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In a memoir of his parents’ marriage, playwright and author Alan Bennett, 77, paints with words scenes from a time when individuals and families had purpose and place. Yet amidst formal English ways there are delicious forays into the subversive.
Questions about his mother’s mental illness open the 242-page book and remain central to the story. Popular in the 60s/70s were psychiatrists R. D. Laing and Thomas Szasz, known as “radical therapists.”
Laing advocated “an anarchy of experience” and thought family dynamics created mental instability. Szasz focused on love and loss within families as the spark that ignites the fuse of illness. Both themes — anarchy, and love and loss — inform Bennett’s memoir.
Bennett’s maternal aunts, Kathleen and Myra, are of special interest. Aunties, in his layered social sediment, are “exponents of a hard-won glamour that means wearing more lipstick than Mam” ever wore. They may even do things “unheard of” with soldiers, wear “peep-toe sling backs” and speak of your parents as if they are not above criticism.
Unmarried aunties may wisely notice a niece or nephew’s unmet curiosities and snatch them off to the theatre or a concert. Maybe drop off a magazine off when Mam isn’t home.
Bennett also portrays bookish versus boyish experiences within the constellation of people who form his family universe. Whereas Mam may not appreciate her sisters’ attentions to her sons, she observes the old fashioned convention that adult relatives are not criticized in front of children.
These tensions make for three-dimensional people resembling fictional characters. But his words are real as rain. As Bennett embellishes his notable career, Mam stands arm in arm in a photo with Somerset Maugham. By the mid 70s, Bennett is facing dramas more challenging than his plays. “Playwright Finds Aunt’s Body” and the coroner’s inquest make for some somber reading.
Gay but notoriously secretive about his sexuality, Bennett kept lots of people guessing. He knew controversy, having had an affair with his then-married cleaning lady, Anne Davies, when it was assumed he was gay. At the time he said, “It was just absurd that you weren’t allowed to be something that they didn’t expect you to be.” In a London Review of Books essay, he wrote about “unabashed homosexuals” and “homosexuals who are less abashed” and does mention his magazine editor partner Rupert Thomas, about 30 years his junior.
Like the controversies and secrets in his memoir, Bennett’s life reflects his book’s title. He’s been the target of pickpockets who stole from him in an “ice cream scam”. Three cads spilt ice cream on his coat and, when wiping it off, grabbed his wallet. “Most upsetting” he told the media then, but added he would be writing about it in his diaries.
He stunned friends by revealing he had battled colon cancer for years. In his autobiography Untold Stories, from which A Life is drawn, Bennett writes: “Cancer, like any other illness, is a bore.”
Near the book’s end, Bennett describes his parents’ gravesite; Dad was 71 and Mam 91 when they passed. By then his writer’s voice has taken on such qualities that you can imagine him telling you about their lives as you walk toward the gravestones. In all, Bennett’s memoir is charitable but not sentimental, making for a poignant and funny read.
In fact, satire is what created Bennett’s first success when he starred in and co-authored Beyond the Fringe with Dudley Moore, Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller at the Edinburgh Festival. They were credited with starting the satire revolution. His peak came with An Englishman Abroad and the two Talking Heads series, and his Oscar-nominated theatrical and screenplay success The Madness of George III.
Bennett once grumbled about writer’s block and three years later The History Boys won the Olivier award for best new play. Critic Mark Jones has called him “curmudgeon laureate.”
A Life Like Other People’s
By Alan Bennett
Farrar Straus and Giroux
Hardcover, 9780374191924, 256pp.
September 14, 2010