- The Uncommon Reader: A Novella
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 128 pp.
An Uncommon Book
In his diary, regularly published in the London Review of Books, Alan Bennett clearly revels in the role of wry observer of public and private events. Much of the pleasure of reading his entries comes from the barbed asides. For instance, in that odd time of hysterical mourning, after Princess Diana’s death, when the Great British public wept in the streets for someone it didn’t know, and about whom it had long enjoyed reading salacious stories in the press, he wrote: ‘HMQ to address the nation tomorrow. I’m only surprised Her Majesty hasn’t had to submit to a phone in.’ Such remarks were noticeable only by their absence in those days, when jokes were officially sanctioned and lips were meant to be tight and shut – when they weren’t quivering with grief of course.
We might account for some of the success of Stephen Frears’ film The Queen, by considering the way in which it dignified an institution long undermined by a perceived failure to adapt to the contemporary hunger for crude sentimentality. Queen Elizabeth II is presented, not as a caricature of an emotionally stunted individual, but rather as someone whose entire life has been circumscribed by duty and protocol. The film humanises her, but doesn’t make her a sideshow spectacle; treats her with deference, but not awe; allows the viewer to empathise, whilst acknowledging the unique quality of the royal family’s experience of life. Bennett, who wrote the screenplay for Prick Up Your Ears, Frears’ 1987 film about the playwright Joe Orton, has pulled off a similar trick with this novella. It is terse, comic, touching and surprising, and only the fourth work of short fiction by of the finest writers working today. The Uncommon Reader, a deliberate play on The Common Reader, Virginia Woolf’s 1925 collection of essays in which she patronises and romanticises people without the sort of education which enables them to become critics, is the story of the consternation which grows among the Queen’s retinue of equerries, advisors, maids and pages, when she develops a love of reading. One day, when her corgies happen upon a mobile library parked near Buckingham Palace, the Queen feels duty-bound to borrow a book. But she has no idea what to read. ‘She’d never taken much interest in reading. She read, of course, as one did, but liking books was something she left to other people. It was a hobby and it was in the nature of her job that she didn’t have hobbies. Jogging, growing roses, chess or rock climbing, cake decoration, model aeroplanes. No. Hobbies involved preferences and preferences had to be avoided; preferences excluded people. One had no preferences. Her job was to take an interest, not to be interested herself. And besides, reading wasn’t doing. She was a doer.’ But she is soon feigning colds to stay in bed reading, excited at the way one book leads to another. She has Norman Seakins, the kitchen hand she met in the mobile library, promoted to page, with special responsibility for the recommendation of novels. He introduces her to several works of fiction by gay writers and is loathed by his colleagues. When the Queen loses all interest in her duties, those who govern her life intervene. Books are hidden and lost in transit, and when the Prime Minister and his foul-mouthed advisor become involved, matters threaten to become constitutional. Concerns are even expressed that the Queen may be developing Alzheimer’s Disease: ‘Thus it was that the dawn of sensibility was mistaken for the onset of senility.’
The Uncommon Reader is concerned with the joys of a sentimental education. At first the Queen reads to no particular system, then she copies passages, and finally, ‘after a year or so of reading and making notes…she tentatively venture(s) on the occasional thought of her own.’ The Queen’s growing self-awareness and sensitivity ultimately lead her toward writing. After all, she is a doer. Bennett celebrates the way that reading creates the possibility for thought and contemplation, for the sort of slow, deliberate, considered reflection on the world and our position within it, which is no longer encouraged. The Uncommon Reader is a defense of the humanising nature of literature, a notion, which, like almost everything else, was undermined by the French intellectuals of the 1960s. It is a subtle threnody for lost things in an accelerated age, an attack on the wearing of philistinism as a badge of honour, and a paean to the age of the novel. With the Queen’s endless round of visits, openings and state occasions, she has far less time to read than most, and thus her simple advice, ‘one must make the time,’ is all the more pointed and the moral heart of the novella.
The Uncommon Reader is written in that inimitable Bennett prose style. I do not think he is given sufficient credit as a stylist. His writing possesses a hypnotic, elegant grace, which recalls a formality long out of favour, yet he manages to avoid the excessively mannered feel of Henry James. There is also something conversational about the way he writes, a straightforwardness, and a beguiling, gentle rhythm. And of course, there is that dry wit. Bennett has a genius for the sardonic one-liner, his timing is immaculate. There are innumerable moments in the book but a particular favourite is when the Queen discusses Proust and his madeleines: ‘the curious thing about it was that when he dipped his cake in his tea (disgusting habit) the whole of his past life came back to him. Well, I tried it and it had no effect on me at all.’
Bennett is evidently fascinated by the institution of the monarchy. He has written about it several times for the theatre and the screen, and has seen a fundamental shift in attitude toward it in his lifetime. Now, with this wonderful satire, politically subversive in unexpected ways, he has returned to the subject triumphantly. You are unlikely to read a more memorable or enjoyable book this year.