Wednesday, July 18, 2007
The Uncommon Reader
Our book today is a little delight we here at Stevereads never dared to hope we'd encounter: "The Uncommon Reader," a novella by Alan Bennett, the English national treasure and author of "The History Boys." The thing appeared in virtually unaltered form in the London Review of Books some months ago, and although we here at Stevereads saved it and photocopied it and assiduously handed it around, we thought we'd be dealing with clumsy xeroxes forever. But lo, here it is, bound as a neat little booklet of its own.
The story is classic Bennett in its beguiling simplicity of plot: owing to the mischief of her dogs, the Queen discovers one day that the palace is regularly visited by a 'travelling library' of a type that was once popular in rural America. Her Majesty feels a little awkward and so borrows a book. And what follows is a sweet, wondrous little story: the Queen gradually comes to love reading.
At first she must snatch time in between her official duties, but bit by bit, she works more and more reading into her days in exactly the same wayall book-people do. In this endeavor she's aided by Norman, the smart young man she met at the travelling library and who, for the first part of the book, acts as her text-procurer and overall amanuensis. Bennett handles their relationship with his customary pitch-perfect ear for dialogue, as in the wry passage in which the Queen assesses her strengths in the least likely of venues:
"'Do you know,' she said one afternoon as they were reading in her study, 'do you know the area in which one would truly excel?'
'The pub quiz. One has been everywhere, seen everything, and though one might have difficulty with pop music and some sport, when it comes to the capital of Zimbabwe, say, or the principal exports of New South Wales, I have all that at my fingertips.'
'And I could do the pop,' said Norman.
'Yes,' said the Queen. 'We would make a good team. Ah well. The road not travelled.'"
Anybody who's read Bennett's always-engrossing diaries knows him to be a diehard reader himself, and in "The Uncommon Reader" he distills some of his thoughts about the process of reading itself. In doing this, he has the perfect foil in the person of Her Majesty:
"The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference: there was something undeferring about literature. Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included. Literature, she thought, was a commonwealth; letters a republic. Actually she had heard this phrase, the republic of letters, used before, at graduation ceremonies, honorary degrees and the like, though without knowing what it meant. At that time talk of a republic of any sort she had thought mildly insulting and in her actual presence tactless to say the least. It was only now she understood what it meant. Books did not defer."
The Queen's newfound love of reading creates consternation in those around her, who are unused to any changes in the living institution she represents. And the most flustered by the change? Why, the dogs of course, little tyrants that they are:
"Indulged and bad tempered though they were, the dogs were not unintelligent, so it was not surprising that in a short space of time they came to hate books as the spoilsports they were (and always have been).
Did Her Majesty ever let a book fall to the carpet it would straightaway be leaped on by any attendant dog, worried and slavered over and borne to the distant reaches of the palace or wherever so that it could be satisfyingly torn apart. The James Tait Black Memorial prize notwithstanding, Ian McEwan had ended up like this and even A.S. Byatt. Patron of the London Library though she was, Her Majesty regularly found herself on the phone apologizing to the renewals clerk for the loss of yet another volume."
Bennett is also shrewd in assessing what kind of a reader the Queen would be - that, for instance, she would have a hard time empathizing with the minute social distinctions that abound in Jane Austen. Broader subjects too get examined in this wonderfully insightful way:
"Feminism, too, got short shrift, at least to begin with and for the same reason, the separations of gender like the differences of class as nothing compared with the gulf that separated the Queen from the rest of humanity."
Bennett doesn't forget his dramatist's duties - even in a hundred pages, he manages to serve up for the reader lots more humor, palace intrigue, a happy ending, and a surprise twist at the end that will have the reader clapping. We here at Stevereads encounter entirely unsuccessful novels that ramble on to five or six hundred pages - this little book should stand as quietly eloquent proof of what a sure craftsman can do with a lot less space.