Magazine article The New Yorker

Blue Period

Magazine article The New Yorker

Blue Period

Article excerpt

We are often told that, in art, sex must keep a few veils on in order to be sexy. That's certainly not true in painting--there are many nudes that make the heart beat faster--but in literature the rule generally does apply. One of the most erotic episodes in Western literature is the moment, in Jane Austen's "Persuasion," when Captain Wentworth, not even touching the heroine, Anne, but just prying a bratty nephew off her back, produces in her "such a confusion of varying, but very painful agitation, as she could not recover from." She has to leave the room in order to pull herself together. A century later, many writers felt that sex, to be sexual, had to be more forthrightly depicted, a notorious example being the scene in which Lady Chatterley weaves a garland of flowers into her gamekeeper's pubic hair. Today, however, that passage looks rather old-fashioned, as does a lot of Henry Miller. Not that contemporary writers have found better ways to be erotic. Many of them are breathtakingly direct, but what the bluntness supports, often, is irony rather than excitation.

Alan Bennett started out in the comedy revue "Beyond the Fringe" and went on to write plays ("The Madness of George III," "The History Boys"), among other things. He is one of England's most cherished writers and, not unrelatedly, one of the most faithful to its literary traditions. First, he is a realist. As a rule, he writes about completely ordinary people, middle- and working-class, from drab places. He knows them. He grew up in Leeds; his father was a butcher. Again true to his native literature, he is almost always interested in morals, and in the difficulty of being good. Finally, like so many of his countrymen, he is a master satirist.

These traits, plus the new sexual casualness, are on display in Bennett's latest book, "Smut" (Picador; $14). It consists of two novellas, the longer and lovelier being "The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson." Here's how the story opens:

"I gather you're my wife," said the man in the waiting room. "I don't think I've had the pleasure. Might one know your name?" . . . He put out his hand and as she shook it briefly [his] dressing gown fell open to reveal a pair of tangerine Y-fronts with, tucked into the waistband, a mobile phone.

Bennett's characters may be the stuff of realism, but many of his plots aren't. The reason the man in the Y-fronts (briefs) doesn't know the name of the woman, Mrs. Donaldson, whom he calls his wife is that the two of them aren't really a married couple; they're "simulated patients," or SPs--that is, actors--in a program designed to teach medical students how to behave humanely toward their patients. The SPs are told what their supposed disorder is (eczema, stroke, heart trouble). From there on, they improvise, and the medical students, pretending to be their doctors, have to deal with them. These playlets give Mrs. Donaldson the chance to live new lives. She is a fifty-five-year-old widow who always assumed that nothing much was ever going to happen to her. Now, in her SP performances, she gets to be a transsexual one day; another day, she's a woman whose husband has just died, and is being comforted by the doctor on duty. In the latter role, Mrs. Donaldson becomes creative. As the embarrassed medical student holds her hand, she says that, actually, her husband was a swine. Then she lets drop a few remarks suggesting that she may have killed him.

Mrs. Donaldson has another, weirder opportunity to live by proxy. To help with expenses, she has taken in a young couple, students, as lodgers: Andy and Laura. One month, they can't pay the rent. They come to Mrs. Donaldson with a proposition: how about, in place of the money, they let her watch them have sex? Mrs. Donaldson, whose transactions with her husband in this regard were a joyless matter, is not especially interested. She wishes that Andy and Laura had offered to do some gardening instead. But she finds it hard to "put off these well-meaning young people," and so she agrees, and seats herself in their bedroom on the appointed night. …

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