Untold Stories

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9780374281038: Untold Stories

[Bennett] does what only the best writers can do make us look at ourselves in a way we’ve never done before.”        Michael Palin

 

Untold Stories brings together some of the finest and funniest writing by one of England’s best-known literary figures. Alan Bennett’s first major collection since Writing Home contains previously unpublished work including the title piece, a poignant memoir of his family and of growing up in Leeds along with his much celebrated diary for the years 1996 to 2004, and numerous other exceptional essays, reviews, and comic pieces. In this highly anticipated compendium, the Today Book Club author of The Clothes They Stood Up In reveals a great many untold secrets and stories with his inimitable humor and wry honesty his family’s unspoken history, his memories of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, and his response to the success of his most recent play, The History Boys.

Since the success of Beyond the Fringe in the 1960s, Bennett has delighted audiences worldwide with writing that is, in his words, no less serious because it is funny.” The History Boys opened to great acclaim at the Royal National Theatre in 2004, winning numerous awards, and is scheduled to open in New York City in April 2006.

 

Alan Bennett has been one of England's leading dramatists since the success of Beyond the Fringe in the 1960s. His television series Talking Heads has become a modern-day classic, as have many of his works for the stage, including Forty Years On, The Lady in the Van, A Question of Attribution, The Madness of George III (together with the Academy Award-nominated screenplay The Madness of King George), and an adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. His most recent play, The History Boys, won a Tony award and Evening Standard and Critics Circle awards for best play, the Laurence Olivier Award for best new play and the South Bank Award in England. A Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year Untold Stories brings together some of the finest and funniest writing by one of England's best-known literary figures. Alan Bennett's first major collection since Writing Home contains previously unpublished work including the title piece, a poignant memoir of his family and of growing up in Leeds along with his much celebrated diary for the years 1996 to 2004, and numerous other exceptional essays, reviews, and comic pieces. In this highly anticipated compendium, the Today Book Club author of The Clothes They Stood Up In reveals a great many untold secrets and stories with his inimitable humor and wry honesty his family's unspoken history, his memories of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, and his response to the success of his most recent play, The History Boys. Since the success of Beyond the Fringe in the 1960s, Bennett has delighted audiences worldwide with writing that is, in his words, "no less serious because it is funny." In Untold Stories, Bennett describes his mother's fight with depression, his own illness and being savagely mugged in Italy with his partner, Rupert Thomas. As the Daily Telegraph declared, "This thick book is so full of good things they could sell it for twice the price . . . 'All masterpieces are eloquent,' [Bennett] writes in one of his art-historical pieces. 'Not all of them are articulate.' Untold Stories is both." "[Alan Bennett's] 1994 book, Writing Home, a collection of diary entries, prefaces to his plays and odd bits of literary journalism, was a surprise best seller in Britain, and now he has followed it up with Untold Stories, an even larger and more varied grab bag. It, too, contains prefaces and diary entries, and also book reviews and introductions, what appear to be some memorial-service tributes, some lectures and essays about art (a particular passion of Bennett's) and three surprising, funny and deeply affecting memoirs: about his family, about getting beaten up in Italy and about his very close call with colon cancer in 1997." Charles McGrath, The New York Times Book Review "Bennett has taken the vulgarity not to mince words out of confessional writing by his humor, compassion (for those who deserve it), and self-deprecation . . . the quietly penetrating decency of this big book is a genuine balm." Katherine A. Powers, Boston Globe 

"Alan Bennett is undoubtedly one of the most popular writers of recognized literary merit in England . . . He is, in short, a national treasure, and the popularity of his occasional writings . . . is both a symptom and confirmation of that status . . . Again and again in this book he demonstrates that almost anything that happens to a person can be interesting, moving and entertaining if you write about it well enough." David Lodge, The New York Review of Books

 

"It's tempting to see Untold Stories as a comedy in which the hero, after much hardship, finds lasting love and fingers crossed health. But that would underplay the sheer (which is not always to say pure) pleasure of so many entries. Whether he's sharing some of his favorite paintings with schoolchildren . . . or taking us through his student rooms (and dreams) at Oxford, Alan Bennett may not be 'a joiner' but he is brilliantly engaged and engaging.” Kerry Fried, Newsday

 "[This collection] is told with such honesty that it is heartbreaking and deeply moving . . . Bennett's experience is a reminder that the people we care for, though they may never have made much of a stir in the world, have nevertheless for us a value beyond price . . . This piece should be required for all health-care workers, as it is a vivid reminder of what it actually feels like to be a patient and at the mercy of large impersonal forces including the health-care system itself and the fates." Keith Monroe, Winston-Salem Journal Book Review "I have never read a book of this length where I have turned the last page with such regret. It is intelligent, educated, engaging, humane, self-aware, cantankerous and irresistibly funny. You want it to go on for ever." John Carey, The Sunday Times (London) "A great achievement and a book of lasting value . . . This is art of no mean order, though subtly concealed . . . It is full of humour, without pomposity or self-dramatisation. Bennett has always been conscious, like Thoreau, that most people lead lives of quiet desperation, but he also sees that they are funny, and he has a matchless talent for making them interesting." Jane Stevenson, The Observer (London) "Extraordinary . . . Bennett writes: 'I have never found it easy to belong.' After Untold Stories, I have no hesitation in saying he belongs to all of us. And we're all grateful." Cal McCrystal, The Independent

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

Alan Bennett is a renowned playwright and essayist whose screenplay for The Madness of King George was nominated for an Academy Award. He lives in London, England.

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.

"About this title" may belong to another edition of this title.

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