Alan Bennett could easily become a habit. In the past couple of weeks two of his books have brought pages of laughter and pleasurable reading, and here I am scanning the list looking for a third. An earlier post several days ago, described Bennett as familiar to many as a playwright. Aware of his success in that field, I am only now coming to know him for his long stories and novellas. Completely charmed by two stories published together under the title Smut, a small book that had me laughing on every page, I read the last page and without missing a beat clicked on Amazon looking for more Alan Bennett. Having now raced through Bennett’s 2007 novella The Uncommon Reader, once again my hand moved automatically to the online buy-a-book button. I sit here impatient for the next delivery.
Alan Bennett has been described by more than one critic as among England’s most celebrated writers. He has written nineteen plays that have been produced on the West End and Broadway, sixteen television plays, six screenplays, three books of autobiography and six books of fiction in the form of stories and novellas. There seems no end to the stories of his prodigious imagination or the ink in his pen, and let us all be thankful for that. The Uncommon Reader was only the second Bennett book in my experience and it may well have been the best of all possible choices.
One day while trying to corral her romping corgis, the Queen comes upon a mobile library parked near Buckingham Palace. Unfamiliar with such a thing, she investigates and after speaking with the driver-librarian and feeling it would be unkind to do less, she borrows a book. From this chance encounter she discovers a previously unknown joy of reading, and in no time begins to read widely and intelligently. Working her way through a range of popular titles, histories and classics her view of the world gradually begins to change, and with increasing impatience in her role as monarch she begins to question the prescribed order of her life. The palace staff is alarmed, puzzled over the changes in their Queen, seeing her as having grown dotty and assuming it is a sign of Alzheimer’s—all leading to comic consequences.
The book is of course a fairy tale, but one that captures the reader on its first page with Bennett’s knack for dialogue and his ability to find polite humor in someone as staid as the Queen of England. Through Mr Bennett’s eye humor is of the humane brand, never rude or insulting, and his uncommon protagonist Queen comes across as a thoroughly likeable woman. Basically a witty meditation on the subversive pleasures of reading, The Uncommon Reader is sharp-witted amusement.