Friday, June 05, 2015

Helene Hanff and the Bookish Life

It's probably not true anymore that any person who loves reading has even heard of 84, Charing Cross Road. Even the movie is more than twenty-five years old, and the book almost twenty years older than that. Even worse, the idea of writing letters is anachronistic enough, but writing letters to buy books? And having those books show up several months later? That's clearly not a world we live in anymore.

But that was Helene Hanff's world: she lived to 1997, but, if I can judge her at all from her books, she never touched the Internet and probably loathed personal computers. She was always grumpy and opinionated and much more comfortable looking backward than forward.

Perhaps I should explain, since I led off by saying I don't expect you to know what I'm talking about. Hanff was a jobbing New York writer -- a failed career as a playwright in the late '30s and '40s, somewhat more success writing for TV in the '50s, various mostly work-for-hire projects through the '60s, and then an unlikely late-life flourishing with a few slim books about books. [1] She was never particularly famous, and writing slim books-about-books once or twice a decade is no way to get rich -- and barely a way to keep the rent paid and the larder full. But she epitomized a certain relationship to books and the bookish life -- yearning, demanding, thoughtful, searching, inquisitive -- that a lot of us saw ourselves in.

And the book that made her famous -- well, as famous as she ever was -- was 84, Charing Cross Road. Hanff was an autodidact, as grumpy literary types often are, and so there were books she wanted that she couldn't find easily where she was. (This is the part that will be the most alien to the modern reader.) So she wrote to a random antiquarian bookstore in London, Marks & Co., because she happened to see their ad.

That was in 1949; Hanff kept writing to buy books for the next twenty years, interspersed with her nosy New Yorker's questions about the lives of the staffers and complaints about translations and random care packages of things rationed in England at the time. [2] She mostly corresponded with Frank Doel, who ran the mail-order side of the business, but also was in touch with Doel's wife and several other staffers over that period. And the Marks & Co. folks kept asking when Hanff would come to visit London, and the answer was always as soon as the money was there -- and Hanff had enough small crises over the year (mostly medical, I think) that the money was never quite there and always looked like it would be there next year.

And then Frank Doel died, suddenly, in late December of 1968. That galvanized Hanff to -- well, not to go to London, because the money still wasn't there. But it got her to assemble a lot of those letters from twenty years -- clearly not all of them; there are obvious gaps and probably twice as many unobvious ones -- from Doel and Hanff and all of the others. Hanff edited the lot, adding nothing to them, and the result was 84, Charing Cross Road, published in 1971 by Andre Deutsch in London.

Because of the book, though, she got that first trip to London, for six weeks in the summer of 1971, just missing her own publication date but arriving to publicize and to finally meet the people and see the places she had been thinking about for so long. And, having figured out how this book business works, Hanff turned the London trip into its own book, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street.

The two books haven't been published together, as far as I've seen, which strikes me as a lost opportunity. Duchess is so clearly a sequel to and elaboration of Road that the two belong together. And they're both short enough that the resulting book wouldn't come close to breaking three hundred pages.

The best pleasures of both books are in Hanff's voice, brash and pushy and neurotic and self-deprecating. (For all that she was raised in Philadelphia, Hanff was the epitome of a New Yorker.) These are books-about-books by courtesy, since she doesn't write too much about the books -- Road does have some quick embedded critical judgements, as she scorns this writer or demands more of that one, but Duchess is entirely about people and places in and about London. They're both books deeply steeped in the literary life, and it's more of a hard-knock, scrabbling literary life than we usually see. Again, Hanff was successful in the sense that she made her own career and lived by herself and never gave in, but she never hit bestseller lists or made piles of money.

But that describes nine hundred and ninety nine published writers out of a thousand, and most of those aren't being read avidly forty years later. Hanff still is, and will be as long as the gap between wanting a book and getting it still exists -- there are software chappies continually trying to shrink and eliminate that gap, true, but it's still there. And, for her sake, I hope it stays for a long time.

[1] Hanff's first book, Underfoot in Show Business, covers the first two careers.

[2] And this is what stunned this particular reader: that a good decade after WWII ended, the UK was puttering along with horrible import restrictions and punitive rations. This was clearly a time before the gospel of the free market was preached quite as loudly.

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