Friday, 12 December 2008

Book of the Month: The Uncommon Reader (Alan Bennett)

Queen Elizabeth (the second) of Great Britain, during her long rein that will soon enter its sixtieth year, has become an indelible part of the British society. Figurehead she may be—being reduced to read out prepared speeches when the parliament opens and throw garden parties for visiting dignitaries—the quietly dignified, taciturn old woman is regarded with something approaching deep affection by her ‘subjects'.

How does the queen spend her time? What are her hobbies? If she finds any leisure time from her onerous duties of opening Old People’s Homes and sitting for portraits, what does she do with it? Does she like reading books, for example? Well known for her exotic hats and the love of horses and her corgis, the queen does not have the reputation of being an avid reader. It would be fair to conclude, on the basis of published biographies, that the queen does not have an entrain for books (unless, perhaps, they are horse-related). But what if the septuagenarian queen develops a penchant for books? Alan Bennett, an institution in himself in British literature, in an entertaining and quirky novella—at more than hundred pages it is not quite a short story, but neither is it a long short story as some have oxymoronically chosen to describe it—muses on this delightful what-if. The queen is the uncommon reader (Bennett allowing himself a bit of play on words in the novella’s title).

One day, led by her corgis, the queen discovers, on one side of the palace grounds, the City of Westminster travelling library, and inside it, a not-very-pretty scullion, who is a voracious reader of photography books and homosexual authors. Incredibly, the ginger-haired, acne-ridden adolescent becomes the queen’s literary cicerone, and, beginning with a novel of Ivy Compton-Burnette—‘I made her a dame’ the queen responds apropos de rien when the librarian informs her that her choice of author is not very popular these days—the queen starts her literary odyssey that takes her through works of Henry James, Beckett, Proust, Balzac, Genet, Turgenev, Trollop, and Hardy to name just a few. The queen’s newfangled enthusiasm for reading does not go unnoticed, and, amongst the equerries, is a cause for concern. The concern is tinged with annoyance and envy when Norman, the kitchen-boy, is lifted from his lowly position and promoted as the Royal literary advisor. The Queen’s private secretary, Sir Kevin Scatchard, who is from New Zeeland (and a source of gentle raillery in the novella) and who takes himself and his job a little too seriously, gets concerned when the Queen begins to lag behind, indeed seems uninterested in, her duties—a ride on a supertram, a ukulele concert, a tour round a cheese factory—and the less-than-amused prime-minister’s less-than-amused special advisor contacts him to complain that that Sir Kevin’s employer had begun lending his employer books on history of Persia and expected him to read them. (When Sir Kevin feebly responds that Her Majesty likes reading, the special advisor retorts that he likes getting his dick sucked, but he does not make the prime-minister do it). Sir Kevin manages to get rid of the troublemaker Norman when the queen is on a tour of Canada: he is dispatched to the University of East Anglia, in Norwich, to study English; but his absence has no impact on the queen’s new-found love. Indeed, so engrossed is she in her pursuits that she appears to her equerries forgetful and absent-minded, raising the spectre of Alzheimer’s disease. In desperation Sir Kevin turns to Sir Claude Pollington, ‘a safe pair of hands’, who has served loyally generations of Royals (beginning with the queen’s grandfather George V), and who has been working, for the past several decades on his memoirs, tentatively titled Drudgery divine (he has managed to write a couple of paragraphs). The vicenarian Sir Claude, in clutches of senility, agrees to remind the queen of her duties, and ends up giving the queen an advice that only adds to Sir Kevin’s headache: he suggests that the queen should write. As the novella progresses, the twists in the story appear to expand exponentially. Whether the finale of the novella—it can’t be revealed here given its nature—is an anticlimax or a bombshell (as Sue Macgregor on BBC Radio 4 described it) is a matter of opinion; what cannot be denied is that it catches the reader by surprise.

The Uncommon Reader is a devilishly clever novella that can be enjoyed at several levels. For the most part, it proceeds at a gentle pace, wheeled along by Bennett’s gentle, dead-pan, at times self-deprecating, yet tongue-in-cheek humour—Bennett has several gentle digs at the monarchy without ever attempting to mock or humiliate—and deceptively simple prose. At times, though, Bennett, without much warning, shifts gears and the narrative becomes a boisterous slapstick that has the readers in stitches (Sir Kevin’s meeting with Sir Claude and Sir Claude’s meeting with the queen are cases in point). Bennet’s work is always distinguished by mischievous wit, poignancy, and odd characters; and The Uncommon Reader is no exception. However, it is not just a quirky, comic tale; it is also a book about reading books (the novella contains references to many authors (both present and past) and famous literary characters; it is more than just a book about reading books—it is an ode to reading and its everlasting delights. It is a celebration of reading itself, an exploration of how reading can profoundly influence and change one’s outlook and the way one relates to the world—the queen, who, at the beginning reminds Norman, somewhat sententiously, that ‘one has a duty to find out what people are like’, says, later, to sir Kevin: ‘One reads for pleasure; it is not a public duty.’ As the queen transforms—at one point in the novella, the queen, in conversation with the vice-chancellor and the professor of creative writing at the University of East Anglia, remarks that reading softens a person up, while writing does the reverse—so does the reader.

The Uncommon Reader is a superb novella. Grab it on a rainy day when you are feeling glum. It will bring joy to your existence.