Wednesday, October 20, 2010
The Great Alan Bennett
Alan Bennett, who was a member of the sixties comedy group called Beyond the Fringe, is one of my favorite contemporary writers, so when I learned some time ago that he had a new memoir coming out, I was probably the first to put myself on the list for it at the Cape Libraries (I order books online and they're waiting for me at the desk when I go to the Snow Library in Orleans).
Though in other books he's been laugh-out-loud funny, A Life Like Other People's is somber; it contains perfectly and fetchingly drawn portraits of, for the most part, his family -- his parents, grandparents, two aunts -- all with their quirks, all sympathetically presented; the book also contains Bennett's accounts of their various illnesses and deaths, including his mother's fall into dementia and decades of living in a what we call a nursing home; sadnesses and frustrations live on every page, but all is revealed in perfect pitch; Bennett's compositional skills are marvelous.
Still, although I've quoted it in an earlier post about Bennett, I'm going to quote a paragraph from one of his earlier memoirs; it struck me as so hilarious when I first read it that I had to immediately telephone one of my brothers, whom I knew would also find it hilarious, and read it to him. Bennett's writing about the funeral of an aunt:
The funeral is at a featureless crematorium in Lytham St. Annes. Afterwards we go for a lunch to a roadhouse on the outskirts. I sit next to my grandmother's niece, Cousin Florence, who keeps a boarding house in Blackpool. A down-to-earth woman, she eats a large meal of lukewarm lasagna, then puts down her fork and says, "Well, that's the first time I've dined off brown plates." Grief is not much in evidence, though with Cousin Florence it is hardly to be expected. Her husband's name was Frank, and six months before we had had a two-page letter filling us in on all her news. Halfway down the second page came the sentence: "Frank died last week, haven't we been having some weather?" Seldom can a comma have borne such a burden."
My brother and I have since paraphrased similarly gigantically burdened commas at any opportunity, and get to roar with laughter all over again.