Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Queen Off-Script: The Uncommon Reader

Reflections on THE UNCOMMON READER, a novella by Alan Bennett (Picador 2007).

Queen Elizabeth is an actress, in “the role of a lifetime.”    It’s easy to make fun of her simply by imagining her dropping character for a split second, muttering “Damn!” when she spills coffee in her lap, for example.  It’s even funnier to imagine her sitting stock-still as scalding coffee burns through her yellow skirt, carrying on in a strained voice:  “Milk?”

Alan Bennett, playwright, takes full advantage of comic possibility number two in his novella THE UNCOMMON READER.  His Queen has played her role so long, suppressing her own thoughts until she doesn’t have any.   Doing all for show, she goes where her handlers direct her, she says just what will make people feel noticed during her visit.

In Bennett’s story, she borrows a book to smooth an awkward encounter with a librarian.  Then, to follow through, she reads it.  

Thus begins a royal odyssey of the mind, and Elizabeth becomes first, a voracious reader, and then, a discerning reader.   The script she has followed all her life loses its interest for her.

The comedy grows as the handlers try to get her back on script.   Suddenly, she wants to share what she has discovered. She wants to read a poem about the Titanic for her annual Christmas message, and she asks the Archbishop to let her read a lesson.   She wants the President of France to tell her more about Jean Genet (whose name and reputation are unfamiliar to Le President).  

While Bennett has fun with this character he has created, he is not unkind to her.  His targets are the non-readers among her staff, among political leaders, and among her obtuse subjects.    As Bennett imagines it, the prime minister has an Iran policy, but knows nothing of the history of Persia.  And so on.
The book seems plausible.  Maybe the People and their Leaders need less news, less business, more books, and more poetry. I get what William Carlos Williams means in “Asphodel”:   

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.
But it’s best not to take it any more seriously than Bennett himself does.  It’s a lightweight book, easy to read before dinner.   He doesn’t really suggest that, say, the late Harold Pinter would have made a good PM, only that lives are enriched by the way that reading takes us into lives outside our own, and certainly all of us, the People and their Leaders, need enrichment.

(See my other reflections on this “Good Art Makes Bad Politics” and “A Moment of Silence for Harold Pinter)

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