short story that was originally published in the London Review of Books, and is typically Bennett.
It is set in the moments before, after, and mainly during, the memorial service for Clive, a young man who died in Peru a few months earlier. The fashionable London church is filled with a group of diverse but mostly famous or important friends, most of whom didn't realise Clive was also a friend of the others.
Bennett affectionately and humourously highlights the foibles and hypocrisy of modern society, the church and celebrity culture, particularly the social awkwardness that conflict can trigger. Being Bennett, the underlying themes and revelations are no surprise, but that didn't detract from my enjoyment.
Vignettes from the story:
* A soap had shocked its audience when a main character raped his mother, but the actor assured chat show hosts that he was a pussy-cat in real life, and this was exemplified by the fact that "within minutes of the maternal rape, he could be found on another channel picking out the three items of antique furniture he would invest in were his budget limited to £500."
* Celebrities' "anxiety must be kept private... They must wait to share their worries discretely with friends or, if with the general public, at a decent price from the newspaper concerned".
* The wry advantages of separating the funeral and memorial service: "the finality of death mitigated by staggering it over two stages", and the advantages of calling a memorial service a "celebration": "the marrying of the valedictory with the festive convenient on several grounds. For a start, it made grief less obligatory... [and] also allowed the congregation to dress up and not down, so that though the millinery might be more muted, one could have been forgiven... for thinking this was a wedding not a wake."
* A cleric reminiscing about the old "don't ask, don't tell" approach to gay priests, favoured "dry, ascerbic and, of course, unavowed; A E Houseman the type that he approved of, minus the poetry, of course, and (though this was less important), minus the atheism."
* "Father Jolliffe was Anglican but with Romish inclinations that were not so much doctrinal as ceremonial and certainly sartorial."
* A priest looking at his flock "cast professionally loving glances... on his pink and generous face, an expression of settled benevolence."
* "His faith was real enough, though so supple and riddled with irony that God was no more exempt from censure than the Archbishop of Canterbury."
* "Funeral tears rarely flow for anyone other than the person crying them."
* Some mourners went on to "a new restaurant that had opened in a converted public lavatory". I would like to think this an amusing fiction, but I can't help thinking that such an establishment may already exist.
The only jarring note is that although this is mostly written in the past, several times a sentence starts in the past but slips, weirdly, into the present. It happens often enough that I assume it's deliberate, but I found it distracting and annoying: "First up was
an actress... who ascends
the stairs", and "One of these... was
Father Jolliffe who is
On a more positive linguistic note, I was amused by this (somewhat graphic) anecdote:
"He learned that words mattered, once having been in bed with an etymologist whose ejaculation had been indefinitely postponed when Clive (on being asked if he was about to come too) had murmured, 'Hopefully'. In lieu of discharge, the etymologist had poured his frustrated energy into a short lecture on neologisms which Clive had taken so much to heart he had never said 'hopefully' again."