Review: The Helene Hanff Omnibus

“I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages someone long gone has called my attention to.”

Helene Hanff

Helene Hanff is most famous, at least among bookish people, for her book 84, Charing Cross Road, an exchange of letters between her and a second-hand bookshop in London in the aftermath of the Second World War. The book is reasonably well-known as, apparently, a tribute to the power of books (although anything described as such rarely actually is), and it was that which I had in my head when I bought The Helene Hanff Omnibus, in one of those semi-panicked second-hand bookshop purchases you make when everything around you is £2.

The Omnibus, then, contains five works, all non-fiction (Hanff neither wrote fiction nor read it very much, and especially hated The Lord of the Rings): Underfoot in Show Business, an account of her trying to break into scriptwriting at a young age in 1940s New York; the aforesaid 84, Charing Cross Road; The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, 84‘s sequel; Apple of My Eye, in which Hanff, a New York resident, visits the tourist spots of her city in order to research the copy for a tourists’ guidebook; and Q’s Legacy, a reflection on the fame she gained from 84, which she attributes rather spuriously to the influence of Cambridge English professor Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch.

The five works, collected in this one omnibus, form a rough sort of autobiography, which they would never have done on their own. Hanff led a fairly interesting life as a freelance writer, essentially living hand-to-mouth, and the book is full of little gems about the cultural landscape of late 20th-century America. But it lacks urgency, I felt. There is no engagement with the politics of the post-war West, no real mention of hardship of any kind; the book feels quaint, naïve, dated, a rosy and nostalgia-tinted picture of a time that never really was.

Part of this is Hanff’s writing style. While she’s very readable, and often very funny (Apple of My Eye in particular made me laugh), Hanff is also no stylist; her prose is workaday and occasionally clumsy.

If you’re already a fan of Hanff’s work, or have a deep and abiding interest in post-war America, the Omnibus might be of interest to you; but I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to the casual reader. Stick with the slight 84, Charing Cross Road, or, even better, seek out Apple of My Eye.

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