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Monday, September 09, 2013

Helene Hanff: 84 Charing Cross Road

(click here for the Romanian version)

I am a very undisciplined reader, always ready to start a new book over another one that I've started a day ago. Meanwhile days come when my work keeps me far away from reading, then a new book enters the picture.

No wonder a pile of books (that I started reading and then put on hold, all of them from the last three weeks)  was growing on my desk, so I decided to play big and I put them all on the bookshelf, one over the other, leaving on my desk just one book, that I finished a couple of days later.

I had started to read Stalinin Lehmät by Sofi Oksanen, meanwhile Kirchliche Dogmatik of Karl Barth was added, over it came Tablet and Pen, the anthology of Arabic/Persian/Turkish/Pakistani contemporary literature edited by Reza Aslan (containing a few poems by Forough Farrokhzād, among other things), over the anthology came Cidade de Deus by Paulo Lins, then I found at the mall an extremely thin while extremely consistent book on American contemporary culture, then I found 84 Charing Cross Road of Helene Hanff, and two days later two books by Daniel Alarcón came, so I started to read Lost City Radio, then I realized that 84 Charing Cross Road was so beautiful that I couldn't help coming back to it. I didn't leave it to the last page.

An exquisite book based on a real story. A Manhattan author (Helene Hanff) sent a letter by the end of  1949 to an antiquarian in London, asking for some books. She was enamored for rare books, bibliophile editions, classics going back to the Latins. In the same time she always was financially strained (like almost all  authors living in Manhattan - that city is devouring its artists), and the Londoner antiquarian had that sort of books at a very reasonable  price. What followed was a twenty years correspondence between Helene Hanff and Frank Doel, the bookseller in London, he also a great book lover. She was an expansive nature, he was rather shy. Although never a wealthy or powerful man, he was a happy and contented one - and we're happy that this was so, would one of his daughters say after many years.

And a subtle friendship developed through the years between Helene and Frank. To find the right term for this relation would be impossible. Both were loving the same books, the same bibliophile editions, the same classics, both were waiting for each other letters.

Helene would have loved to come visit London, but she was always postponing the trip, due to endless emergencies that were coming and consuming all her savings. And her dream was remaining unfulfilled, to be there one day, to step off the boat-train and feel its dirty sidewalks under her feet, she was imagining walking up Berkeley Square and down Wimpole Street and stand in St. Paul's where John Donne preached and sit on the step Elisabeth sat ...  

It is written in a superb English . Now and then you have to guess the meaning of a sentence, as Helene Hanff was using a rich vocabulary and enjoyed playing with words, building sometimes surprising associations. And you feel her joy of handling her English, caressing your soul, your eyes, all your senses.

A movie was made in 1987, based on the book, starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins. It was once aired on TV and I didn't have time to watch it, only some scenes. I hope it will be aired again.

The book actually is their correspondence. Helene Hanff got with this book the long deserved financial success, and she came visit London. He had passed away some years earlier, and the bookshop had ceased its activity. She went anyway to the place, trying to feel a past that belonged also to her. Anyone who visits London arrives there with preconceived ideas about the city: ideas weaved through the years, from books, from movies, from long lasting dreams. And London, generously, offers anyone exactly the image she or he is looking for. It is a city with thousand faces. For Helene, the city was firstly the bookshop on 84 Charing Cross Road.

I've never been there. And I'd love to go to London sometime, at least for one week: to feel its dirty sidewalks under my feet, as Helene was dreaming, too; and to compare it with my own preconceived London, the city from books I've read, from movies I've watched, and from long lasting dreams I've had.

Or maybe I'll try to look for the books she was mentioning in her letters, Newman and Landor, the Elizabethan Poets and the Diary of Sam Pepys, among others.  I also have a passion for books that traveled in time from one book lover to another. Annotations in Chinese on the pages of a book of theology by Richard Niebuhr ... a history of Bucharest National Theatre written in 1938 (on the cover the image of Aristide Demetriade in Hamlet), with a dedication from the author to one of my uncles ...  a very old French book annotated by the same uncle, in 1914, he was a teenager by then, and the book had belonged to a great-great grandmother (she also annotated the book, sometime in the 1880's - her name was Mrs. Koronidy, and this book is for me her only trace) ... the Odes of Horace - the Latin verses are joined by comments in French, along with annotations made in 1913, from another uncle ...  a Book of Psalms copied on a lined notebook and vividly illustrated with exotic flowers, animals, temples and palaces - psalm after psalm copied this way on the notebook by someone in love for his wife - he intended to bestow her the whole work when ready, only he passed away too soon. His son would later publish the work, keeping the same format.

And so, from a bunch of books that I've started reading to put them immediately on hold to start other books, we've made a whole trip toward the streets of London and the Imaginary Conversations of Walter Savage Landor. And by the way, here's a link for Pepys' Diary. Enjoy!

(Helene Hanff)




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