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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Clothes They Stood Up in

Alan Bennett

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To purchase The Clothes They Stood Up in

Title: The Clothes They Stood Up in
Author: Alan Bennett
Genre: Novella
Written: 1996
Length: 161 pages
Availability: The Clothes They Stood Up in - US
The Clothes They Stood Up in - UK
in A Box of Alan Bennett - UK
  • The Clothes They Stood Up in was first published in the London Review of Books in 1996, and then in book form in 1998 (in the UK; 2001 in the US)

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Our Assessment:

A- : well-written, effective small tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic Monthly . 3/2001 Christina Schwarz
Christian Science Monitor . 15/2/2001 Ron Charles
The LA Times . 4/2/2001 S. Salter Reynolds
The NY Times A 6/2/2001 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. . 4/2/2001 Brooke Allen
The Spectator A 12/9/1998 William Trevor
The Washington Post A+ 25/1/2001 Jonathan Yardley

  Review Consensus:

  Like it very much.

  From the Reviews:
  • "The playwright Alan Bennett's attention to concrete detail and his depiction of contemporary life through Mrs. Ransome's unworldly eyes, make his scenes hilarious, but his vision, in which an empty marriage is replaced by talk-show sentiment, is hard." - Christina Schwarz, The Atlantic Monthly

  • "Part of Bennett's genius is his ability to compose an atmosphere of stilted repression in which bolts of scatological humor flash with heightened comedy. (...) Mrs. Ransome begins, slowly, to discover the world and its ability to delight her, even arouse her. The effect is always charming and often hilarious." - Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor

  • "Bennett is fascinated with the porcelain fragility of behavior. He follows the fissures in the Ransome's broken lives all the way to the bitter end." - Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Mr. Bennett(...) narrates these events with easy aplomb (.....) Though Clothes lacks the emotional chiaroscuro of Talking Heads, though it's less resonant than his memoir-turned-play, The Lady in the Van, it nonetheless stands as a completely charming entertainment: a small gem by one of Britain's most versatile and gifted writers." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "(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." - Brooke Allen, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Presented as a short story -- and rightly published in its solitary splendour -- Mr Bennett's clever idea does nicely enough. But limelight and actors and ripples of applause would elevate it to the heights where it belongs." - William Trevor, The Spectator

  • "Here is proof positive that small can be beautiful. (...) (T)here is more to it -- more wit, more complexity and ambiguity, more depth, more sheer pleasure and satisfaction -- than there is to just about any new novel of whatever length that I have read since Saul Bellow's Ravelstein or Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay." - Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Clothes They Stood Up in tells the story of an older married couple, the Ransomes. They return from the opera one night only to find that they have been burgled. Very meticulously and comprehensively burgled. One often says, after a robbery: "They took everything", but here the burglars literally did. Every last bit of furniture is gone, every possession, every appliance. They even took the toilet paper.
       It is a nice premise for a story, and Bennett does his best with it. And Bennett's best is very good indeed. He doesn't read (or rather: write) too much into the story, or try to make more of it than it can be. The writing is succinct, expressive, and elegant -- without any artificial fancy touches. It is a small tale (published as a nice small volume -- though the American edition manages somehow to fill 161 pages), but more resonant than most full-length novels.
       Bennett even comes up with a plausible explanation for what happened to the Ransomes -- though he could probably have gotten away without providing one as well. The story of the burglary also takes a decidedly unexpected twist when the stolen goods resurface, an event that is almost as disruptive as the original theft. (Mrs. Ransome feels twice violated, robbed "of her possessions, then of the chance to transcend that loss.")
       Mr. and Mrs. Ransome react differently to the event that deprives them of every last possession. Bennett focusses on Mrs. Ransome, for whom the event is a more transforming one, forcing her into worlds previously unknown to her. Mr. Ransome isn't as easily shaken from his routine and his beliefs, and it is thus not quite so life-shaking as for his wife. (Bennett acknowledges, towards the end, that "Mr. Ransome has not come well out of this narrative" -- which then is also very literally the case).
       Mrs. Ransome reflects in the still-empty house that "not the least of what they had lost in the burglary were their little marital deceptions." The marriage itself is little more than comfortable. These are two people who happen to be together, and that is enough (though barely) to hold them together. (Right off Bennett suggests they are a couple that "but for Mozart would probably have split up years ago.") Suddenly, Mrs. Ransome is watching daytime television and going in shops she had always avoided. Her eyes are opened to a world she had (with Mr. Ransome's help) studiously kept at bay, as she goes on her first "timorous voyages of discovery". Mr. Ransome, however, isn't open to any change, and continues to go merrily along as though nothing had happened.
       Bennett ties things up nicely and neatly. Mrs. Ransome lives and learns. Mr. Ransome ... well, he is too set in his ways for his own good.
       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.

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The Clothes They Stood Up in: Reviews: Alan Bennett: Other books by Alan Bennett under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review
  • See Index of Drama

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About the Author:

       British author, playwright, and actor Alan Bennett appeared in Beyond the Fringe and has written numerous highly acclaimed works.

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© 2002-2010 the complete review

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