Book Review : The Clothes They Stood Up In by Alan Bennett

The Clothes...

This is another novella, running into just over a hundred pages. Alan Bennett is quite the master of this form, I have to say.  This story, like The Uncommon Reader is just the right length. It wouldn’t have worked as a short story or as a novel. This is the story of a couple, Mr and Mrs Ransome who find their rather sedate and predictable lives disrupted by a completely unexpected event.

They go to the opera one evening and they come back home to find that they have been robbed, or so Mrs Ransome says. “Burgled,” Mr Ransome says, because people are robbed and homes are burgled and being a lawyer, he likes to be precise.

But neither of them is quite right, because burglars pick and choose, they don’t take everything. And whoever it was, took everything, every last thing including the drapes and the carpets. They took the casserole that was being kept warm in the oven…they even took the toilet paper rolls from the bathrooms.

At one go, the Ransomes lose everything. How does one cope with a situation like that?

The Ransomes are a wealthy, middle aged couple who are set in their ways and are perhaps a little bored of the endless routine of their lives. The burglary (for lack of a better word) shakes them up. All of their stuff is insured, so it’s not the shock of financial loss, it is the shock of losing all the things that they’ve built their lives around, even the things that they’ve never really used.

They begin to shop for a few necessary items while waiting for the insurance money and Mrs Ransome finds herself shopping in the local Indian store instead of the high street and discovering a lot of interesting things at her doorstep that she’d never thought to explore before. And as the days go on, she begins to find the loss of all her possessions strangely freeing.

Mr Ransome has one great love in his life and that is Mozart. He likes to listen to Mozart every evening. He bemoans the loss of his sound system until he realises that he can now buy a new, more state of the art system. So in their own way, they both come to terms with the sudden loss of all their possessions.

But losing all their stuff makes them rethink their lives a little bit. particularly Mrs Ransome who begins to realise that she’s been living in a box all these years, confined by stuff.She finds herself wanting to change her life, do something different with it.

As the novel goes on, Bennett explores the relationship between Mr and Mrs Ransome, the rut that it is stuck in, and he brings to light a whole lot of little lies that they’ve been telling themselves and each other for years. All long-term marriages have an element of deception in them, I guess. It’s rarely anything big, it’s just a lot of little things that couples hide from each other, or think they are hiding.

This book is an exploration of marriage, of long term relationships and of our unfortunate tendency to define ourselves by the things we own. The book is funny (I don’t think Alan Bennett can write without humour) and it is thoughtful and poignant. And Bennett brings to this book that unique blend of gentleness and irony that is so characteristic of him.

This is a very good book, a must read.

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Book Review : The History Boys by Alan Bennett

history boys the

I just finished reading the book. It’s a week since I saw the movie and I was knocked off my feet. I’ve been knocked off my feet again. It’s a brilliant play, it is incredibly well written and it got under my skin in a way that little else has done in all my years of reading. It made me smile and it made me laugh, but it also broke my heart a little.

It’s a fairly lighthearted story on the surface. It raises important questions about education and what it’s for and so on, but it has lots of layers and characters who are charming while being all too human. The characters are flawed and they feel very real. You read the play and you can’t help but feel that yes, this could very well have happened somewhere, sometime.

The story is set in 1983 and it is set in a state school called Cuttler’s in Yorkshire. It is a story about eight boys who’ve just got their A level exam results. They’ve all done well and they’re getting ready to take their university entrance examinations. The headmaster is keen that they try to get into Oxford or Cambridge. They have one term left before they have to take the exams and they are all going in for history.

Their teachers are teaching them the way they always have. Mrs Lintott teaches History and Mr Hector teaches Literature and Language, or  General Studies as the headmaster calls it. These teachers don’t see the point of these kids trying for Oxford and Cambridge. They studied at Durham and Sheffield, universities that are less esteemed, but they got a good education nonetheless.

As far as they are concerned, which university the kids go to, has nothing to do with how well they learn or where they end up, in the future. But the headmaster is keen on Oxford and Cambridge, so he hires a new teacher, a Mr Irwin who is young and who, unlike the other teachers did actually study at Oxford.

His brief is to get these kids into Oxford or Cambridge by whatever means he can. He meets the boys and he realises that he doesn’t actually have to teach them anything. They know everything they need to know and more. Both Hector and Mrs Lintott have made sure of that.

But their approach, particularly Hector’s is the kind that believes in knowledge for knowledge’s sake or as he says in the beginning of the play, “All knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use.” He’s quoting A E houseman here. Hector’s mission in life is to give the boys a love of literature and reading.

He makes them learn poems and songs by heart. There is a very interesting exchange about poetry in the play (between Hector and one of his students) that I will quote here:

Timms : Sir, I don’t always understand poetry.

Hector : You don’t always understand it? Timms, I never understand it. But learn it now, know it now and you’ll understand it whenever.”

Timms : I don’t see how we can understand it, sir. Most of the stuff that poetry’s about hasn’t happened to us yet.

Hector : But it will, Timms. It will. And when it does, you’ll have the antidote ready! Grief, Happiness. Even when you’re dying. We’re making your deathbeds here, boys.

He doesn’t care for exams, seeing them as the arbitrary things they are. He’s trying to equip his students for life, or so he believes anyway. Irwin, on the other hand is all about the exams. He goes about teaching the students short cuts and tricks to get the examiner’s attention.

He talks about Stalin in one scene and he says that everyone knows that Stalin was a monster, but if you want to stand out from the crowd then find something to say in his defense…dissent for dissent’s sake, not because you truly believe in it, but because taking a position that is different from the rest means that you will stand out, you will get noticed.

So the book is basically about these two teachers and their approach to teaching. Everybody wants a teacher like Hector, but Hector will not help you pass exams and you do need to pass exams. Examiners are not going to care how much literature, poetry and history you know. They care about the questions and the answers, do you have them or not.

The play doesn’t attempt to answer this question, it just puts it out there. It’s something for the audience to think about and mull over. If this was all, the play would be good. What makes it great is all the sub plots…the stories of the students and the teachers:

A Jewish boy who is small and who never feels like he quite fits in with the others because he matured late and because he’s gay. And he’s in love with another of the boys who of course, doesn’t care for him.

Another boy who is a devout Christian and holds fast to his faith while missing out on a lot of stuff that is normal for boys his age.

And another who has a girlfriend, but doesn’t let that stop him from hitting on Irwin who happens to be gay.

And of course Hector, who though a brilliant teacher, is a bit of a creep. He gives the boys rides on his motorcycle while reaching back every now and then to lay a hand on their knee or to grope them even. He never takes it any further and the boys just groan or roll their eyes at him. They are all eighteen years old and they are well able to take care of themselves, so he’s not a real threat to them and he knows it. They don’t like what he does, but they put up with him anyway.

The crux of the play, though, is that question about education, what it is and what it’s for.  The final scene is a round up of all the boys and what they’ve done with their lives. One of the boys gets into Cambridge, but it doesn’t work out for him because he put so much into getting there, that once he was there, he had nothing left.

They all went to Oxford or Cambridge, something that no one from their school had ever done before. They were all smart and full of life when they were at school, they were special, but none of them ended up doing anything extraordinary with their lives. So what was all that effort for really?

Like I said, the play raises a lot of interesting questions. It has a wonderful set of characters that you can’t help but love. It is funny, sarcastic, witty and poignant. It will stay with you long after you’ve read it because it is full of insights into life and literature, learning and being. It is full of quotations, songs, poems, dialogues from movies and other plays even…all of them interesting and all of them special.

But the words that will stay with me the longest are Bennett’s own. Here is my favourite dialogue in the play:

The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and peculiar to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, someone even who is long dead. and it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours…

 

I have been reading…Alan Bennett

I have been reading very much as usual, but I haven’t been writing about it. Don’t ask me why, it’s just one of those things that happens every now and then. I stop writing for a while. Anyway, I’m reading rather a special book at the moment, Untold Stories by Alan Bennett. I started this year by re-reading The Uncommon Reader (also by Alan Bennett) and I enjoyed it every bit as much I did the first time I had read it.

So I went looking for the rest of his books. I had put The History Boys on my TBR list, but I hadn’t bought it yet. So I did. I bought the physical book and it is still on its way. In the mean time I watched the movie with my husband and we both loved it. It is such a wonderful story and told so well. I wish I could have seen the play, but at least I got to see the movie.

The History Boys_movie_poster

This is one of those instances when I’m glad I saw the movie before I read the book because it is a play, not a novel and considering the number of characters and their somewhat complex motivations, it is good to have faces and personalities in my head already. It’ll make the reading go easier. I already love the characters and I know them, so I don’t have to build them up in my head from the text.

Now I usually prefer coming to a book knowing nothing more than its premise and I like to build the characters up in my head without having actors over-shadow them. And I’d rather not have a director’s point of view imposed on the book, but this is an exceptional instance, because the characters are all cast so well and they bring an interpretation to their roles and to the situations which enriches the movie. And it helps that the entire cast of the film is the cast of the original play.

According to Alan Bennett, the director, Nicholas Hytner was involved in the play when it was still being edited, so it owes its final form to both of them. And it shows in the movie. The director owns it just as much as the writer. But now I want to read the book because this play is about words, language, literature and history as much as it is about the story and the characters in it. And wonderful as the movie is, the acting as well as the visuals tend to overshadow the words. And now I want the words on the page as written.

The History Boys is one of those rare things, a book of ideas interwoven into what is rather a beautiful story. It is funny and poignant and thoughtful and so much more than I can possibly express here. I realise that I haven’t said anything much about the story, but that is only because I want to write a proper review once I’ve read the play. In the meantime, I will go back to Untold Stories which is a memoir and enjoy more of Mr Bennett’s peerless prose.

Book Review : The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

uncommon_reader

This was my Wishlist Wednesday book last week. It is a book about books, so I knew that I would like it. But unlike most books of this genre which tend to be non-fiction, it is a novel and it features a very real person, the Queen of England who is the uncommon reader in the title.

It begins one afternoon when the Queen is out walking with her dogs and she stumbles upon a mobile library. She gets talking to the librarian about his books and she feels obliged to borrow one. The Queen has never really been a reader. She has read a lot, but most of it was required of her, so she has never experienced reading for pleasure. This book is about her discovery of what it means to be a reader.

It is a premise that is going to appeal to any serious reader and Alan Bennett does a wonderful job of bringing it to life. Queen Elizabeth II feels very real and she comes across as such a charming person, intelligent, interesting, witty and sometimes snarky. As one reader said, we end up hoping that this is the person that she really is. No one knows, of course, but it is nice to think that this portrait of hers might be close to the truth.

She’s eighty years old and she’s never been interested in reading or had any other hobbies because, “hobbies tend to exclude. It is her job to take an interest, but not to be interested herself.”

She borrows that first book out of a feeling of obligation. It is a novel by Ivy Compton Burnett. She finds it hard going, but she reads it all the way through because,

“…That was the way one was brought up. Books, bread and butter, mashed potato—one finishes what’s on one’s plate.”

When she goes back to return it, she feels obliged to borrow another book. This time she picks up Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, which turns out to be a fortunate choice, because she enjoys it thoroughly.

Then she reads the sequel and she picks up a couple of other books and she quickly discovers how one book leads to another and then another, opening doors to all sorts of interesting ideas.

She is accompanied in her reading by Norman Seakins a young man who works in the palace kitchens. She meets him in the mobile library on that first day and she befriends him. She has him promoted to serve on her own floor much to the chagrin of the rest of her staff who think he’s not “dolly” enough to be in that position.

The Queen thinks that Norman is quite the find because unlike most people he is not intimidated by her and he doesn’t hesitate to voice his opinion. He finds books for her, on the internet, in the London Library and so on and they read and they talk about the books they are reading.

There is one particular scene when the Queen is up in Balmoral for the summer and she and Norman are reading Proust…

“It was a foul summer, cold, wet and unproductive, the guns grumbling every evening at their paltry bag. But for the Queen (and for Norman) it was an idyll. Seldom can there have been more of a contrast between the world of the book and the place in which it was read, the pair of them engrossed in the sufferings of Swann, the petty vulgarities of Mme Verdurin and the absurdities of Baron de Charlus, while in the wet butts on the hills the guns cracked out their empty tattoo and the occasional dead and sodden stag was borne past the window.”

It is such an evocative scene.

Not everyone is pleased by the Queen’s reading, though. Her absorption in books makes her less willing to bear with the tedium of all the events and ceremonies that she’s supposed to preside over. It makes her less particular about her clothes and her jewelry. It renders her perpetually late. But worst of all, she begins to ask all her visitors what they are reading and as one of her equerries puts it, “most people aren’t reading anything, the poor dears.”

The more she reads the more the Queen realises how little she knows of literature and how much catching up she needs to do. She regrets all those times when she’d met writers like T S Eliott,  E M Foster and Walter de la mare and had nothing to say to them because she hadn’t read anything that they had written…

This is a charming book. It is a novella, a mere 120 pages long. But Alan Bennett has packed an astonishing amount of story, character and detail into those 120 pages. The writing is beautiful. It is witty, sharp and very engaging.

This is one of those rare books that drew me in so completely that the world disappeared for a bit. I would have read it in a single setting, if I’d had the time. As it is, I read it in two. And when I finished, I wanted to start over.

On Reading : Alan Bennett

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours”