Luckily for all of us, Bennett was born with the gift for style that’s been the genetic inheritance of English writers from Jonathan Swift through George Orwell. In spite of age, he still writes with the bite and vigor of a young man. A random sample:
“As always with Rembrandt feel almost arraigned by the self-portraits and put on the spot. ‘And?’ he seems to be saying, ‘So?’ The self-disgust is there and the sadness but in a very contemporary way he’s a celebrity, resenting being looked at while at the same time (and like any other celebrity) having put himself in the way of it in the first place.”
Throughout this volume we sense Bennett’s concern for his posthumous assessment, as well as his distress about how he’s currently perceived, which he defines as “kindly, cozy and essentially harmless. I am in the pigeonhole marked ‘no threat’,” he says, “and did I stab Judi Dench with a pitchfork I should still be a teddy bear.” That public perception is unsurprising, given Bennett’s prep-school-master look and vicar’s voice. Yet even his own partner describes him as “difficult.”
In truth there seem to be two Alan Bennetts. Like the characters in his TV monologues, “Talking Heads” (probably his masterpiece), he lets us glimpse strong emotion coiling just beneath the veneer. In Bennett’s case, the emotion is rage. He shouts at a woman in a shop about elections. He’s so upset at what the Richard III Society has done to an old church that he rips down their banner “and would have burned it, had I had a match.” His “rants,” as he calls them, are largely directed against politicians, ruinous architects, private education and governmental privatization, what he calls “England dismantled.”
The substance of his anger, though largely on English issues, resonates all too deeply over here. He writes: “Now we have another decade of the self-interested and the self-seeking, ready to sell off what’s left of our liberal institutions and loot the rest to their own advantage. It’s not a government of the nation but a government of half the nation.” One longs to hear his thoughts on a billionaire president who tosses paper towels, Marie Antoinette-style, to disaster victims.
His diary extracts are the heart of the book and, with their mix of high life, daily life, country life, theater life, travel and local observation (he’s a terrific noticer), the diaries do exactly what we want of diaries, which is to let us vicariously partake of a life, in this case an enviable life, especially if you’re the sort who watches Masterpiece Theater in a 24-hour loop. There are expert jokes, passing celebs and moments of access to Wordsworthian glory. (“3 March. Oh to live in the world one sees from the train — empty, unpeopled, only a horse in the field, one car at the crossing, and a woman at the end of a garden taking down washing.”) The diaries put on exhibit Bennett’s immense humanity, as when he regards a newborn baby and writes, “It doesn’t make me feel old, just huge.”
If you’re not already an Alan Bennett follower, “Keeping On Keeping On” is not the best place to jump in. There are, as he fears, too many churches visited, too many antique shops, too many meals (there’s enough jam here for a year’s worth of elevenses), and simply too much diary, the extracts here doubling the number of pages taken up in the previous installments. This collection also lacks the spice of his “Writing Home” saga with Miss Shepherd — the homeless woman who lived in a van in Bennett’s driveway for 15 years — or the personal pieces of “Untold Stories,” like his wrenching account of his mother’s mental illness.
Still, there are writers we turn to with almost religious gratitude and Alan Bennett, for many people, is one. In an age of amnesia, he knows and honors the past. In a civilization ruined by cellphones and flip-flops, he is ink and paper, corduroy and tweed. In a world running on ignorance, he’s well read, thoughtful and informed on any number of topics. Hats off to anyone who can still identify tansy, crocketed pinnacles or a blue tit. He is in fact the soul of the 18th-century Enlightenment in the body of a 21st-century Yorkshire yenta wearing bicycle clips. Bennett would probably chafe to hear it, but he reassures us by his very presence in the world. He works like grace.
At one point in the diaries, in a Madison Avenue eatery he runs into a fan who sums up the feelings of so many readers and theatergoers with a brisk directive. As they take leave, the woman calls out to Bennett, “Stay alive!”