Helene Hanff is well remembered for 84 Charing Cross Road, a record of her long correspondence with a London bookseller. A New York TV scriptwriter, she sought ways of broadening her education. She had no reading list. There was nobody to advise her until she found Arthur Quiller-Couch.
‘I took him home with me,’ she wrote. She had bought a copy of his Cambridge lectures On the Art of Writing.
Quiller-Couch is not the name he was once. A literary scholar, a Cornish bard and a writer of popular romances, Quiller-Couch was famous in his day. Only the scholarship survives. Few now read his fiction.
It was of its time and it says little to current readers. Works like Poison Island pale beside Robert Louis Stevenson who was clearly a major influence.
Quiller-Couch is not be dismissed, however. He had perceptive and original thoughts on literature. His analysis of Shakespearian language is exceptional, opening up a field of scholarship that has yet to be fully explored. Although not a major influence on me personally, Q always has been there in the background. Attending lectures in Cambridge, I saw his name in freshly painted gold on a door. This was half a century after his death. [He died in 1944]. If he is remembered outside of Cambridge it will be most likely through the continuingly popular Helene Hanff.
Helene Hanff read every book Q mentioned in his lectures. Her engaging memoir of the experience, Q’s Legacy, is worth reading as an account of a literary sensibility developing through the experience and its relationship to the author’s life.
Books are not commodities. We do not consume them. People talk of devouring books, but, generally speaking, books are to be savoured. If you read seriously you read round a subject so that a network of reading grows in the fecund soil of enquiry. There is no end point because the more you read the more you see there is to read. Everyone has gaps, if not caverns, of authors not yet approached and works not yet opened. A sharp sense of guilt about such lapses may act as a powerful directional guide.
Of course serious reading needs a sense of direction. To talk of reading to a purpose may sound deadly in its earnest sobriety. If we talk of a reading life then perhaps we are nearer the mark. Such a life was Helene Hanff’s. It was not nurtured in the academy but at counterpoint to her working life and her social life. Time was set aside, a time that always seems to expand so that even in a demanding routine of commuting and essential tasks reading occupies more space than seems possible. Literature becomes not the optional extra but a vital element in one’s life. Things make more sense when filtered through the medium of a reflective literature.
This is to make an enormous claim for literature which has to compete against other media for the central location in culture. Electronic media especially are so ubiquitous and insistent that they perpetually threaten to diminish the status of established forms. The written text can seem at times to be no more than the original treatment of a work developed elsewhere in film or music. The written text has no soundtrack. It may be devoid of a visual complement. In a culture of accessible electronic stimuli a dense text of printed symbols may seem incongruous and unnecessary. Why make the difficult act of interpreting symbols when you can see and hear them effortlessly?
The answer is as simple as the question: nothing worth anything is effortless. What the reader brings are capacities for understanding, interpreting and translating. Before a work of substance can be received and absorbed a process of transference must take place. There is a challenge. Meeting that challenge is the source of satisfaction, a pleasure deeper and more lasting than the momentary sensations of the obvious and easy.
Quiller-Couch called reading a ‘tuning up of the mind.’ Because more is asked of us than easy acceptance the reader has to engage at a higher level. We need to raise our sensibilities and hone our intellect. How we do that is by reading. An engagement with writing is a privileged insight into another’s mind.
Aldous Huxley noted how both science and literature observe, but the writer also brings personal experience. The scientist is seeking objective evidence, whereas the writer is seeking an awareness encompassed by perceptions. There is truth as fact and truth as value. Knowing the difference is the beginning of wisdom. It is not the end of wisdom, but it is the first step. Science and literature both aim to acquire wisdom in their discrete ways.
The differences have been noted with intense and sometimes enraged debate. What is less noted are the similarities. E.H. Gombrich, noted that the cumulative method of science [‘standing on giants’ shoulders’] has its counterpart in art.
Knowledge is cumulative and collaborative, so too is creativity. Picasso was highly original and the epitome of revolutionary Modernism, but his art did not arrive by spontaneous generation. There are many influences at work in the astonishing vitality and personality that can be recognised at once in the word Picasso. Creativity requires both a personal vision and a conversation with other creative voices.
A creative conversation develops not by linear progression but through a series of responses that move in several directions, sometimes leading to the same point, at other times following tangents of creative possibilities. An overheard remark in a Cambridge bookshop illustrates this: ‘When you come to a fork in the road take it.’ Irony, especially in such a conundrum, is the spice of writing.
Avoiding the obvious is the first duty of any thinking mind. Society maintains its equilibrium through conventions. Without the dynamic of change there is only the stasis which leads to decay. Moving forward may take heed of precedent, especially in dangerous waters, but a venture into unknown territory brings its hazards. It may lead to a breakthrough or to a breakdown. Are you a genius or are you crazy? [No, they are not the same thing.]
These, of course, are the extreme options. We cannot proceed as a general principle by the polarities of love and hate or good and evil. We consider the gradations before making a measured response. All the while we have to bear in mind we will not always be sailing on calm seas. There are storms ahead. Passions rage within our creative arteries. They are the impulses to write whether we are writing for or against.
Often the writing is against because literature arises out of conflict. Something irritates us. Perhaps it is something in the media because there we will find the unthinking conformity that is the enemy of creative promise. The acceptance world articulates its attitudes through clichÃ©. Certain fashionable words are used and misused incessantly. Anyone sensitive to language and to the sensibility generating language must avoid hackneyed expressions.
A writer searches for a variety of ways in which something may be said. That is more or less a simple, practical definition of writing. If we use language we respect its richness. We may seek to extend its capabilities, or at least to adapt those capabilities to our purposes. There always will be original, or personal, ways of speaking. An enlarged vocabulary indicates an enlarged mind. This is not a matter of choice, for we are not free to go against the wisdom of the ages in favour of an easy life here and now. We have an obligation to delve down to the roots in order to seek new growth.
The use of clichÃ© indicates not only indolence but obsession. Seeing life as a narrow tunnel is a limited and limiting perspective. The known, the obvious, the accessible and the safe define your vision. It is not much of a vision because it is a dark tunnel. How comfortable it may feel to be enveloped by known and trusted ideas shared with known and trusted people. That is not the wisdom of the ages but yesterday’s suppositions. The light of experience has revised or even discredited them. Groping in the dark for familiar things, you won’t know what is happening. Perhaps those familiarities are no longer there.
Perhaps there were ethereal delusions all along. We cannot stand on their shoulders.
When you walk down Charing Cross Road today you may find yourself shrugging your shoulders. There are no giants to be encountered on this street. Even Foyles, after its move, looks smaller. Marks & Co at 84 disappeared long ago. 84 no longer exists as an address, having been subsumed into one of those ugly developments. Going down Charing Cross Road books may be found, especially in the alley known as Cecil Court. There you may see more than a shadow of the legendary books quarter.
There is a passage in Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave where he sees a young woman, looking rather lonely, peering at books in the windows. She may not have any spare money. Connolly is attracted to her, but too shy to speak. How do you speak to a stranger? Connolly, the archetypal man of letters, views the world through the books he has read. He sees everything from a space between the bookshelves. The loneliness he observes in the young woman reflects both his own isolation and his desire to open the pages of the book he might never find.
I was given some good advice: ‘Keep reading. Find something to get your teeth into outside of your work.’ The routines of life can dull the mind. We need to keep our minds open to the possibilities of the world beyond the world of tasks and habits.
Reading should not be a substitute for living, nor can it be called an evasion of living. Indolence and obsession are evasions of living. Reading the world is what living in the world requires. From his reading, and out of his melancholic nature, Cyril Connolly crafted a markedly unusual and intriguing work. The Unquiet Grave is a blend of diary, literary reflections and a heartfelt longing for travel that was no longer possible in wartime. It says as much as Henry Moore’s sketches of the air raid shelters, but it says something very different. The Unquiet Grave is not an account of survival in the Blitz, but a deeply personal reminder of the cultural values that war can destroy. Connolly imagined a loved part of France that he could not see in a time of war. Peace became not a dream but a reality. We can share that reality in The Unquiet Grave. To read it is to undergo a journey, a journey that is not a metaphor but another dimension of experience.
Wallace Stevens spoke of the poet’s role being to ‘supply the satisfactions of belief.’ These are not to be confused with consolations of self-indulgence and the speculative. ‘This is about me!’ is a poor judgement of a writing’s worth. We do not have to relate to what we read in terms of direct experience. Our reading is going to be very limited if that is the case. The purpose of reading is to enrich our knowledge and appreciation of the world. There are other lives out there. There are distant cities and vast oceans between great continents. They are there, waiting to be read.
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This post was written by Geoffrey Heptonstall