Michael Dirda

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, October 7, 2007

THE UNCOMMON READER

By Alan Bennett

Farrar Straus Giroux. 120 pp. $15

Samuel Johnson first celebrated the good sense of "the common reader," and Virginia Woolf borrowed the phrase when she needed a title for her two big essay collections. Most of us who wander into our local bookstore in search of an amusing novel or the latest political biography might also call ourselves just such a reader. But what of "the uncommon reader"? Who is he?

"He" is, first of all, a "she": In this charming novella Alan Bennett imagines what might occur if the sovereign of England, Queen Elizabeth herself, were suddenly to develop a ravenous passion for books. What might in less capable hands result in a labored exercise or an embarrassing instance of literary lêse-majesté here becomes a delicious light comedy, as well as a meditation on the power of print. Of course, Bennett has imagined the intimate life of royalty before -- in his much admired play "The Madness of George III" -- and is himself as much a reader as a writer and occasional actor. Admirers of his essays and diaries (gathered together in Writing Home and Untold Stories) know that he is also one of the most subtly ingratiating prose stylists of our time. Here is the opening scene of The Uncommon Read er:

"At Windsor it was the evening of the state banquet and as the president of France took his place beside Her Majesty, the royal family formed up behind and the procession slowly moved off and through into the Waterloo Chamber.

" 'Now that I have you to myself,' said the Queen smiling to left and right as they glided through the glittering throng, 'I've been longing to ask you about the writer Jean Genet.'

" 'Ah,' said the president. 'Oui.'

"The 'Marseillaise' and the national anthem made for a pause in the proceedings, but when they had taken their seats Her Majesty turned to the president and resumed.

" 'Homosexual and jailbird, was he nevertheless as bad as he was painted? Or, more to the point,' and she took up her soup spoon, 'was he as good?'

"Unbriefed on the subject of the glabrous playwright and novelist, the president looked wildly about for his minister of culture. But she was being addressed by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

" 'Jean Genet,' said the Queen again, helpfully. 'Vous le connaissez?'


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