Alan Bennett, A Life Like Other People’s (Profile 2009)
Probably inspired by the success of Alan Bennett’s little hardcover, The Uncommon Reader, the publishers have given us this physically similar book. But where the earlier was a whimsical piece in which the Queen discovers reading for pleasure, with mildly catastrophic results, this is perfectly serious memoir. Originally published as part of the 650 page volume Untold Stories, it explores the themes of family secrets, depression, dementia and suicide in the lives of Bennett’s grandparents, parents and aunties. It’s a testament to his skill, and to the depth of his affection for his family, that for all its grim subject matter the book is a joy to read. The prose is unfailingly urbane, and he manages to convey multiple perspectives with apparent ease: for example, when one of his aunties (a term whose class connotations he carefully spells out) decides to take apart his mother’s stove to give it a thorough cleaning, we are amused at the spectacle of Bennett’s father flying into a rage (a very uncommon event) at this dire insult to his wife, and at the same time we realise that it was a dire insult.
Perhaps partly because I’ve tried something similar in the predecessor of this blog, I was taken by his attempt to convey the conversation of a demented aunty. His description is quite long, but this little bit may give you an idea, both of its truthfulness and of its elegance:
Embarking on one story, she switches almost instantly to another, and while her sentences still retain grammatical form they have no sequence or sense. Words pour out of her as they always have and with the same vivacity and hunger for your attention. But to listen to they are utterly bewildering, following the sense like trying to track a particular ripple in a pelting torrent of talk.
As I was reading, I found myself thinking of AD Hope’s lines about Yeats (see, the poems you study in your youth hang around in your brain forever): ‘To have found at last that noble, candid speech / In which all things worth saying may be said’. It’s not exactly the same thing, but it seemed that Bennett could write about a huge range of human experience without his prose ever stumbling. We know, for instance, the kind of emotional tumult involved in the experience referred to in this sentence: ‘While sexual intercourse did not quite begin in 1974 it was certainly the year when sex was available pretty much for the asking … or maybe I had just learned the right way to ask.’ What did Freud say about jokes? Not that this is unconscious – on the contrary. And it’s not that he’s hiding anything. It’s just that the prose is not about self-revelation, but about elegant, usually witty communication. I wasn’t sure this was entirely a good thing, whether a little raw emotion mightn’t have made a more interesting book. But he was ahead of me. Towards the end of the book, when Bennett’s mother, after decades in and out of psychiatric institutions, ECT, is in advanced dementia in a nursing home, he winces at the way the employees address her, calling her loudly by a diminutive that was never hers, kissing her lavishly, who was always physically reserved. He observes with irritation that his mother seems to enjoy it, and goes on:
But then taste has always been my handicap, and so here when in this sponged and squeegeed bedroom with an audience of indifferent old women I do not care to unbend, call my mother ‘chick’, fetch my face close to hers and tell her or shout at her how much I love her and how we all love her and what a treasure she is.
Instead, smiling sadly, I lightly stroke her limp hand, so ungarish my display of affection I might be the curate, not the son.
The nurses (or whatever) have more sense. They know they are in a ‘Carry On’ film. I am playing it like it’s ‘Brief Encounter’.
There are photos of the Bennett parents scattered throughout. Almost as much as the prose, they convey the deep current of love that flows through the book.
Did I mention that it’s very funny?
Now you (and Alan Bennett) have sent me into a frenzied reverie on whether Everything Depends On What Movie You Think You’re In.
Cassandra: Don’t leave us in suspense – what movie are you in?
Really? I haven’t seen it, but I would have thought you were more Star Trek, which I also haven’t seen.
Star Trek? REALLY? How so? Actually, I was thinking that what is so interesting about the idea as he expresses it is the way in which he imagines the movie he thinks he’s in bumping up against objective reality. So actually, it’s like assumptions (my life-long fascination) — you’re not in a very good position to know what yours are. So theoretically, every time life confuses or confounds or distresses me, it is because the movie I think I’m in has collided either with reality or with the movie someone else thinks they’re in. Am I making any sense? So in other words I’m unlikely to know what movie I think I’m in. I’d like someone to tell me, though.
Yes, you’re right, but it has the makings of a great game doesn’t it? You think you’re in The Others (ghostly / haunted?) but really you’re in Star Trek (glamorous and other-worldly doer of good). I think I’m in, um, Les enfants du paradis (why not?) but really I’m in … ?
I can’t think of a movie I’m living… Fried Green Tomatoes? (without the pork BBQ, perhaps…!) And I’ve got no idea what you’re living…
But I wanted to say that we’ve been really enjoying listening to Alan Bennett reading from Untold Stories on the boxed CD set we bought last year. There’s something about his dry voice that really adds a dimension to the stories. Even when I’m reading him now I hear him in my head – I just re-read ‘The Clothes they stood up in’.
I sometimes think I’m living Walter Mitty, but not the Danny Kaye version. I know Danny Kaye completely dominates that movie, but the pork tends to dominate Fried Green Tomatoes, so what can we do?
That soiunds like a good CD collection. I’ve got NeilGaiman’s Fragile Things to listen to yet – another excellent reading voice.