Thursday, February 2, 2012

Helene Hanff Appreciation Post

"Gentleman: your ad in the Saturday Review of Literature says you specialize in out-of-print books."

I stumbled upon Helene Hanff completely by chance. I was channel surfing the movie channels and stumbled upon the 1987 movie of "84, Charing Cross Road" starring Anne Bancroft and Sir Anthony Hopkins. I was enchanted by this simple story of an American writer corresponding with her favorite London bookstore. In between requests for books, the correspondence included commentary on their lives from post-war food rationing to pleas for the continued strength of the Brooklyn Dodgers. But there were also this unmistakable love of books and reading that I couldn't ignore.

As with most adaptations, readers are often left wondering how much was in the original material and how much was in screenplay, so I was delighted to see Hanff’s wit and style and intelligence appear verbatim in her letters. Here was this brassy smart-mouthed lush of a writer inquiring about John Donne and Samuel Pepys. When referred to as "Madam" in the early letters to Marks & Co, Hanff pithily adds as a postscript: "I hope madam doesn’t mean over there what it does here." That pretty much set the tone for the rest.

What surprised me in a way was that Helene and I are so complete opposites, reading wise. Hanff preferred non-fiction, biographies and memoirs. She never could "get interested in things that didn’t happen to people who never lived." She loved "i-was-there" type books. Now I love history, but I will happily disappear into someone's imaginary world, whether it's on a far-off planet or a magical kingdom or just a different time period. Our reading sensibilities couldn’t be more different and yet I could appreciate her thirst for knowledge.

I quickly acquired and read most of her other books. I didn't like "Duchess of Bloomsbury" nearly as much as "84, Charing Cross Road", such a jumbled hodge podge of a London travelogue. I adored "Underfoot in Show Business", chronologically Hanff's first book. "Underfoot" is love song to a New York and theater business that no longer exists. We meet Hanff's glamorous friend Maxine and learn how Hanff learned Greek and Latin and experience the Broadway opening of "Oklahoma!" But "Lord of the Rings" fans may cringe with envy when they learn Hanff was given the task of reading and summarizing the full trilogy as a script reader. As an author that famously hates novels and hates massive sagas even more, Hanff included "mental torture" as part of her invoice. Her employer paid it, fearing she'd never be heard from again.

"Q and I first met on a summer morning when I was eighteen, at the main branch of the Philadelphia Public library where I'd gone in search of a teacher; and took him home despite certain doubts about his fitness for the post."

What I always admired about Helene Hanff was her self-education. She could have simply given up when she left school, but instead she looked through all the available writing books at her local library to find the right teacher. In those stacks, Hanff stumbled upon Q, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, a Cambridge lecturer, writer, and anthologist. "Q's Legacy" talks more about how she approaches her new education by reading his lecture series. One slight problem: Quiller-Couch lectured at Cambridge and assumed that his students would have studied all the same classics he quoted. Hanff, of course, hadn't, so she’d read those books as well. This process opened up a whole world of English literature for Hanff in the bargain.

Hanff spent most of her adult life as a working writer. She wrote charming but plotless plays, magazine articles, children’s history books, and television scripts – any writing job that would pay the bills. Each time she became comfortable the bottom fell out. The television shows all moved to the West Coast or suddenly history wasn’t relevant anymore to young people. It didn’t matter. Hanff found a way to continue writing. She found ways to incorporate her love of literature and history into her scripts, even if she wasn’t writing the artful prose she imagined all those years ago in the Philadelphia library. But she was doing what she loved most. How many of us can claim that?

This was written in part as a response to Unputdownables' Resurrecting Underappreciated Writers -- a long-overdue post I needed to put into words. I've been a fan of Helene's for many many years. In retrospect, I wish I'd sent her just one letter before she died. I don't quite have her taste in antiquarian books, or even half her education (I'm still struggling with Q's "On the Art of Writing"), but I still appreciated her zeal for reading and writing and the sense of humor she brought to both. She wasn’t dry or ponderous, no matter how well-read she was. Like Q, Helene made an unusual mentor. Somehow I think she would have liked that symmetry.