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‘What does Your Majesty like?’

The Queen hesitated, because to tell the truth she wasn’t sure. She’d never taken much interest in reading. She read, of course, as one did, but liking books was something she left to other people. It was a hobby and it was in the nature of her job that she didn’t have hobbies. Jogging, growing roses, chess or rock-climbing, cake decoration, model aeroplanes. No. Hobbies involved preferences and preferences had to be avoided; preferences excluded people. One had no preferences. Her job was to take an interest, not to be interested herself. And besides, reading wasn’t doing. She was a doer.

The first time I visited London, a friend took me on a guided tour of sorts, taking in all the sights with a particular emphasis on Buckingham Palace. We stood outside the gates with the throng of tourists and my friend drew my attention to the flag on top of the building. “That means the Queen is in residence”, she said. At the time I expressed a great reluctance even to stand outside Buckingham Palace. I am a lapsed Irish nationalist, but every now and then I feel a flush of wounded racial pride. When I found myself looking up at that flag and all the pomp and ceremony of the guard patrols, the ornateness of the palace itself, I felt a surprising degree of sympathy for the royals. It all seemed so insular and removed from the life of modern London.

Over the course of my own lifetime their status as national symbols has become ever more precarious. How much worse must the decay of that esteem for the institution seem to the Queen herself, remembering how important her family’s refusal to leave London was regarded during the Blitz?

This perception of the increasing irrelevance of the role of the British Monarch is treated of in Alan Bennett‘s comic novel. The push and pull between the public and private lives of the Queen herself becomes rich material for a surprisingly thoughtful examination of the potential future importance of the Royal Family in British affairs.

It is also a book about how the love of reading can change one’s life.

Her Royal Highness has come to discover an interest in reading late in life. A fortuitous meeting with a member of her kitchen staff at a mobile library introduces her to a new kind of activity – reading for pleasure. The Queen’s life is dominated by her sense of duty, one which has isolated her from her own privileged existence. She has been to so many places, met so many great minds and leaders – and yet conversation has been limited to polite chit-chat, her experiences stage-managed for public consumption.

Norman the former kitchen staff becomes her ‘amanuensis’, a guide to a wider world of letters. Amusingly she chooses the works of Nancy Mitford as her introduction to literature – after all, she knew the family – and from there often finds herself reading the words of authors she has met, even knighted, but sadly had nothing to say to. Norman encourages her interests and quickly comes to be seen as a nuisance by the staff at the palace, especially Sir Kevin who has taken on the role of making HRH more appealing to the general public. The Queen’s new interest has inspired her to inquire more into the lives of the people she meets, a topic of conversation they are often unprepared for. Even the Prime Minister of France finds himself nonplussed when she asks his opinion on Jean Genet. Obviously the books – and Norman – will have to go.

Fans of the recent Oscar smash The King’s Speech will find much to enjoy here, although Bennett has bigger fish to fry. As I have mentioned above, one of the fascinating threads in this novel is how the Queen’s new found interest causes her to question much of the tired and moribund traditions controlling her life. The cynicism of government ministers towards this newly invigorated Queen drives the plot to a fascinating climax. With some unexpected help from Marcel Proust.

Of course, Bennett’s optimism of how this scenario of a suddenly engaged Monarch would play out must contend with the actual behaviour of the current heir to the throne, who thinks nothing of using his position to interfere with government policies on issues that interest him.

Witty, humane and even somewhat radical in a genteel sort of way, which is only fitting.

When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect.

This is one of the most famous opening lines of any story, not that I imagine had he lived to see it, its fame would provide any comfort to that master of shame and self-loathing Franz Kafka.

I always think of that line from Annie Hall “sex with you is a kafkaesque experience.[…] I mean that as a compliment”. Once featured as a punchline by that *other* king of neurosis, you knew the author had made it. Is it not appropriate that Kafka, so cleverly excising themes of personal failure enjoys a degree of celebrity that is entirely post-humous? What I enjoy most about his writing is the sly hints of a humour peeking through the quotidien miseries of his characters.

I previously had read The Castle, a book which filled me with a life-long fear of bureaucracy, only for me to become a bureaucrat; and Lettre au Père which gives some insight into Kafka’s relationship with his father, his resentment of authority expressed in his stories. Metamorphosis is another classic texts that for one reason or another I have avoided for years. Perhaps because of a fear of overfamiliarity. The story even featured in The Producers, one of my favourite films, as an off-hand joke.

This collection features a number of Kafka’s stories, many unpublished in his lifetime. In The Penal Colony is a ready example of the writer’s horror at the domination horror, with an ending that is pure grand guignol. The Aeroplanes At Brescia feels like an odd combination of a Proustian social situation drama and the advancing machine age, represented in literary terms by the Ballardian emphasis on the sensuality of objects. Proust, Ballard and Kafka – all writers whose legacy is so fixated on singular thematic concerns that their names have become descriptive terms.

Metamorphosis itself is exemplary of Kafka’s concerns. Gregor Samsa within moments of waking from his ‘troubled dreams‘ immediately begins to fret about his job prospects, the petty difficulties that fill his life and his responsibility to his family. As the chief earner for his elderly parents and young sister, a delicate seventeen-year-old who enjoys playing the violin and attending parties. Gregor, it is clear, is carrying his own family, surrendering up his earnings to them.

When he fails to emerge from his locked bedroom, his family’s anxiety grows. They demand he have his breakfast and take the early train to work. Gregor is a travelling salesman whose livelihood depends on commission. Then, disaster of disasters, the chief clerk of his firm arrives. With his parents now panicking, Gregor attempts to assure them that he is fine, but his voice is transformed into a series of bestial squeaks. When he finally emerges his boss flees in terror. Gregor is incapable of recognizing his own monstrosity, his attempts to calm the horrified members of his family and the clerk resemble a threatening advance.

What follows is a slow and painful descent into absolute helplessness. Gregor becomes completely dependent on their family, with all signs of his previous humanity completely vanished. Kafka brilliantly evokes a crippling sense of guilt on the part of his protagonist. His loss of power creates a vacuum in the family which his father quickly fills. This reversal of fortunes has a oddly quirky sense of humour about it. The contemporary sense of casual absurdism in science fiction no doubt owes a large debt to Kafka.

I was quite taken with the deliberate parlaying of unconscious desires and resentment in the author’s sentences. In total what emerges is a brilliantly structured fable of repression given full vent by some incomprehensible twist of fate.

The author is again visibly starting to amuse himself – nay, we’ll use the word – to mystify us.

So I woke up this morning feeling tired, wondering what I would read next.  Then Mr Postman arrived with a package from Canada. Wouldn’t you know it; it was a book from Stacey over at the excellent Word of Mouse blog. Hey, if anyone else out there wants to send me on a book, that would be just lovely.

This book features a series of parodies of different authors by Proust, describing the circumstances of a scandal that involved the famously neurotic writer himself. Henri Lemoine was a scam-artist who claimed to be able synthesize diamonds from coal. Proust himself was conned, but famously the De Beers Diamond Mines were also taken in by the scam.

For the purpose of his parody, Proust has the likes of Henri Balzac and Gustave Flaubert respond to the scandal, as well as a critical review by Sainte-Beuve of the latter’s effort published in The Constitutional. With each example chosen the parody extends beyond merely stylistic quirks of the respective authors, as the short chapters focus on different aspects of Lemoine’s deception.

I have never read À la recherche du temps perdu, having previously only come close when studying Chien de Printemps by Patrick Modiano, as well as that silly book How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton. As such my impression of him was that his writing was structured around endless digressions into memory and self-consciousness. The Lemoine Affair proves that I was missing the point entirely.

The authors selected by Proust are not merely chosen to display his gift for parody, but to demonstrate his insight into their importance in French culture. What if this scandal had demanded that all the bright lights of the literary world weigh in on what had happened? What if Lemoine’s trickery had led to Proust’s own suicide? In imagining this scenario he removes himself from the ranks of literary contenders vying to write the definitive account of the affair. Yes, and by association, about Proust’s own shame in being taken in by the scam. In this as in everything else, the central point of concern is Marcel Proust himself. This is interesting as Sainte-Beuve for one is known for having argued with Wilde on the point about all authors revealing their inner selves through their fiction.

Balzac in particular fairs poorly as a target of gentle ridicule. ‘His’, section of the novella concerns itself with aristocratic gossip and badinage, right up until the end, when it seems the author suddenly remembers to deliver a screed of exposition on Lemoine. Flaubert’s realism is also dismissed as mere stylistic prudery and Michelet delivers pedantry about the diamond industry itself. Again and again we see the degree to which Proust prided himself not only as a writer capable of translating his thoughts onto the page with exacting detail, but as a critic of literature itself. Failing to revenge himself upon Lemoine, he retreats to the world of writing, where he holds a stronger position.

I enjoyed this book for its insight into Proust and the taste it gave for his masterpiece. While I do not intend to plough through that sequence of novels for this site, I am looking forward to reading them soon.

Thanks again to Stacey for the lovely gift.

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