The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
|The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Jill Murphy|
|Summary: A more affectionate satire than you might expect, there are still some wonderful hatchet jobs together with the usual wonderful dialogue and multiple layers of jokes. There is a sharp analysis of the reader and a powerful defence of reading. Marvellous.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 128||Date: September 2007|
One day, when the Westminster mobile library van makes its customary stop at Buckingham Palace, it is overrun by escaped corgis. Hot in pursuit, the Queen feels obliged to borrow a book to compensate for the pandemonium they cause. She chooses an Ivy Compton-Burnett and it turns out to be a rather duff read. When she returns it, she strikes up a conversation with a kitchen assistant, the carrot-topped Norman, who recommends a Nancy Mitford. It's the start of something new for the Queen, whose horizons suddenly open. Guided at first by Norman, dubbed by ERII an amanuensis and by her consort a ginger stick-in-waiting, the Queen has a literary epiphany. She devours it all, from Nancy Mitford, through Thomas Hardy, Jean Genet, John Betjeman and well, just about everyone.
She starts to worry less about duty and more about reading, even hiding books under cushions on her way to the State Opening of Parliament. It sends the flunkeys into meltdown. Reading, to them, is subversive. They contrive ways to dissuade the monarch - they banish poor Norman to a creative writing course at East Anglia University and at one point, they even blow up poor Anita Brookner (well, her words, not her person) and claim they were foiling a terrorist attack. But her Majesty will not be beaten.
From a reader, to a reader. In this gem of a short story-come-novella, Alan Bennett, a famous bookworm himself, talks about what it is to read; the process, the feeling, the self-knowledge, the understanding of others, the clarification of hitherto unarticulated ideas. And of course, in her Maj, he has the perfect cipher. If the most famous, most elevated literary ignoramus in the country can be rejuvenated by books, then so can we all. Books don't discriminate, they are there for everyone, as the Queen discovers, Literature, she thought, was a commonwealth; letters a republic.
Of course, the narrative itself is a satire and there are delightfully spiteful and mocking caricatures of Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell and various Palace flunkeys. There are also single phrase definitions of all kinds - Proust for example should pull his socks up and the Queen feels Lauren Bacall got a better bite of the carrot. The plot is a simple one, the language precise and elegant, the dialogue as perfectly-observed as ever. You read Alan Bennett's one hundred and twenty-three little pages and it doesn't leave you wanting more; it leaves you wondering how on earth you manage to struggle through everybody else's padded wafflings. The Uncommon Reader, as everything Alan Bennett writes, is just perfect.
This Christmas, put a copy in everyone's stocking.
My thanks to the good people at Profile for sending the book.
Another funny, gorgeous and short story is Fup by Jim Dodge.
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Y'know, I tried to read something by him, or even 2 or 3 somethings and just didn't manage at all.
But this sounds brilliant, so I am tempted.
C.Brian Ross (Rev) said:
Having just listened, throughout the week, to Alan Bennett reading an abridged version of this book on Radio 4, it has gone right to the top of my "must read it for myself" list. An exemplary piece of literature.