Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

A Week in Books
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The Independent Culture

Dreams about the Queen, that staple of the national unconscious (or so I'm told), now have their counterpart in the consoling fictions which let the monarch quietly steal a march on premiers and courtiers. Alan Bennett, who cuts a fairly regal figure himself these days, snuck inside the palace of art two decades before Peter Morgan and Stephen Frears (with The Queen) thanks to his sly comic drama prompted by the imagined dialogues of the curator-spy Anthony Blunt with his royal employer, A Question of Attribution. A few years later, Sue Townsend sent her dethroned but feisty Windsors to live on a sink estate in The Queen and I.

Bennett clearly had a ball ventriloquising Her Majesty, and in 2006 returned to royal masquerade with his story The Uncommon Reader – first written for the London Review of Books, but now robed in Profile and Faber's hard covers (£10.99). Critics have curtsied deeply before this paean to the power of books. His comic parable invents a queen who, approaching 80, begins to devour serious literature, from EM Forster to Alice Munro and Marcel Proust. She becomes a much more reflective head of state, and person, in the process.

We can all join Bennett in indulgent chortles at the idea of a monarch whose late-onset bibliomania runs up against the unlettered ignorance of French presidents ("such a let-down on the Genet front") or private secretaries who advise reading "ethnic classics" ("Which ethnic classics did you have in mind, Sir Kevin? The Kama Sutra?"). Yet behind the welcome given to The Uncommon Reader lies a cosy assumption that the actual woman who inspired this fantasia would never enjoy anything more taxing than a Dick Francis racing thriller.

Can we be so sure? As it happens, almost every year the Queen meets the overall winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize and – to my certain knowledge – chats about the winning book. Victors have included JM Coetzee, Peter Carey, Louis de Bernières, Andrea Levy and (this year) Lloyd Jones with Mister Pip. Bennett raises a chuckle by having the Queen read Vikram Seth – but Seth won the CWP, too. Read or skimmed, we do know that a selection of the finest English-language fiction has been finding its way onto the royal table.

In Bennett's finale, the Queen proclaims her plan to move from reading to writing: not just any old autobiography, but a nuanced memoir that might offer "a tangential history of the times". In fiction (if not in reality) we won't have to wait long for her testimony. Emma Tennant's novel The Autobiography of the Queen will be published by Arcadia next month, with its disgruntled monarch fleeing to the Caribbean to escape taxes and scandals.

As the Diana farrago proves, the blank screen of monarchy gives free rein to tale-spinners of all kinds. Our elective dictatorship has also attracted a better class of yarn of late, with TV drama such as The Deal and pointed political cameos in novels by the likes of Jonathan Coe and Ian McEwan – not to mention Robert Harris's forthcoming story of a self-justifying retired PM, The Ghost. In the US, Presidential fictions never cease, from Primary Colors to The West Wing, while France is currently enthralled by the non-fiction novel that Yasmina Reza has wrought from her pre-election stint shadowing Nicolas Sarkozy, L'aube le soir ou la nuit.

So, Bennett's literary dream of a queen has no end of imaginary peers. There are, however, gaps in the record, in particular when it comes to an ancient office that guards its secrets with a ferocity that makes the Windsors' security look like a sieve: the Papacy. We have yet to see a definitive novel about the still-enigmatic career of John Paul II. Perhaps Umberto Eco has time on his hands.