life that they don’t really want: they buy sherry and offer it indiscriminately to anyone who crosses the threshold of their house. His mother’s depression is seemingly triggered by a move to a village in which she perceives that, because it is so small, people might notice her, expect things of her. It isn’t their actual attention which bothers her, the mere possibility of it is enough to cause her severe anxiety. Her son’s own shyness seems almost tame by comparison (but of course shyness is tame, that’s the point).
I enjoyed the diary extracts less than I had expected, perhaps because they are necessarily less intensely realised than ‘Untold Stories’ or ‘Written on the Body’ (Bennett’s account of sex very nearly passing him by). In the latter he says:
It was Robert who introduced me to Denton Welch’s journals, Stephen Spender’s World Within World and the early novels of Mary Renault, books which, if you spotted them on someone’s shelves, told you all you needed to know about their sexual proclivities. (p. 141)The amount of time he spends in his own diaries commenting on and wandering around cathedrals almost seems an attempt to become Welch. The sensitive soul entranced by historical and art objects is something which often leaves me cold (I didn’t finish Welch’s journals when I read them a few years ago), though I’m not sure why. Where I do fall in completely with Bennett is in his essay-length criticism of ‘cheeky chappies’, comedians like Bob Hope who are ‘practitioners and professionals. There’s no mining of their own lives and no undermining of them either.’ (p. 418). Another turn of phrase deserving a cheer – and not a bad description of what Bennett does in Untold Stories, either.