06 March 2016

84, Charing Cross Road

84, Charing Cross Road (1970) by Helene Hanff (Penguin Books, 1990)

The movie adaptation of 84, Charing Cross Road, which starred Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins, came out in 1987. Writing in 2002/2003, in a mini-essay collected in Between Parentheses (translated by Natasha Wimmer), Roberto Bolaño recounted his partial viewing of the movie "not many years ago". According to him, "its main virtue ... was its open-endedness, a sketch-like quality that encouraged the viewer to fill in the blanks with two or three or ten imaginary movies that had nothing (seemingly nothing) to do with what was happening on screen." He was fortunate to have encountered the book in 2002, published by Anagrama. He did not know then that it was based on real life.

The book was epistolary. It contained an exchange of letters mainly between a bookish lady who will become a writer and a dealer of rare books. (I can picture the feisty letter-writer of Anne Bancroft going head to head with the properly English and "butler-like" reserve of an Anthony Hopkins.)

This was the only book, in my recollection of his writings, that Bolaño came close to admitting he shed tears on. Telling about the exchange not only of book merchandise between the reader and the book dealer but also of generous in-kind gifts of meat and eggs from Ms Helene Hanff (1918-1997) to Mr Frank Doel and his bookshop co-workers who suffered from food shortage and food rationing during the postwar British economic hardship, Bolaño confessed that "by this point, the reader, so as not to be left out, starts to cry, and if one wants to waste time examining one's own tears, which isn't advisable, one may discover a mysterious mechanism that also drives certain works by Dickens: the best tears are those that make us better and at the same time come closest to laughter."

The book was remarkable for giving many a glimpse of the good practices employed by MARKS & CO., Booksellers, the now-defunct and now legendary shop (on account of this book) at Charing Cross Road. The written reports of successes of Mr Doel the book dealer in finding the requested items by Ms Hanff from private English library collections were always a delight for readers looking for happy endings in the rarefied field of book dealing that was far from the "fingertip book-buying culture" of bookfinder.com, The Book Depository, Abe Books, Kindle, and the Amazonia. Here was a guilt-free celebration of the physicality of books, books gilded with gold along its edges, handsomely bound hard covers, first editions, and books with marginalia and names of previous owners on the first pages. The book had given the reader the succinct flavor and whiff of the trade in used, rare books.

Perhaps the intimate form of the letter gave this correspondence the authenticity that book lovers derive from the riches of literature. The letter exchange lasted for two decades during which time the readers were privileged to gain some knowledge not only of the personal things recounted in the letters but "the blanks to be filled", as Bolaño would have it. What was not mentioned in the compressed letters could not only be inferred as happening in the background; the reader lived them too. There was a dynamic of life (and history) there that was beating and ticking. There was Ms Hanff's unquenchable and constant curiosity for books and her evolving taste in writers. On the other side of the Atlantic, the domestic life and difficulties faced by the employees in the London bookshop. For both, intimations of change in status and career, and intimations of mortality as time passes.

By the end of the book the reader was enriched by something related to the human spirit as reflected in the urgent, energetic, and friendly voice of the correspondents. Their letters were alive with a generous dose of wit, humor, and affability; their gestures, full of kindness, sympathy, and sincerity. The heartrending Dickensian moment came for me near the end, with the accumulation of life events and experiences. Like Ms Hanff who said she owe 84 Charing Cross Road "so much", perhaps for a life (or a lifetime) of reading, readers owe themselves an invaluable treat (books about books!) every now and then.

See seraillon's take on this book here.