Posts Tagged ‘Helene Hanff’

One of my most beloved books about books, 84 Charing Cross Road, has made India Knight’s list of ultimate comfort reads.  See the whole list here.  

Thanks to Kerry at Pickle Me This for the link.  (Kerry has also gotten me hooked on Barbara Pym, whose entire oeuvre is also on the list of comfort reads.  I’ve just devoured Excellent Women.  Any suggestions of your favourite Pym?  Any books about her and/or her contemporaries?)

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Q’s Legacy

by Helene Hanff

Q’s Legacy is the final installment in the Hanff trilogy of books about books.  Part memoir, part journal, it is—stick with me here—a book about a book about books.  It begins as a memoir of her introduction to the great books through the published lectures of Sir Arthur Quiller Couch, the eponymous Q, at whose prompting she bought so many of her treasured books from Marks and Co.  This is the back story to the 84, Charing Cross Road phenomenon.  She brings the reader up to the moment when she decided to make a book out of her correspondence with Frank Doel at Marks and Co.  She then records her experiences with fan mail, fan phone calls (!) and observing the transformation of her book into television and stage adaptations.

Like Hanff, I was introduced to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch as an undergraduate student.  I met him in the final pages of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.  He is one of the few men she cites without rancour, and she cites his On the Art of Writing in order to underscore the importance of money to a writer: “we may prate of democracy, but actually, a poor child in England has little more hope than had the son of an Athenian slave to be emancipated into that intellectual freedom of which great writings are born.”  Woolf uses him as the punctuating voice for her argument about the significance to the aspiring woman writer of the five hundred pounds a year with which to make use of the room of her own.

The link between Woolf and Hanff resonated often for me.  In this memoir, Helene continues to expose the penury of the writing life.  As she has in the other books, she tells us exactly how much she makes for her writing.  She gives us the appropriate context in which to understand her joy at staying in an apartment in London that has more than one room.  Helene did have a room of her own in New York, but it was just the one room.  (That room, her “palace,” is so lovingly described in the first chapter that I want to reproduce the passage whole.)

Hanff’s memoir begins with the financial necessity of leaving Temple University after just one year.  It is the Depression, and her scholarship has been revoked: “This was a great blow to my parents, but a secret relief to me.  In my year at Temple, I’d learned nothing about English literature or the art of writing, which was all I wanted to learn.  In the fall I would be free to find my own teacher.”

She heads off to the library, asks where she can find college textbooks on English literature, and is faced with a double aisle of bookshelves: “Standing there, staring at the long shelves crammed with books, I felt myself relax and I was suddenly at peace.  I knew who I was and what I was doing there, and I had all day to find what I was looking for.”

I have long envied Helene Hanff her ability to turn a phrase, but what I wouldn’t give to have had that kind of self-possession before turning 20.

She meets Q in the stacks after an epic search.  Beginning with A, she searches the whole alphabet, looking for a teacher with the right credentials and the proper scope of the task at hand.  How easily her search could have been abandoned! 

She finds him, she finds him funny and she finds that he has the right credentials (Oxford-and-Cambridge), so she takes home On the Art of Writing and the first volume of his lectures. 

So begins her education from Q, and his legacy is a great one: “I owed him whatever literary education I had—and enough training in the craft of writing to have kept myself alive by it through the sixties.  I owed him my shelves full of books—and my choice of Marks & Co. over the … New York bookstores.  Wherefore I owed him 84, Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street—and the hundreds if not thousands of friends both books had brought me in the mail and over the phone.  It was an awesome legacy for a Cambridge don to have conferred on a lowly pupil he never knew existed three thousand miles away.” 

Q is also famously responsible for the phrase “murder your darlings,” which is something I’ve had occasion to say often of late.  I invoke the phrase when I have a sentence or a paragraph that I need but am reluctant to strike, and I have always thought of it on that small scale.  Helene was also familiar with his particular brand of violence, but she commits it on a far bigger scale.  She reports at least half a dozen acts of murder: entire books that go into the incinerator because they do not work.  Imagine putting an entire book into the fire.  Six times.  Murder your darlings, indeed. 

I rather like how Helene’s beloved Q stands in counterpoint to Woolf’s despised Professor von X, author of The Mental, Moral, and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex: “His expression suggested that he was labouring under some emotion that made him jab his pen on the paper as if he were killing some noxious insect as he wrote, but even when he had killed it that did not satisfy him; he must go on killing it; and even so, some cause for anger and irritation remained.”  In the absence of gods, I find my mind filled with incarnations of other judges, and I have had the image of that wicked nib engraved in my mind since I read Woolf’s description of him. 

Helene stopped her search through the alphabet when she found Q, but I like to think that she would have been able to make quick work of von X had she ever had the occasion to meet him.

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The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff

I regret to report my (foreseeable?) disappointment in the sequel to 84, Charing Cross Road.  Sigh. 

I read this one in the library (Yes! The library!), and I read it in one sitting.  Sadly, the single-sitting aspect was as if to get it over with.  I hate to admit that, and I am in a funk about not loving it because I so wanted to have another head-over-heels in love with a book about books experience. 

Isn’t it always the way?  You have to be very careful about what you read after reading a book that knocks your socks off. 

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street is Helene Hanff’s diary of her visit to London in 1971.  84, Charing Cross Road has been published in America, the fan mail has been pouring in, André Deutsch has bought the rights for English publication, and she is off to London for the launch in England.  She meets her English publisher, she meets Nora and Sheila Doel and a host of other friends of friends and strangers who loved the book and who want to show their England off to her. 

There is a lot of her characteristic wit and self-deprecation.  There is the American frustration with an English excuse for a shower.  There is an abundance of strawberries and cream and English roses.  There is the warm and fuzzy feeling of her meeting fans who want to wine and dine her.  There is the satisfaction of narrative closure, the end of the story of her endlessly deferred trip to her beloved London.  But there is none of the magic of the previous book.  Perhaps it is a question of form.  Without others’ voices, it somehow does not take off.

She writes that she wants to put “Euphoria” as the return address on her postcards home, but she also describes how taxing it can be to live up to her fans’ expectations, how exhausting it is to be with people all day: “People unhinge me.” 

It occurs to me that Helene herself shared my sense of anti-climax.  Here she is, finally, in the London with which she has fallen in love through books: “All my life I’ve wanted to see London. … Sometimes, at home in the evening, reading a casual description of London by Hazlit or Leigh Hunt, I’d put the book down suddenly, engulfed by a wave of longing that was like homesickness.”  How can the real thing possibly measure up? 

It does, of course, in many ways, but I sensed throughout her negotiating her experiences, not simply having them.  She must be polite to her many hosts, and she must work at making the trip measure up to expectation. 

My reading experience, too, was a negotiation.  There was the satisfaction of narrative closure, but it simply could not compensate for the missing elements: the immediacy of her pleasure in exchanging letters with Frank, and her palpable love of books and reading.

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84, Charing Cross Road

Helene Hanff

Toronto: Penguin, 1990.

Originally published in 1970 by Grossman.

If Susan Hill is the inspiration for my curtailing my spending on books, Helene Hanff is the author whose book persuaded me that a cheap paperback would not honour the excellence of the story told within its flimsy covers.  This is a work that deserves to be read in a book that will sit comfortably in the hand, whose pages are a heavy stock and whose type appears crisp and properly centred on the page. 

The edition I read could boast none of these things, but the book does awaken in me all kinds of strong emotion.  I adore this book.  I’m gushing, I know, and I have said that I hate gushing, but this is a book that affirms all of my book-loving perspectives of the world.  I have read it three times now, and I still laugh out loud and weep fat, hot tears and marvel at how skillfully told the story is.

84, Charing Cross Road is a collection of letters exchanged over twenty years between the author, Helene Hanff, a part-time script-writer and full-time book-lover in New York, and Frank Doel, who is the chief book buyer for Marks and Co, booksellers at 84, Charing Cross Road, London.  Frustrated with the quality of the books to be had in America, Helene writes to the gentlemen at Marks and Co. in October of 1949, and sends a list of her “most pressing problems.”  So begins the correspondence between Helene and Frank.

When Nick Bantock created the Griffin and Sabine series, he had absolutely the right idea with the form of the book: put the characters’ letters into actual envelopes for the reader to open.  It’s exciting to open a letter, especially one that is eagerly anticipated, and these letters have excitement, humour, and great characters in spades.

The characterization is remarkably done.  Helene gets more and more “outrageous,” and it’s a persona she admits to being able to adopt from “a safe 3000 miles away.”  Her first letter, addressed to the “Gentlemen” at Marks and Co., includes a list, on which is a request for a Latin Bible: “If you have clean secondhand copies of any of the books on the list, for no more than $5.00 each, will you consider this a purchase order and send them to me?”  So far, so formal.

Six weeks later she has rather relaxed her tone.  She writes a letter upon receipt of said Bible, sans salutation, which begins, “WHAT KIND OF BLACK PROTESTANT BIBLE IS THIS?  Kindly inform the Church of England that they have loused up the most beautiful prose ever written, whoever told them to tinker with the Vulgate Latin?  They’ll burn for it, you mark my words.  It’s nothing to me, I’m Jewish myself. …  Well, the hell with it.  I’ve been using my Latin teacher’s Vulgate, what I imagine I’ll do is just not give it back till you find me one of my own.” 

If Helene’s change of tone is precipitous, Frank’s is glacial.  Very, very slowly his English reserve melts away, and three years into their correspondence he finally drops the “Miss” from his salutation.  (I worry that even telling you this might be a plot spoiler….  I know I kept waiting for it to happen.)  He relaxes into a very sly, very dry humour.  After Helene has a similar outburst about a poor translation of Catullus, he writes, “I am sorry to have been so long in writing, but until today we have had nothing to send you and I thought it best to wait a decent interval after the Catullus incident before writing.”[1]

As Helene begins to include letters from other members of the staff, her friends, and Frank’s wife and children, the cast of characters expands and the world of the bookstore opens. 

Several times, Helene sends them parcels of food that are still rationed in post-war England, and they send her books in gratitude.  Here is her response to one of those gifts: “The Book-Lovers’ Anthology stepped out of its wrappings, all gold-embossed leather and gold-tipped pages, easily the most beautiful book I own….  It looks too new and pristine ever to have been read by anyone else, but it has been; it keeps falling open at the most delightful places as the ghost of its former owner points me to things I have never read before.  Like Tristram Shandy’s description of his father’s remarkable library which ‘contained every book and treatise which had ever been wrote upon the subject of great noses.’  (Frank!  Go find me Tristram Shandy!)”[2]

Who knew that the epistolary form could work so well as non-fiction?  Of course, there are Ranier Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, and Fay Weldon’s Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen, but in both cases, there is only one voice, and it is rather didactic.  One of the things I love most about Helene’s persona is how self-deprecating she is.  She’s the perfect brash Yank foil to Frank’s English reserve. 

Closer to home, and also didactic, there are Yann Martel’s letters to Stephen Harper, collected in What is Stephen Harper Reading? but the correspondence is, let’s face it, a bit one-sided.  (He sends Harper a book every two weeks with a cover letter about its cultural value in response to the diminishing funding for the arts in Canada.)  As entertaining as Martel’s idea is, the man can only speak into a vacuum for so long.  If you want bedtime reading to put you to sleep, try reading the handful of bland responses Martel gets from the PM’s office.  Yawn.  (You can send your books to me, Yann.  I don’t know if you’ve heard, but I’m not buying any books for myself this year.)

Please suggest other gems of epistolary nonfiction or memoir. 

In the mean time, I am going to read everything by Hanff that I can get my hands on.[3] 

[1] The book has been adapted for the stage and the big and small screens.  The movie starred Anne Bancroft, Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench as Frank’s wife.  I happened to stumble upon it on t.v. over the Christmas holidays and caught the last three minutes.  Of course, since then, I see the actors when I read the book.  Will I ever read Pride and Prejudice  without seeing Colin Firth?  Still undecided about whether this is a good or a bad thing….

[2] Ted!  Go find me The Book-Lover’s Anthology

[3] The observant reader may be wondering how I can manage to quote from a book that I did not buy.  The logical answer is that I got it out of the library, and, indeed I did check out The Helene Hanff Omnibus  today, a book too heavy to truly enjoy curling up with.  Alas, I quote from the flimsy paperback, which I broke down and bought last Fall when I wanted another fix of the book.  So, all three readings have been from the flimsy paperback.  I hold out hope for a future reading from an edition that fills all my requirements for tactile and visual pleasure.

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Here is my latest, a version of which appeared in The Yummy Mummy Club.

On Buying and Not Buying Books
by Nathalie Foy
December 2, 2009

Susan Hill, an English writer, has recently published a book – Howards End is on the Landing – that chronicles her year of reading and re-reading the books she already owns and (Oh!  Most heroic of feats!) not buying any new books.  What kind of a position does a writer find herself in when she writes a book about not buying books? I hope to find out soon. I’ve just bought it.

I buy a lot of books. I buy more books than I can read. I also buy more pens and lipsticks than I will ever need. I already own more of the latter than I can use in a lifetime, but that doesn’t stop me. What’s more, I’ve already found the perfect one of each, the perfect bold blue-black gel pen that glides effortlessly over every writing surface, the perfect shade of matte red lipstick that does not bleed, flake or dry out. I keep looking and buying just in case there’s something better out there to discover and love.  This is not a matter of infidelity, you understand; it’s simply a matter of enthusiasm. I can always gleefully make the purchase and say, “At least it’s not shoes!”

With books, naturally, there is no sense of finding the perfect one and stopping.  The purchase of one book frequently leads to the purchase of more. And more and more. I discover A Life’s Work by Rachel Cusk, and I want to read everything that she has ever written. The Globe and Mail declares Freddy the Pig to be a lost classic, and I rush off to order it for the kids. (Their library cards are well-used, and we go through dozens of library books a week, but I only end up paying fines for my overdue piles of books from the library.)  My husband once made the mistake of telling me he’d like a book about maps for Christmas. I’ve now bought him about two dozen. I try to sate the book-buying urge by putting books on a wish list. List-making is a vicarious form of shopping, I try to tell myself, and I have several lists on the go. I usually forget or ignore them when I go into a bookstore, though.

One day this summer, I actually took the trouble to print off my wish list and took it to the bookstore. My three beloved boys were someone else’s responsibility for the morning, and I had a clear stretch of time to indulge myself. I found Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road wedged tightly between two other volumes in the literary criticism section. It is a collection of letters exchanged over 20 years (1949-1969) between the author, a book-lover in New York, and booksellers in London who have what she can’t get at home. The letters evolve from transactions of mere commerce to animated and personal exchanges, filled with wit and emotion.

Helene buys a lot of books in those 20 years. In the age before Amazon and Paypal, she sends off lists of her “most pressing items” with the rough amount due in dollar bills. It’s a slim little book. This was a rather flimsy paperback edition printed on inferior paper. I opened it anyway. I had run some errands before heading to the bookstore, and my bags (no pens, no lipsticks) were strewn on the floor and blocking the empty aisle. Soon, I was too.

I sat propped against the shelves, splay-legged, and gobbled it up, cover-to-cover. As I approached the end of the book, fat tears began rolling down my cheeks. There were great acts of generosity, which always make me mist up, and tragedy had struck, but it was more than that. I wept for joy that there was such a story to be told. I wept because there was such love for books in the world. I wept for a self that could never lay claim to being that big a book lover, for a self who sometimes wants to possess more than read. I also wept for joy that I was alone, unburdened of the responsibility of motherhood for a few hours, and I had a pocket of time to myself. I wept to feel so grateful for the solitude.

I fell in love with and did not buy the book. I wanted an edition that would be a testament to how precious that reading experience was. The hunt is on for a good first edition.

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