Nov. 18, 2009
My Love For All Things Warm and Breathing
I have seldom loved more than one thing at a time,
yet this morning I feel myself expanding, each
part of me soft and glandular, and under my skin
is room enough now for the loving of many things,
and all of them at once, these students especially,
not only the girl in the yellow sweater, whose
name, Laura Buxton, is somehow the girl herself,
Laura for the coy green mellowing eyes, Buxton
for all the rest, but also the simple girl in blue
on the back row, her mouth sad beyond all reasonable
inducements, and the boy with the weight problem,
his teeth at work even now on his lower lip, and
the grand profusion of hair and nails and hands and
legs and tongues and thighs and fingertips and
wrists and throats, yes, of throats especially,
throats through which passes the breath that joins
the air that enters through these ancient windows,
that exits, that takes with it my own breath, inside
this room just now my love for all things warm and
breathing, that lifts it high to scatter it fine and
enormous into the trees and the grass, into the heat
beneath the earth beneath the stone, into the
boundless lust of all things bound but gathering.
It's the birthday of novelist and poet Margaret Atwood, born in Ottawa, Ontario (1939). Her father was an entomologist who spent every year from spring to fall studying insects at a forestry research station in northern Quebec. Atwood said, "At the age of six months, I was carried into the woods in a packsack, and this landscape became my hometown." She had no access to television or movies, and few children to play with. So she spent her time exploring the woods and reading.
Atwood's first novel, The Edible Woman, came out in 1969. It's about a woman who finds that she can no longer eat after her boyfriend proposes marriage. Atwood is best known for her novel The Handmaid's Tale (1985), about an imaginary America where religious fanatics have taken over the government. The book became an international best-seller. Her most recent novel is The Year of the Flood (2009), which came out this fall.
It was on this day in 1949 that Helene Hanff wrote her third letter from New York City to a used bookshop at 84 Charing Cross Road, London. It was the beginning of a flirtatious epistolary friendship across the Atlantic that lasted for 20 years and revolved around classic literature. The letters were collected into 84, Charing Cross Road, a book Hanff published in 1970 and later adapted for the London stage, into a Broadway production, and into a film starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins (1987).
The correspondence began in early October 1949 when Miss Helene Hanff responded to an ad placed by London booksellers Marks & Co, whose bookshop was located at 84 Charing Cross Road. She wrote:
Gentlemen: Your ad in the Saturday Review of Literature says that you specialize in out-of-print books. The phrase "antiquarian booksellers" scares me somewhat, as I equate "antique" with expensive. I am a poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books and all the things I want are impossible to get over here except in very expensive rare editions, or in Barnes & Noble's grimy, marked-up schoolboy copies.
I enclose a list of my most pressing problems. If you have clean secondhand copies of any of the books on the list, for no more than $5.00 each, will you consider this a purchase order and send them to me?
(Miss) Helene Hanff
Over the 20 years, Helene Hanff ordered from 84 Charing Cross Road John Donne's Sermons, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Samuel Pepys's diary, Plato's Four Socratic Dialogues, Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice, and volumes of essays and poetry. She once wrote, "I require a book of love poems with spring coming on. No Keats or Shelley, send me poets who can make love without slobbering — Wyatt or Jonson or somebody, use your own judgment. Just a nice book preferably small enough to stick in a slacks pocket and take to Central Park."
Her relationship with the book buyer, Frank Doel, expanded to a caring friendship filled with banter and repartee. She also corresponded with other employees of the bookshop. She sent over to the shop parcels full of dried eggs and nylons and things that were rationed and hard to find in post-World War II England.
After 20 years of corresponding with Frank Doel, Hanff received a letter from the bookstore that he had passed away. She had never made it to London nor met him in person. The day in 1969 that she found in her mailbox the news of his death, she also found a rejection slip for a play script she'd submitted.
She decided then that she was going to share the story of her correspondence, but figured it would be in a magazine article. But in 1971, she ended up publishing the letters in a slim book, just 97 pages long. It was a huge success (though no one had really expected it to be) and became a best-seller. The Wall Street Journal said of her book: "A real-life love story … A timeless period piece. DO READ IT."
Hanff went off on a book tour. She visited London for the very first time, and went to 84 Charing Cross Road. The bookstore had gone out of business, but the shop and the empty shelves remained, and she wandered around inside. She strolled about the rest of London looking for the residences of English writers and other literary sites in the city and in southern England. She wrote her next book about this trip, entitled The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street (1973). Today, there's a plaque up at 84 Charing Cross Road, London, commemorating her correspondence with the bookshop that was there, and another plaque on the apartment building in New York City where she lived for three decades.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®