Monday, November 26, 2007

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

A slim novella about falling in love with reading're the Queen of England.

Bennett is best known as a playwright, most recently for The History Boys (which in its cinematic version I just couldn't get excited about), and I sense this novella is in certain ways his own history of becoming first a reader and then a writer. But what makes it funny and charming is juxtaposing what is on the page--the story of a busy fussy woman who begins to read obsessively thus neglecting her other duties and forcing books on all the people around her who view reading quite suspiciously--with what is off the page--the public personality of Queen Elizabeth II. It's a clever, not necessarily conscious, nod to how much the individual reader brings to the experience of reading. The novella works modestly if you know nothing about QEII but it works closer to uproariously if you have the conception of her that most of the public seems to: stern, businesslike, stoic, proper. It's an interesting twist on the idea of using real life figures in fiction. Typically what we see is an attempt to make public figures more three-dimensional, to show their human flawed, vulnerable, and in the case of Henry James in Colm Toibin's The Master, sexual sides. But Bennett is not trying to create a more human QEII; he's not interested in realism at all. It's more in line with alternate history (like Philip Roth making Lindbergh president)...what if the Queen was a reader. And that allows him to write what is really an essay on: the effects of reading, both pro and con; the perception by others that reading is a hostile act (time given to reading often means choosing the company of a book over that of a person); and the way that writers are born. One funny bit has the kitchen boy who introduces the Queen to the work of Jean Genet removed from his position of influence by the prime minister's assistant by being offered a spot at the University of East Anglia to study creative writing.

A very quick, very light read that probably could have been something a good deal more interesting if it said more unexpected things about reading but fun all the same. I suppose an English reader might also see it as a comment on how democratic reading is and how undemocratic the monarchy is.

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