Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Uncommon Reader: Alan Bennett

The old saying about ill winds came back to me when I was on a bus in central London. As is their wont, this bus decided to stop midway through its route. So all of us had to get down, at the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road. As I stepped on to the road on that rainy summer evening, I saw the Waterstones bookstore across the street, and decided to duck in there for a few minutes before chasing my next bus. It was in this unexpected visit to the bookstore that I picked up The Uncommon Reader.

A chance incident also provides the premise for the book. While tending to her dog, the Queen accidentally bumps into a travelling library. This sets her off on an unusual royal pursuit: Reading. What happens when the Queen of England starts reading books?

In a breezy 100-and-a-few pages of this ironic parable, Alan Bennett manages to weave in many threads in a simple linear narrative. Well, I suppose the premise lends itself rather effortlessly to a multitude of angles.

On writing, Alan Bennett has a lot to say. Some preachy, some funny, all believable. None more so when an unnamed Scottish writer is asked by the Queen where his inspiration comes from, and he replies fiercely,

“It doesn’t come, Your Majesty. You have to go out and fetch it.”

Oh well, the naiveté of the question suggests a dig on the royalty, except that there are more delicious examples of that.

Once I start a book I finish it. That was the way one was brought up. Books, bread and butter, mashed potato – one finishes what’s on one’s plate. That’s always been my philosophy.

Notice how upbringing becomes philosophy in the space of three sentences?

The less initiated may wonder why the royalty is not known for its reading, and why the courtiers of the queen worried about her reading even before it started affecting her royal duties. Well, the answer is provided rather brilliantly by the Queen herself as she reflects on reading.

The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference: there was something lofty about literature. Books did not care who was reading or whether one read them or not. All readers are equal, herself included.

Gasp! The queen equal to the Commoner?

As the Queen ploughs through a range of writers starting with the obscure Ivy Compton-Bennett and moving on to, among others (and in no particular order), Anita Brookner, Ian McEwan, A S Byatt, Dylan Thomas, Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, Salman Rushdie, Sylvia Plath, Henry James, WM Thackeray, TS Eliot, the Brontë sisters, Thomas Hardy, Marcel Proust, Samuel Pepys and Alice Munro, her reading style develops as well.

To begin with, it’s true, she read with trepidation and with some unease. The sheer endlessness of books outfaced her and she had not idea how to go on; there was no system to her reading, with one book leading to another, and often she had two or three on the go at the same time. The next stage had been when she started to make notes, after which she always read with a pencil in hand, not summarising what she read but simply transcribing passages that struck her. It was only after a year or so of reading and making notes that she tentatively ventured on the occasional thought of her own.

With a subject like this, you wouldn’t expect any other significant characters in the book – it’s perhaps even an element of the plot that the queen dominates every page of the book. However, two characters clearly had potential for a meatier characterisation: Norman Seakins, the kitchen-boy-turned-amanuensis and Sir Kevin Scatchard, the Queen’s private secretary. A lesser author might have succumbed to temptation and given these people more in the book.

The Queen’s transition from reading to writing is not surprising and therefore the book’s ending is a bit of a clichéd surprise, if you will pardon the oxymoron. But then that’s hardly the thrust of the book.

From many angles, this is an insightful and important book on reading and writing. Drop whatever you are reading just now and head for the store.

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