Alan Bennett, The uncommon reader
Light with bite is how I would describe Alan Bennett‘s delightful novella The uncommon reader. But, before I explain that further, a quick plot summary for those few who haven’t come across it. It explores what happens when Queen Elizabeth II stumbles across a mobile library on the palace grounds and becomes obsessed with books and reading. Bennett cheekily suggests what the impact might be on her family, staff and the politicians around her when reading becomes not only something she wants to do all the time (instead of her work) but also results in her starting to think and question.
One of the delightful things about the novel is that it can be read on several levels from the straight (a sweet story about the current English Queen discovering the thrill of reading late in her life) through the contemplative (a meditation on readers, reading and the value of literature) to the satirical (an expose of life in the palace, and more broadly of politics and those involved in the political process).
Take for example, reading. The Queen (in the book) says that: “Books are not about passing the time. They’re about other lives. Other worlds.” Fair enough, we all agree with that I’d say. But then there’s this, again from our newly enlightened reading Queen: “Books generally just confirm you in what you have, perhaps unwittingly, decided to do already. You go to a book to have your convictions corroborated. A book as it were closes the book.” Hmmm…Bennett’s Queen is one clever (and scary) lady!
Jokes at the expense of palace officials, politics and politicians abound. Nothing really new here but they are proffered with a light touch. The Queen, now talking about writing her own book, says “To enquire into the evidence for something on which you have already decided is the unacknowledged premise of every public enquiry, surely?” on which the Prime Minister thinks to himself “If this was to be the tone of what the Queen was planning to write there was no telling what she was going to say. ‘I think you would do better just to tell your story, ma’am'”.
This is no sentimental tale, but neither is it completely cynical (though some could see it that way). Sly is perhaps the best word to describe its ability to engage us with the humanity of the characters while skewering them and their (our) world at the same time. However, I won’t go on, except to say that the ironies, word play and allusions evident in the title give a clue to what is inside – and yet it can be read and enjoyed whether or not you pick up all, some or none of them. I’m sure I missed my share. But that’s okay, as I would be more than happy to read it again.
The uncommon reader
London: Faber and Faber, 2007
Note: I originally posted this on my reading group’s site but, since one of my online groups will be discussing this in the next quarter, I decided to post it over here too as a record of my current reading and discussions.