Any of us who love books about books have surely read the lovely 84, Charing Cross Road, a collection of letters between American Helene Hanff and a London bookseller. Her other books aren’t as well-known, but I heartily recommend Q’s Legacy if you’d like to read more about the success of 84CCR – and now I can also recommend Letter From New York (1992). I took it to America to read there, and… read it in Worcestershire instead.
These letters were broadcast monthly on Radio 4 back between 1978-1984 (and nothing shrieks ’80s more than Hanff’s unstinting belief that formalwear necessitates a black velvet pantsuit and white satin blouse). They are, indeed, not letters so much as thoughts, and concern life in New York – but, more precisely, life in Hanff’s apartment block.
It reminded me a little of one of my all-time faves, The L-Shaped Room (if you’ve not read it – go and do so. I’ll wait.) in that I sort of fell in love with a building and its inhabitants. Not as much as I did with The L-Shaped Room (have you read it yet? I mean, you didn’t just glide past my previous parentheses did you? DID YOU?) because that will never happen, but Hanff is great at writing enough about her friends and neighbours to make you feel like you know them well. If she described them completely, she would seem (and make the reader feel) like an observer; by referring to them as though we already know them pretty well, Arlene, Richard, Nina, and the rest became friends. Here’s an excerpt…
Big excitement here a couple of weeks ago because the New York Times ran a story about Arlene, with a photograph of her that also included Richard.
Since you know that Arlene and I are opposites, when I tell you that I detest large cocktail parties and dinner dance,s you won’t be surprised to learnt hat Arlene earns her living organizing large cocktail parties and dinner dances. She runs the parties as fund-raising events for Democratic politicians who need money for their election campaigns. Her most famous fund-raiser was a birthday party for the Mayor of New York aboard the Queen Elizabeth II – ‘the QE Two’ to Arlene [Simon adds: …and to everyone else]. She phoned the office of the ship’s public relations chief, who was ‘at sea’ off the Bermuda coast and talked to her via ship-to-shore phone, and Arlene talked him into letting her use the ship for the Mayor’s birthday party. She hypnotized the chef into creating a replica of New York’s City Hall in margarine and a birthday cake bigger than the undersized Mayor.
As you see, Hanff deals not solely (or even much) with the grand moments in New York life – rather, we get the refreshing minutiae of her own life. That might be her neighbour’s dog being borrowed to perform as a greeter at an apartment party; it might be watching a bee in a roof garden; it might be a ticker-tape parade. All of it flows from Hanff’s pen lazily and contentedly; the tone you may remember from 84, Charing Cross Road, albeit mellowed a bit.
Hanff’s writing has three faults, in my mind. Only one of them really counts as a fault: the other two are that she prefers dogs to cats (there is a lot about dogs in Letter From New York) and that she prefers the city to the countryside. Those factors made it trickier for me to connect with her, but the only real ‘fault’ I noticed was that she has trouble with section endings. Each letter has a pat ending, a quip or neat sentence, that often felt a bit forced, or looped back to something she’d only mentioned for the first time a paragraph or two earlier. It’s a small thing, and it didn’t really affect my reading, but it brought about the only instances of Hanff’s writing feeling unnatural in a book that is largely characterised by being natural.
If you’ve enjoyed 84, Charing Cross Road, then Hanff will feel like a friend whom you should revisit. If you haven’t – good grief, go and get a copy! (And read The L-Shaped Room while you’re at it.)