February 8, 2014 @ 5:22 pm | Filed under: Books
The other day, reading Mental Multivitamin, I discovered there is a sequel of sorts to 84, Charing Cross Road, which is one of my favorite books. On certain days, it is my favorite book, and certainly it is one I return to ever more frequently, as time goes on.
Now, why it hadn’t occurred to me—obsessive googler and binge-reader that I am—to hunt up the rest of Helene Hanff’s books, given my really almost aching love for 84, Apple of My Eye, and Letter from New York (a book that shaped New York City for me before I met it in person)—why this uncharacteristic lack of ferreting-out on my part, I cannot say. Except perhaps that sometimes a kind of obliviousness is my brain’s way of making good things last…I’m far too prone toward immediate gratification when it comes to books, especially older ones by deceased authors, books I can blithely justify snapping up for a penny + $3.99 shipping on Amazon Prime, and clutch in my greedy hands two days later.
(I have this deal with myself: used books only if the author is no longer living. My way of supporting my comrades in the trenches, and also of keeping my floors from collapsing under the weight of all the books I would spend the grocery money on if I didn’t make up rules for myself.)
Anyway, there it was at MM: The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, a string of quotes (I love how Ms. M-mv does that) from Helene Hanff’s diary account of her long-dreamed-of trip to London. 48 hours later, it was mine, formerly the property of Salt Lake County Library System, Whitmore Library. Seems to be a first edition, published in 1973.
I love Helene Hanff. Not just her writing, but her, the person, the crackling, opinionated, piercingly observant New Yorker who toiled over Ellery Queen scripts and her own never-to-be-produced plays, and who, for twenty years, fired off missives exploding with personality to a mild-tempered, unfailingly polite bookstore employee who became a genuine friend. It’s Frank Doel’s wife, Nora, and daughter, Sheila, who meet Helene at the airport in the beginning of Duchess. They, too, had come to know and love her over those twenty years.
I love her like an aunt; perhaps I project a little of my beloved Aunt Genia onto her, hear certain tart remarks in Genia’s voice. Their lives were nothing alike, and Aunt Genia never lived in New York, but they share an unabashedness of opinion and a vast generosity of spirit. My aunt died in 1995, Miss Hanff in 1997, and I miss them both. But Helene I get to revisit endlessly. WHAT KIND OF A PEPYS’ DIARY DO YOU CALL THIS? pops into my head at unexpected intervals, and I laugh out loud, sometimes while standing in line at the post office or pushing a cart through Target.
84, Charing Cross Road, about which I’ve written before, was her first really successful published work, and its success was a tremendous surprise to her. People wrote and called her from all over the world; when she was hospitalized shortly before her London trip, strangers sent flowers and presents. In London at last, she was continually receiving invitations from perfect strangers who’d read and loved her book, and were so happy she was finally visiting their city. I keep tearing up, living these days with her, and then she’ll say something acid and I’m howling. Oh, I love her.
Something else I didn’t know about her until this week (when my google reflex did kick in at last, and I read all her obituaries) was that she considered herself uneducated. She uses that very word in Duchess. It’s astonishing she should have felt that way. She ran out of money after a year of college, that’s why; but there can’t have been many of her generation who were better read than she; she devoured and re-devoured books, the entire canon practically (except fiction; she far preferred essays and history) and knew chunks of them by heart, and all through her books she cross-references like crazy. She was a walking Wikipedia.
Now, reading Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, I find that’s exactly how her education happened: like a long, looping chain of links.
But Oxford I have to see. There’s one suite of freshman’s rooms at Trinity College which John Donne, John Henry Newman, and Arther Quiller-Couch all lived in, in various long-gone eras. Whatever I know about writing English those three men taught me, and before I die I want to stand in their freshman’s rooms and call their names blessed.
Q (Quiller-Couch) was all by himself my college education. I went down to the public library one day when I was 17 looking for books on the art of writing, and found five books of lectures which Q had delivered to his students of writing at Cambridge.
“Just what I need!” I congratulated myself. I hurried home with the first volume and started reading and got to page 3 and hit a snag:
Q was lecturing to young men educated at Eton and Harrow. He therefore assumed that his students—including me—had read Paradise Lost as a matter of course and would understand his analysis of the “Invocation to Light” in book 9. So I said, “Wait here,” and went down to the library and got Paradise Lost and took it home and started reading it and got to page 3 when I hit a snag:
Milton assumed I’d read the Christian version of Isaiah and the New Testament and had learned all about Lucifer and the War in Heaven, and since I’d been reared in Judaism I hadn’t. So I said, “Wait here,” and borrowed a Christian Bible and read about Lucifer and so forth, and then went back to Milton and read Paradise Lost, and then finally got back to Q, page 3. On page 4 or 5, I discovered that the point of the sentence at the top of the page was in Latin and the long quotation at the bottom of the page was in Greek. So I advertised in the Saturday Review for somebody to teach me Latin and Greek, and went back to Q meanwhile, and discovered he assumed I not only knew all the plays of Shakespeare, and Boswell’s Johnson, but also the Second Book of Esdras, which is not in the Old Testament and is not in the New Testament, it’s in the Apocrypha, which is a set of books nobody had ever thought to tell me existed.
So what with one thing and another and an average of three “Wait here’s” a week, it took me eleven years to get through Q’s five books of lectures.
The original rabbit-trailer. My hero. Q’s “five books of lectures” can be had for nothing, nowadays, along with probably all of the works he references. If I start now, I’ll be as educated as Helene by 2025.
(Oh heavens. That number just gave me the vapors. That’s officially the future, man.)
Helene Hanff eventually wrote a book about her autodidacticism called Q’s Legacy. Needless to say, it’ll be here by Tuesday.
August 1, 2011 @ 5:47 pm | Filed under: Books
It was a month for quality, if not quantity:
Letter from New York, the Helene Hanff book I sighed happily over in this post. First time rereading it since, I’m guessing, 1994. It was rather goosebumpy to revisit: so much of my first year in New York was tied to that book. The neighborhoods I explored, the way I looked at the city, the way Miss Hanff taught me to seek out the small interesting details and big colorful people that give a place character. As I savored her letters, I kept thinking how much these spoken essays she wrote for BBC radio read like blog posts—and I could see her influence in my own blog style, over fifteen years later.
The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt. When I first read it last year, I wasn’t sure I’d ever want to be immersed that intense, disturbing world again: but I did. I found myself thinking about the novel quite often and wanting to return to the rich, tapestried world Byatt creates, suffused with art and lore. The puppets: I am really in awe at how vividly she is able to describe the marionette plays so that you see them, really see them. And the pottery, the Dungeness seaweeds, the strands of Olive’s various stories, the huge cast of distinct, painfully real characters, the currents of culture and history. It’s a hard book, a dark one, but ultimately hopeful, I think, and worth the effort.
Besides those two, there were the usual piles of picture books, and small increments of progress on Calpurnia Tate with Beanie and Rose. July, for us, is really only three weeks long, because a full week of it gets swallowed up by SDCC.
Nonetheless I did think I’d read more, myself, than simply the Hanff and the Byatt. I began a few things, review copies I’ve received, but since the Byatt I haven’t been able to settle into anything else. Just now, looking up the link for my 2010 post about The Children’s Book, I noticed on that year’s booklog that right after it, I reread a large chunk of To Serve Them All My Days—R.F. Delderfield’s sweeping tale about a shellshocked WWI soldier who becomes a teacher in an English boys’ school. That makes me smile because that is exactly the kind of book I’m craving right now, post-Byatt: big, sweeping, warm, moving, funny, and, if sad in places, not dark. Herriott might work. Or: I’ve never read Brideshead Revisited. Would that work? Or is it grim?
Actually, there’s Blackout, I’ve just remembered. I had to set it aside for one reason or another. Connie Willis sweeps me away in just the right way, I always think. Maybe that’s the ticket.
After I treated myself to 84, Charing Cross Road, it was only a matter of time before I reread Helene Hanff’s Letter from New York. This was the book in which I first encountered Miss Hanff—I don’t remember whether I bought it myself or was given it by someone, but I know I read it the year I moved to New York City, and it profoundly influenced my first experiences there. Helene Hanff taught me how to see the quirky and charming characteristics of a neighborhood; she enticed me out of my midtown office building during many a summer lunch hour and sent me scurrying all over Manhattan in search of streets and buildings she’d mentioned.
Letter from New York is a collection of radio transcripts: a monthly series of five-minute talks Miss Hanff for the BBC Women’s Hour, to share a slice of New York life with London listeners. She describes her building, her neighborhood, her favorite haunts in the city; she tells colorful and wry tales about the customs and opinions of her fellow New Yorkers. Delicious stuff.
Of all the talks, the story I remembered the most clearly was the one about the Shakespeare Garden. If you recall, I kept waiting for that part of Charing Cross Road and only realized halfway through that I’d got the wrong book.
It was in May 1979 that Miss Hanff told her BBC listeners about the corner of Central Park known as the Shakespeare Garden:
It was perched on a small hilltop and reached by high stone steps. It had flower beds blooming in spring, summer, and autumn, and a famous mulberry tree; it had a little stone moat for irrigation, with a small footbridge across it…The first park gardener I met there told me it was begun in the 1900s and was modeled on Shakespeare’s garden in Stratford. A later gardener said that the garden contained every flower mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. He used to identify them, for ignoramuses like me. And he always pointed out the big mulberry tree grown from a cutting of a tree in Shakespeare’s own garden.
Unfortunately, as Miss Hanff explains, New York City had budget troubles and let the park gardeners go. The Shakespeare garden fell into ruin, such a depressing sight that Helene stopped walking past it; she couldn’t bear to see.
But a young couple who lived near the park couldn’t avoid it. They walked past the abandoned hilltop on their way to work on pleasant mornings. And so, on Sunday in May a couple of years ago, Peggy-the-schoolteacher and John-the-lawyer climbed the stone steps—with buckets of earth and buckets of water and garden tools—and began to dig. They worked all day; and the next Saturday they went back to the hilltop and worked all weekend.
A few neighbors and passersby saw them working and joined them. From then on, the volunteers worked weekends all spring and summer, and all the net spring and summer. And this year the garden is beginning to bloom again.
It’s not the Shakespeare Garden it once was. Peggy told me we can’t get English wildflower seeds over here. So the garden has no cowslips or harebells, and there’s no border of English roses anyore. But we still call it the Shakespeare Garden. And in a city of cliff dweller, it’s a small miracle to have Central Park’s only garden growing again, even if it’s not the English garden I loved.
But the story doesn’t end there. The following June, Miss Hanff had this to say to her BBC audience:
A year ago, I told you about the Shakespeare Garden in Central Park which had gone to seed when the city could no longer afford gardeners, and which a handful of New Yorkers had begun to recreate here. I said that the new garden could never be a real Shakespeare garden, since we couldn’t get English wildflower seeds over here. Well, a few generous Woman’s Hour listeners promptly rushed out and mailed us wildflower seeds, and I am now able to report that the cowslips and harebells are blooming, and so is the dyer’s work. And along the rustic wooden fence at the far rim of the garden—for the first time in ten years—the gold-centered, white English garden roses are blooming again. The Shakespeare Gardeners thank you, New York thanks you, and I can’t tell you wahat it meant to me, to see the long row of yellow buds flower into white roses again, like a like of small Phoenixes rising from the ashes. Thank you!
Most wonderful wonderful, out of all hooping.
Photo by wallyg, used under Creative Commons license