Saturday, June 21, 2008

Promiscuous Meets Uncommon

The Uncommon Reader: a novella by Alan Bennett. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2007.

I stumbled on this slim (120 pages) volume at the public library the day after I got back home. I was in the mood for something less engulfing than Rabih Alameddine’s ocean of story The Hakawati, which I’d just finished, and I knew that Bennett was a fine writer. Writing Home, a collection of his journalism and diaries I’d found at a library book sale last year, contained some fine essays on Philip Larkin, W. H. Auden, and John Gielgud. Mostly Bennett’s known as a playwright and screenwriter (The History Boys, Prick Up Your Ears, The Madness of King George), and according to the “Also By Alan Bennett” page, his only other prose fiction is a collection of three stories.

The title character of The Uncommon Reader is none other than Queen Elizabeth II, whose corgis lead her one day to what we Yanks would call a bookmobile, parked “next to the bins outside one of the kitchen doors.” Stepping aboard to apologize for the dogs’ noise, the Queen falls into conversation with the librarian and the one other patron, a young dishwasher named Norman Seakins. More from a vague sense of regal obligation than real interest, she decides to borrow a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett (“I made her a dame”). Not the best choice for a novice reader. She lucks out the next time, though, with Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, which draws her into the murky twilight world between the covers of the compulsive reader. Norman, promoted to page, becomes her first guide:
The commission caused him some anxiety. Well-read up to a point, he was largely self-taught, his reading tended to be determined by whether the author was gay or not. Fairly wide remit though this was, it did narrow things down a bit, particularly when choosing a book for someone else, and the more so when that someone else happened to be the Queen.
Starting with J. R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip and branching out from there to E. M. Forster and others, Her Majesty is soon asking the President of France his opinion of Jean Genet. “What she was finding also was also how one book led to another, doors kept opening wherever she turned and the days weren’t long enough for the reading she wanted to do.”
But whether it was Jane Austen or feminism or even Dostoevsky, the Queen eventually got around to it and to much else besides, but never without regret. ... Too late. It was all too late. But she went on, determined as ever and always trying to catch up.
This reader’s progress will be familiar to any compulsive reader. The Queen finds herself impatient with routine duties, hiding a book beneath the coach window as she is driven down the Mall, waving to her subjects. Her staff, her consort, the Prime Minister, even her dogs become impatient with her preoccupation and jealous of the attention she’s lavishing on those little cardboard rectangles. Commoners presented to her must be prepped to be asked what they’re reading currently. Finally, her private secretary Sir Kevin Scatchard chides her:
“To read is to withdraw. To make oneself unavailable. One would feel easier about it if the pursuit itself were not less … selfish.”
“Selfish?” [One hears an echo of Dame Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell here; see clip above.]
“Perhaps I should say solipsistic.”
“Perhaps you should.”
Sir Kevin plunged on. “Were we able to harness your reading to some larger purpose – the literacy of the nation as a whole, for instance, the improvement of reading standards among the young …”
“One reads for pleasure,” said the Queen. “It is not a public duty.”
“Perhaps,” said Sir Kevin, “it should be.”
If one recognizes oneself in that exchange, as the Promiscuous Reader certainly does, The Uncommon Reader will be an entertaining and solipsistic read. The only weak point, to one’s mind, is the ending, which feels too neat. But Bennett has managed to make a monarch into Everywoman, a distinct promotion. It’s also fun to compare one’s own reading with the author’s, and perhaps pick up a recommendation or two.