The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett (2006)

The Uncommon Reader is a short (100 pages) novella by Alan Bennett, dry, clipped, funny, understated, with some-thought provoking notions and brilliant phrasing.

Plot The Queen stumbles across the travelling lending library in the Palace grounds and out of politeness borrows a book. She starts reading. She becomes intrigued at new thoughts and feelings. She develops sensibility ie noticing people and details, becomes less dutiful, more enquiring. This unsettles everyone from her Private Secretary to the Prime Minister. After a discursive middle which explores the nature of reading, what it does to you, why we do it, the book moves quickly to a surprise, or shock, ending.

The camp/gay environment of the Royal Household is very well conveyed, all those gay equerries, a royal milieu familiar to Bennett from his play about the gay traitor Anthony Blunt, from The Madness of George III etc. He seems perfectly at home putting pithy dialogue into the mouths of her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh.

And what dialogue! Bennett has been writing dialogue for 50 years, from the Cambridge Review, through his countless plays, TV monologues and film scripts, along with the brief concentrated format of his diaries: the short form, and a pithy abbreviated style, are his thing and reading the prose is a delight:

‘We have a travelling library’, said the Queen to her husband that evening. ‘Comes every Wednesday.’
‘Jolly good. Wonders never cease.’
‘You remember Oklahoma?’
‘Yes. We saw it when we were engaged.’ Extraordinary to think of it, the dashing blond boy he had been.
‘Was that Cecil Beaton?’ said the Queen.
‘No idea. Never liked the fellow. Green shoes.’
‘Smelled delicious.’
‘What’s that?’
‘A book. I borrowed it.’
‘Dead, I suppose.’
‘Who?’
‘The Beaton fellow.’
‘Oh yes. Everyone’s dead.’
‘Good show, though.’
And he went off to bed glumly singing ‘Oh what a beautiful morning’ as the Queen opened her book.

Bennett’s books are small, domestic, homely. He is a national treasure because, under his hand, everything turns into Ratty and Moley: vide George III and his wife wonderfully domesticated as Mr and Mrs King; here, the Prime Minister is an easily confused figure of fun, not the war criminal Bennett probably thinks him.

As to the thoughts on reading, they are nicely phrased:

‘Of course’, said the Queen, ‘but briefing is not reading. 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.’ (page 22)

The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference: there was something lofty about literature. Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal… (Page 30)

But for all the crafted dialogue, the limpid style, the witticisms, the out-and-out jokes, the sly quotes and the knowing references to contemporary authors, ultimately, like all Bennett, we are left a little empty and unsatisfied. Is that it? I wanted more meat. The choice of the Queen as subject turns out not to be revolutionary or disruptive but to ensure the book is small in scope and intention. The reading bug makes her less mechanical in her brief chats with her subjects: she actually starts asking them what they’re reading, which throws the subjects and her staff; and then she realises she enjoys writing down the thoughts that reading prompts – maybe she should record them in a notebook or something?

That’s about it. The text, like the subject matter, feels controlled and safe and cosy. Like the proverbial Chinese meal, I enjoyed the flavours and colours as I read it; but an hour or two later I was hungry again.

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