Four Stories was the third book I read for read-a-thin this month. My previous review for my first read is here, and the post where I talk about read-a-thin and my TBR for the month is here. I’ve been a fan of Alan Bennett since I studied The History Boys for my A Level, but I’ve actually not read very much of his work at all. Four Stories is a collection of four of his short-ish stories, though as they each stretch to around 70 pages, they’re a lot longer than you might expect to find in a short story collection.
The humour I loved about The History Boys is present throughout, in Bennett’s irreverent, yet measured attitude. He does not shy away from addressing heavy topics, yet the stories remain humourous throughout. Bennett’s talent for writing inappropriate relationships while keeping the characters human, rather than caricatures of evil is impressive, and a common element in his work. The first story in this collection, “The Laying on of Hands” details the memorial service of a masseur. That the masseur had relations with many of the people in attendance fairly soon becomes apparent, and the memorial service spins somewhat out of control as testimonials to the dead man’s character are offered from various attendees. Bennett’s unique style combines adultery, LGBT relationships and religion seamlessly, exposing the darker underworld to the glossy celebrity lifestyle most of the attendees are part of.
Perhaps the most traditional marital relationship I’ve seen Bennett write in detail is that of the Ransomes in “The Clothes They Stood Up In”. The couple return from a trip, to find their home completely emptied. Not just of valuables, but of furniture, carpet, light fittings, even toilet paper. Left with only the clothes they stood up in, the Ransomes start to repurchase items, and Mrs Ransome in particular starts to come to terms with their new, minimalist way of life. The plot thickens, however, as a series of twists and turns interrupt their new reality, and they are forced to again change their lifestyle. This story acts as a kind of mystery story, and the clues scattered throughout are well-placed so as to seem innocuous, until the final scene at the end reveals the truth. The premise of the story is highly entertaining, and Bennett executes it excellently.
Out of all the stories, my least favourite was “Father! Father! Burning Bright”, about a man who’s father becomes hospitalised. Unlike most of Bennett’s characters, I could not find any sympathy for Mr Midgley, the protagonist. His family, as well, seem insufferable. The most interesting part of this story for me were the other characters in the hospital, the ones mourning a family member, worrying for a loved one, or welcoming a child. These background characters lifted the story for me and gave it an element of humanity that I felt was lacking from the central family. I felt this story wasn’t as humourous as some of the others as well, which was a shame as it’s one of the things that I enjoy most about Bennett. The adultery in this seemed more gratuitous as well, and didn’t make much sense to me. The style is consistent from the other stories in other respects, however, so I still enjoyed reading it.
The final piece in this collection, “The Lady in the Van” is probably the most famous in the collection. Based on entries from Bennett’s diaries, it tells the story of an elderly woman who ends up living in a camper van on Bennett’s drive. Recently turned into a film starring Maggie Smith, “The Lady in the Van” is eccentric, and would seem so unbelievable it would be difficult to get into if it wasn’t based in truth. Bennett doesn’t shy away from telling the more disgusting details of her life in the van as well, giving the story real depth. Despite the gaps between the diary entries, it never feels as though anything is missing from Miss S’s story. I was glad that Bennett offered us more information about her background, but also very glad he put it into an afterword rather than including it in the story. While it was interesting to hear more about the real Miss S, I was glad that the fictional Miss S was left more ambiguous.
So, I’m still a big Alan Bennett fan. If anything, these stories have really just cemented it, as they’ve confirmed his irreverent humour is present throughout his work. His life is extraordinary, as proven by “The Lady in the Van”, and it’s made me really want to read his autobiographies. As my 5th read in 2020 goes: not bad at all.
Rating: 4 stars.
This review also published on my GoodReads, https://goodreads.com/ells_f.