Michael Dirda
What would happen if Her Royal Highness got hooked on books?

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?'

" 'Bien sûr,' said the president.

" 'Il m'interesse,' said the Queen.

" 'Vraiment?' The president put down his spoon. It was going to be a long evening."

As we soon learn, some time previous the queen had one afternoon happened upon the bookmobile serving the staff at Buckingham Palace. Partly out of embarrassment and partly to show her support for the local library's work, she checks out a book. It is a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett, which she finds somewhat dry and rather hard going. But she reads it all the way through, largely out of a sense of duty, that being her strongest character trait. Almost by accident, she then checks out a second book, but one by Nancy Mitford:

" The Pursuit of Love turned out to be a fortunate choice and in its way a momentous one. Had Her Majesty gone for another duff read, an early George Eliot, say, or a late Henry James, novice reader that she was she might have been put off reading for good and there would be no story to tell. Books, she should have thought, were work.

"As it was, with this one she soon became engrossed, and passing her bedroom that night clutching his hot-water bottle, the duke heard her laugh out loud. He put his head round the door. 'All right, old girl'?

" 'Of course. I'm reading.'

" 'Again?' And he went off, shaking his head."

As even common readers know, the queen soon finds that "one book led to another, doors kept opening wherever she turned, and the days weren't long enough for the reading she wanted to do." Naturally, all this bookishness soon starts to annoy the various equerries, advisors and staff around the palace. Reading is just not the done thing. At least not for royalty. " 'To read is to withdraw. To make oneself unavailable. One would feel easier about it,' said Sir Kevin, 'if the pursuit itself were less . . . selfish.' " Now, briefing is more like it.

" 'But briefing is not reading,' " explains the Queen. " 'In fact it is the antithesis of reading. Briefing is terse, factual and to the point. Reading is untidy, discursive, and perpetually inviting. Briefing closes down a subject, reading opens it up.' "

Before long the queen is enjoying J.R. Ackerley, Anita Brookner, Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie, Sylvia Plath, Samuel Beckett and even Proust, which she reads -- along with her amanuensis, Norman -- on the annual hunting holiday at Balmoral:

"It was a foul summer, cold, wet and unproductive. . . . But for the Queen (and for Norman) it was an idyll. Seldom can there have been more of a contrast between the world of the book and the place in which it was read, the pair of them engrossed in the sufferings of Swann, the petty vulgarities of Mme Verdurin and the absurdities of Baron de Charlus, while in the wet butts on the hills the guns cracked out their empty tattoo as the occasional dead and sodden stag was borne past the window."

Naturally, the queen's staff and advisors soon start to believe that all this reading can only indicate the onset of Alzheimer's disease. Worries further increase when Her Majesty begins to keep a notebook, copying out favorite passages and quotations and, increasingly, setting down her own thoughts. This latter activity then leads to a new and even more dangerous development. Any longtime reader can guess what it is.

You can finish The Uncommon Reader in an hour or two, but it is charming enough and wise enough that you will almost certainly want to keep it around for rereading -- unless you decide to share it with friends. Either way, this little book offers what English readers would call very good value for money. Enjoy. *

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com.

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