Three Stories by Alan Bennett

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Three Stories by Alan Bennett

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Three Stories, is, well, a book containing three stories written by Alan Bennett. They are, as you would expect, very funny. The observation is, as you would expect, sublime. The dialogue is, as you would expect, spot on. The unravelling of snobbery and prejudice is, as you would expect, downright vicious. There may not be any surprises, but it's a book by Alan Bennett. It gets, as you would expect, five stars from Bookbag.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: August 2003
Publisher: Profile Books Ltd
ISBN: 186197633X

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A priest and his sexuality, a bored housewife and a burglary, a son who cannot wait for his father to die. These are the Three Stories told here by Alan Bennett, the nation's favourite teddy bear.

The Laying on of Hands is probably the most successful of the three, technically speaking. The writing is tight, more contemporary, and the satire is Bennett at his most vicious. We find ourselves at a memorial service attended by media luvvies and other members of the chattering classes. The deceased is Clive, masseur to the stars. As Father Treacher sits at the back, taking notes on the "performance" - get the irony? - of Father Joliffe, who is officiating, the ceremony goes horrifically wrong...

The Clothes They Stood Up In is my favourite of the tales, although perhaps it is looser in construction than its two partners are. Mr & Mrs Ransome return home from a recital one evening to discover a burglary at their mansion flat. It is not only their valuables that are missing, but also everything they possess, right down to the loo roll and its holder. In this emotionally austere, empty marriage, what is left to hold its protagonists together?

Father! Father! Burning Bright is the most famous of the three inclusions. You may have seen the dramatisation of this story as Intensive Care in which Bennett took the leading role. Midgley, a disenchanted schoolteacher, receives news that his father has suffered a stroke and that his doctor does not expect him to last the night. Father and son have always had a problematic relationship and Midgley, if he is honest, looks forward to his father's death as a release. He is in for a disappointment...

I don't know about Bennett as the "nation's favourite teddy bear", for his words are often plainly and unashamedly nasty. They are also absolutely hilarious. The books I read easily move me: I cry easily and I laugh easily. However, few authors make me laugh as often or as loudly as does Bennett. He is famous for the accuracy of his observation and deservedly so. He is a master of the smallness of life: he picks up every tiny banality, every mannerism, every abuse of language and works it all into his prose. You laugh, you cringe and you nod your head as his characters mouth platitudes through the most significant events in their lives. His curmudgeonly voice shames contemporary mores and while it does that, it has a nasty tendency to shame its reader. Here, from The Laying on of Hands, is Bennett on the soap opera. He's describing a fictional soap star:

"The previous week he had stunned his audience when, with no excuse whatsoever, he had raped his mother, and though it later transpired that she had been begging for it for some time and was actually no relation at all, nevertheless some vestiges of the nation's fascinated revulsion still clung to him. In life, though, as he was at pains to point out to any chat-show host who would listen, he was a pussy-cat and indeed, within minutes of the maternal rape, he could be found on another channel picking out the three items of antique furniture he would invest in were his budget limited to £500."


Mrs Ransome, she of the complete burglary, is my favourite of the characters in these three novellas. Her quiet epiphanies into the worlds of daytime TV and shopping at Asian corner shops made me laugh out loud. "What's this?" says Mr Ransome as he notices a new ingredient in his curry. "Sweet potato," his wife replies. "Where did you get it?" is the immediate question. "Marks and Spencer," she lies, smoothly. And of course, it is in the sharply observed dialogue - Bennett's trademark - where the laughs come most often. Midgley, the teacher who longs to be orphaned, waits for his cousin to arrive. "Is your Aunt Kitty here?" asks Hartley. "Yes," says Midgley. "I thought she would be. Where no vultures fly," responds Hartley. Aunt Kitty herself is a fabulous caricature of a small-minded busybody who loves to be present at other people's grief. Her unconscious racism is painful but hilarious. Her greeting to Midgley goes like this: "Your father's got a room to himself, love. I've always liked oatmeal. His doctor's black." Ouch.

In these stories, as in his plays, television dramas and films, Bennett's themes are the pretensions, anxieties and prejudices of his characters. He is interesting and funny for the way he dissects reactionary opinions, jingoism and national pride, revealing these qualities to be so often little more than concealed bitterness, envy and bigotry. Yet, he is nostalgic too. Deeply influenced by the darker shadows in our national character, Bennett seeks also to preserve the good in it. And you can see that he feels the good is under threat. It is an irresistible blend, because it is honest and self-deprecating and because honesty and self-deprecation are the twin qualities we British most prize in ourselves. As a satirist of our country today, I think it is difficult to touch him. He writes in frighteningly accurate prose, using a formidable vocabulary and what would be in other, lesser authors, a frightening length of sentence. Yet his style is so precise that it is always accessible. How many writers do you know who could use words like "archidiaconal", "imprimatur" and "adumbrate" and be sure of being understood? Hats off to that man.

I enjoyed these stories immensely. I like satire. These are nasty, but funny stories and they put lesser works such as this year's (undeserved) Booker winner, Vernon God Little, to shame. They are more enjoyable to read than his autobiographical work, Writing Home, but perhaps slightly more subtle and less full of belly laughs than his famous set of monologues, Talking Heads. Originally published separately as three "pocket money" and also money-spinning editions - tsk Mr Bennett - this volume containing all three stories is a much better buy. You could get two more stories from Bennett but these are unseemly!

Booklists.jpg Three Stories by Alan Bennett is in the Top Ten Funniest Books.

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