by Alan Bennett
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 658 pp., $32.50
This collection of autobiographical essays, family memoirs, diary extracts, and other occasional writings was published in England in October 2005 to warm and widespread applause in the press, and by the end of February 2006 had sold well over 300,000 copies in hardback. That remarkable figure was achieved partly with the help of some brutal discounting by bookstores, on-line booksellers, and supermarkets, of a kind that is threatening to destabilize the book business in the UK. It is reported, for instance, that many small bookshops have been buying their stock of Untold Stories from supermarkets because it is cheaper than ordering them from the publishers. However much one may deplore this phenomenon (and Alan Bennett has himself publicly urged readers to buy his book from independent bookstores), as an index of popularity it cannot be gainsaid. Supermarkets know a good loss leader when they see one. Alan Bennett is undoubtedly one of the most popular writers of recognized literary merit in England.
I say “England” rather than “Britain” because Bennett is a quintessentially English writer and I suspect that the majority of his fans in his native country would so identify themselves. He is as English as Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis, and with all three writers it is doubtful whether the full flavor of their work “travels” (in the wine taster’s sense of the word) unimpaired into other cultures or languages, because so much of their appeal inheres in the pleasure of recognition—nuances of English manners, English speech, and English foibles, perfectly caught and rendered. It says much for Bennett’s droll wit, clever dramaturgy, and sense of pathos that his work has nevertheless carried successfully over the Atlantic, if not perhaps quite so easily across the English Channel.
He first came to fame as one of the brilliant quartet of young Oxbridge graduates (the others being Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, and Jonathan Miller) who created and performed Beyond the Fringe in 1960 in London, and subsequently in New York, a hugely influential show which may be said to have in some sense inaugurated the Sixties as a decade of cultural revolution. (In his memoir, Father Joe (2005), Tony Hendra, founding and contributing editor of National Lampoon, describes seeing it when a young man as a life-changing experience which caused him to abandon his vocation to the Catholic priesthood and to become a satirist instead.) Bennett then began a highly successful career as a playwright and screenplay writer for film and television. Forty Years On, Habeas Corpus, Single Spies, The Lady in the Van, and The Madness of George III are among the most acclaimed works of postwar British theater, and the last of these was also a much-admired feature film, adapted by Bennett (but renamed The Madness of King George III, in case American audiences should think it was a sequel to movies called The Madness of George and The Madness of George II which they had somehow missed). Recently, at the age of seventy …