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The best medicine

Untold Stories Alan Bennett Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 658 pp., $32.50

April 23, 2006|Richard Rayner | Richard Rayner is the author of several books, most recently "The Devil's Wind," a novel.

IN 1997, playwright Alan Bennett had a hospital test. A tube with a camera attached began its track up his bowel. "I notice how the two nurses, who are also watching the screen, instantly become more solicitous, one kneeling down and stroking my arm, whispering reassurance before I have entirely realized that reassurance is required," he writes in "An Average Rock Bun," one of the stand-out autobiographical essays in "Untold Stories," his new book of occasional prose. The culprit was a polyp that had turned malignant. Its size was that of "the average rock bun" of the essay's title. Big enough, in other words. Bennett, then in his 60s, was told he'd most likely die, but a surgeon's skill and chemotherapy saved his life or, rather, saved it "so far."

Bennett has Graham Greene's sliver of ice in the heart. He never stops being a writer, is always notating, watching, in fearful and gut-squirming circumstances. Impending death, he observes, doesn't improve his character any: "[B]enevolence did not come to me in a rush ... a good review for a fellow playwright could still make me grieve." Nor does it improve the character of others. "When Alec Guinness came to see me," he writes, "he was surprised and even disappointed that I had not lost my hair, understandably perhaps, in someone who had been bald since he was a young man. He was not wholly convinced that my hair remained my own until he had contrived to tug it to make sure. This was not entirely a joke." For the habitually depressive, humor might be a way of whistling past the graveyard ("Sometimes I felt that more people had seen the inside of my bum than had seen some productions at the National Theatre"), but in Bennett's case it's never a way of not looking. Bleak circumstances only excite his unsparing gaze.

Bennett grew up in the provincial north of England and went to Oxford on a scholarship. There, he excelled, becoming a junior history don, before success intervened with the satirical revue "Beyond the Fringe," which he wrote and performed with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller. This stellar quartet appeared in Edinburgh, then in London's West End and on Broadway. Elizabeth Taylor perched on Bennett's knee. He's probably best known in the United States for "The Madness of King George" (his script for Nicholas Hytner's film version was nominated for an Oscar), though his great work has been done for TV. There's the dark and hilarious "Talking Heads," the one-offs he wrote for Stephen Frears, and "A Question of Attribution" and "An Englishman Abroad," deliciously sly riffs on the lives of traitor spies Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess, both directed by John Schlesinger. Bennett couldn't care less about espionage, but the manners of betrayal interest him very much, as do characters who will themselves into exile, be it from their countries or their sanity.

His genius is for the day-to-day. Rather than taking him away from his roots, success entangled him more deeply -- not merely with Yorkshire, or the industrial city of Leeds, but with the particular Leeds suburb of Armley, with its Victorian hellhole of a prison, a place that would have really gotten Johnny Cash going. This is where Bennett grew up, as he relates in "Untold Stories' " almost book-length title essay, "over a butcher's shop in a house with no hallway, the living room giving straight onto the street where Mam's painfully collected gentilities were periodically overwhelmed by the stench of fat being rendered in the cellar." He describes his mother's depressions, "all of which ended up being what Dad called 'hospital dos,' " and her slow descent into madness and memory loss. This agonizing process takes decades and provokes a sequence of revelations, the unearthing of long-hidden secrets. Madness and suicide, it turns out, run in the family, and we glimpse the material that fueled Bennett's great dramatic works.

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