Bennett brings the Queen to ( real) life
The Uncommon Reader By Alan Bennett Profile, 128pp, $ 24.95
SINCE The History Boys was transferred first to Broadway and then to the cinema, Alan Bennett has made the journey from English national treasure to international superstar. The dustwrapper of this droll novella spends two lines on the British gongs that play picked up, and more than five lines on the American awards. The catalogue of glory reaches a final climax: he was named Reader’s Digest author of the year in 2005. I imagine that would have made Bennett smile when the proofs came through. It’s the award that would make the most sense to one of Bennett’s characters, the one that most fits into his distinctive world.
The Queen, too, definitely fits in. The conceit of the story is that, while walking her corgis around the back of the palace, she chances on the City of Westminster travelling library van parked outside the kitchens. Curious, she pokes her head in and meets a kitchen boy called Norman Seakins, gawky, gay and ginger- haired. ‘‘ Saw this extraordinary creature this afternoon,’’ the Duke of Edinburgh later remarks. ‘‘ Ginger- stick- inwaiting.’’ In as much as the Queen can fall into conversation with a normal person, she falls into conversation with Norman. She takes a book away, then another and another. She starts, late in life and with growing enthusiasm, to read. Norman, promoted from the kitchen, becomes her literary adviser.
The Uncommon Reader plays, in its light way, with the relationship between public and the private life, the Queen, as conceived by Bennett in the early stages of the book, being an extreme example of someone who more or less only has a public life. As she reads more, it occurs to her that other people have inner lives. She becomes interested in them. She ceases to ask her subjects on walkabouts whether they have come far and what the traffic’s like, and instead nonplusses them by asking about books. She wants to quote poetry in her Christmas message and notices how badly written is her address at the state opening of parliament. She’s introduced to Alice Munro and becomes a fan.
If he pushed this angle further, Bennett would risk being preachy, but really he’s playing it for laughs. He’s very funny, for example, on how the Queen struggles with social comedy: There was such a chasm between the monarch and even her grandest subject that the social differences beyond that were somewhat telescoped . . . To begin with at any rate, Jane Austen was practically a work of entomology, the characters not quite ants but seeming to the royal reader so much alike as to require a microscope. From reading follows writing. Her Majesty starts to scribble in a notebook. She makes forthright literary- critical sallies that, you strongly suspect, stand in a sideways relationship to Bennett’s own tastes. ‘‘ Am I alone,’’ she wonders, ‘‘ in wanting to give Henry James a good talking- to? I can see why Dr Johnson is well thought of, but surely much of it is opinionated rubbish.’’ She starts to pique herself a little on her aphorisms: ‘‘ Etiquette may be bad but embarrassment is worse.’’ All of this — not the aphorisms, but the developing of an inner life — is greeted with suspicion. Philip gets grumpy. Some courtiers worry that reading is elitist. Others think she has Alzheimer’s: ‘‘ Thus it was that the dawn of sensibility was mistaken for the onset of senility.’’
The Prime Minister insists it be discouraged. Books go missing when the Queen puts them down, and are claimed to have been exploded by the bomb squad. Annoyed by the preferment of young Norman, the Queen’s go- ahead private secretary, the splendidly named Sir Kevin, starts scheming to bring him down.
There’s not much to the plot. There’s not much to the book, in the best way. It’s partly a sly reading list, partly the story of a friendship, and mostly a series of lovely jokes.
This is not a book that is particularly interested in telling us what the Queen is like. Fair enough; it’s fiction. It is not a book, either, that is particularly interested in imagining plausibly what the Queen may be like. Rather, it vamps round the stock ideas, available to any television sketch show or student revue, of what she is like. The difference with The Uncommon Reader is in the sentences. What distinguishes this, and most of Bennett’s work, is not its perceptiveness about the world or its imaginative achievement, but its droll and exact stylistic command.
The effect is to make him the literary equivalent of a cartoonist. He somehow appropriates the cliche of the Queen and fits it into the
Bennett universe. What she’s like, in that universe, is Alan Bennett. At one point, addressing the Privy Council, she says: One has waded through excrement and gore; to be Queen, I have often thought, the one essential item of equipment a pair of thigh- length boots.’’ That construction — the trailing qualifying clause with the verb to be elided — is a hallmark of Bennett’s style. Two paragraphs later she says: Sometimes one has felt like a scented candle, sent in to perfume a regime, or aerate a policy, monarchy these days just a government- issue deodorant.’’
I remember noticing this process of Bennettisa-
‘‘ tion most starkly in his memoir of his cancer, collected in . It was called
, supposedly because this was image Bennett’s colonoscopist hit on to explain to him how big his tumour was.
How many rock buns do you see around the place these days? How many medical professionals do you imagine would find the rock bun their first metaphorical resort when announcing a potentially fatal condition to a patient? And what are the chances that one of those would happen to be dancing attendance on a man whose imaginative world happens to be infested by
Untold Stories Average Rock Bun
An powdery old maids and northern teashops? It would be impertinent, both in its sense of irrelevance and of insolence, to say that this story was untrue. But it would be truthful to say that I didn’t believe it. It was too good, too perfectly Bennettish, to sound true.
In fiction and nonfiction alike, every sentence of Alan Bennett is Bennettish; every character talks in a Bennettish way. You’re always aware of the shaping intelligence: amused, interested in banality, shepherding the bathos, slipping the downbeat joke into the afterthought. You’re never in danger of encountering realism.
I do not mean this as a slight. Many great comic writers end up being all about themselves. The world is the occasion for an exercise in style. Everyone in P. G. Wodehouse talks like a Wodehouse character; likewise Damon Runyon and Kingsley Amis; less so, but occasionally, Evelyn Waugh.
The way Bennett burlesques the world is so entirely his own that by now there should be a word to identify it. Forget making him a peer of the realm. Let’s give him his own adjective. Bennettesque is ugly, and Bennettish, though I’ve been forced to use it for clarity, sounds altogether too querulous. The Queen is poised to inherit Elizabethan. I think Alan would do.
Illustration: David Follett