I have suddenly found myself on something of a short book kick and really enjoying it. The Clothes They Stood Up In
by Alan Bennett caught my eye and the local library and since I am on said short book kick, I added it to the pile.
The Ransomes had been burgled. “Robbed,” Mrs. Ransome said. “Burgled,” Mr. Ransome corrected. Premises were burgled; persons were robbed. Mr. Ransome was a solicitor by profession and thought words mattered. Though “burgled” was the wrong word too. Burglars select; they pick; they remove one item and ignore others. There is a limit to what burglars can take: they seldom take easy chairs, for example, and even more seldom settees. These burglars did. They took everything.
This swift-moving comic fable will surprise you with its concealed depths. When the sedate Ransomes return from the opera to find their Notting Hill flat stripped absolutely bare—down to the toilet paper off the roll, they face a dilemma: Who are they without the things they’ve spent a lifetime accumulating? Suddenly the world is full of unlimited and frightening possibility.
My quick take
I read it in one sitting and found it a little gem. Witty and clever and yet dealing with deeper issues just under the surface. Quirky and obviously British but dealing with human nature so universal.
”The Clothes They Stood Up In” was a best seller in Britain, where Bennett, the author of the plays ”Habeas Corpus,” ”Forty Years On,” ”The Madness of George III” and countless other films and television shows, is rightly thought of as a national treasure. The book will probably not do quite so well here, for the traits personified by the Ransomes — emotional constipation on the husband’s part, an almost pathological diffidence on the wife’s — are English vices and not American ones. (Our own run on quite different lines.) But it is a witty, dark piece of work, a happy evening’s read and a tantalizing mental challenge to those of us who, like the Ransomes, find their lives encumbered and their senses blunted by too much stuff.
Short, pleasant, witty, and melancholy, though—á la Garrison Keillor—perhaps a richer treat for those who know and can hear the radio voice telling it.
Bennett carries off his terse, surreal comedy with witty aplomb, adding to risibility with apt comments about the foibles of contemporary society and the consumer economy. Forecast: English readers familiar with Bennett’s plays (The Madness of George III, etc.) snatched up this novella to the tune of 140,ooo copies. The premise of being left without any possessions is provocative enough to entice readers on these shores, and the small size of the volume reinforces the idea that simplicity can be liberating.
The world Bennett describes here is a benign, bumbling one. From the well-meaning but hapless police (and the counselors they send to assist in the grieving process) to the Ransome’s own domestic life and little secrets Bennett offers a wealth of rich, simple detail that lift the text far beyond the ordinary. A pleasure to read, The Clothes They Stood Up in is a fine little book.