Books of Letters

I think I’ve a thing for novels told in letters (okay so the first one is not a novel):

84, Charring Cross Road by Helene Hanff
Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn
Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

I love all of these books. They are all a collection of letters. The each tells a story in one character at a time sorted as call and response. I love the way that Ella Minnow Pea is as much about the form as the story. I love the way that 84, Charing Cross Road is so slim and yet conveys YEARS of feeling and emotion. I love the politics in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. I love the voices in Guernsey.

Ella Minnow Pea reminds me a little of Spoon River Anthology in that the author had to select words as carefully as Edgar Lee Master in order to craft the story he wanted to tell. Mark Dunn stopped using certain letters during the course of his novel. Since the premise of the book was that the letters had been outlawed and therefore his characters could not use them in any form of communication. Spoon River a collection where the dead speak their minds about the goings on in town is a collection of poems. I always think of novelist has having the freedom to use as many words as they need to tell a story and of poets trying to use the least amount or the most precise words.  I am sure there are all manner of exceptions to these rules, but this was the most immediate parallel that came to mind when I was reading Ella Minnow Pea.

When I read Guernsey, I immediately thought of 84, Charing Cross Road. There is something about these two books one fiction and one non-fiction that seem to share the same spirit. Maybe because they both have main characters who are writers, maybe because they both begin in post WWII Britain, or maybe because they both contain a love of reading, I don’t know. In my mind this books are like twin souls and if you like one you will like the other. I admire Shaffer and Barrows for being able to give each character such a unique voice and to tell such a powerful story in their slim collection of letters. I am sorry that Shaffer never got to see her work in print the same way I am sorry for the way 84, Charring Cross closes. (I don’t want to spoil it, but don’t get the mistaking impression I don’t like the ending.)

In a novel with a good ending where comeuppance is paid all round, Les Liaisons Dangereuses has become a bit of an obsession. I read the book, listened to the audio, seen several versions of the movie. I don’t know why I became so obsessed with this. Is it just because it is another collection of letters? Is it because of the games of intrigues and fancy clothes? Maybe it is the language. I often wonder if the people of 1782 spoke like they wrote.

I often wonder about that difference between speech and the written word when I read collections of letters. I have started the letters of Noël Coward, another non-fiction entry. People have a chance to plan their speech in letters and some come off as far more formal than they would in speech. There is opportunity of crossing out and doing over, not afford to the quick of tongue. Then there is the difference between the real collections where everyone has a separate voice because they are separate people and the novels where one creator must not only create separate voices but written voices as oppose to dialogue.

How much difference is there? Think about the e-mails that you get from friends you know in person. I’m sure the letters sound like them and that you might even hear their voice in your head as you read, but does it also sound like how they TALK.  Some of my friends do type exactly how they speak and others have a more unique style that I wouldn’t describe as formal so much as different from they way they speak.

Any thoughts? Any collection of letters you’d recommend as a must read?


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