Books March 2002

New & Noteworthy

Stories of doomed affairs, by Richard Ford; a "profoundly satisfying" literary correspondence; children of the Middle Ages
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A Multitude of Sins
by Richard Ford
Knopf, 304 pages, $25.00

In his new collection of stories Richard Ford returns to territory he has worked before, most recently in Women With Men (1997)—a world of infidelity, selfishness, and self-deception. The theme is stated up front, in the first, brief, fablelike piece, "Privacy," whose narrator leaves his marriage bed to spy on a woman undressing in front of her window. "I don't know all that I thought," he ruminates. "Undoubtedly I was aroused. Undoubtedly I was thrilled by the secrecy of watching out of the dark." Nothing beyond this flutter of lust comes of it, and later he realizes how misplaced his desire really was. Looking back, he insists that his marriage was still happy then, but he alludes to a grave failure yet to come, as if this episode signaled the beginning of the end.

The stories that follow take the reader deeper into failed marriages and misguided love affairs, often uncomfortably so, asking if true intimacy is possible. Wales, the protagonist of "Quality Time," is so self-conscious, and so removed from the world, that he feels almost nothing for his married lover, let alone for a woman he sees run over on the street. Fear of self-revelation is a barrier for him, just as it is for Faith, in "Crèche," and for Henry Rothman, in "Dominion," yet it's so much the core of their personalities that it's impossible to overcome. As the narrator of "Puppy" says disparagingly of his wife, "She becomes involved in ways that are far too emotional. Distance is essential."

Throughout A Multitude of Sins a lack of trust comes between lovers, a holding back that interferes with any communion, dooming their indiscretions and ultimately leading—even as the affairs stagger on—to heavy regrets and ugly recriminations. Men and women alike are left groping for meaning, hoping that there's something significant in these faithless couplings. Ford undercuts the gloom and self-pity of his situations with irony and a resigned wisdom. Although his material is essentially similar across the collection, his approach is pleasantly varied. The anecdotal "Reunion" uses a plainspoken first person; "Charity" and the near novella-length "Abyss" have a quirky, deadpan humor; and "Crèche" relies on a montage of affectless passages.

Ford's achievement, though, isn't in the range of his palette but in how closely he focuses on the regrets of middle age, the hopes his characters still have, and the chances they take, aware that they may be fools, chasing after desires even they can't understand. Every decision is a risk that defines who they are at heart. As Ford says of the unhappy couple in "Dominion," "Ending it then would've meant something about themselves neither of them would've believed: that it hadn't mattered very much; that they were people who did things that didn't matter very much; and that they either importantly did or didn't know that about themselves. None of these seemed true." In A Multitude of Sins, Richard Ford's lovers come to uneasy terms with the impossibility of knowing each other and the inescapable pain of knowing oneself.

—Stewart O'Nan

The Lyttelton/Hart-Davis Letters
edited by Rupert Hart-Davis. A selection edited by Roger Hudson
The Akadine Press/Trafalgar Square, 368 pages, $35.00

One evening in October of 1955 a retired Eton schoolmaster, George Lyttelton, and a former pupil, the middle-aged London publisher Rupert Hart-Davis, agreed to exchange letters once a week. The correspondence lasted for seven years. When it was published in six volumes (in the 1970s and 1980s), it was widely acclaimed as "superb," "profoundly satisfying," "crusty," and "civilized." I would be somewhat more enthusiastic: The Lyttelton/Hart-Davis Letters are, at least for those of an old-fashioned literary bent, the most delightful bedside books of our time.

Why? Because these omnivorous readers clearly aimed to entertain each other—with memorable quotations, original turns of phrase, striking anecdotes, unfashionable literary views. "Who was the good man I met recently," Lyttelton wrote, "who shared my opinion of [Percy Lubbock's] Earlham, i.e., a book of almost unique beauty?" Alas, who in these times even reads beautiful yet half-forgotten novels like Earlham? As the correspondence proceeded, Hart-Davis revealed that he collected E. Phillips Oppenheim thrillers and revered Max Beerbohm, that he worked doggedly on his annotated edition of Oscar Wilde's letters and then nearly every evening rushed around London giving after-dinner talks and presiding at meetings. Lyttelton's quieter life—marking school exams to keep busy and puttering around in the garden—allowed him to shine in his quotations: Bernard Shaw's best and most touching sentence, he suggested, was one about the actress Ellen Terry, whom the playwright loved: "She became a legend in her old age; but of that I have nothing to say; for we did not meet, and, except for a few broken letters, did not write; and she never was old to me." A few weeks later Hart-Davis quoted the historian G. M. Young: "Being published by the Oxford University Press is rather like being married to a duchess: the honour is almost greater than the pleasure." Both reveled in Gibbon's celebrated footnote about the Emperor Gordian: "Twenty-two acknowledged concubines and a library of 62,000 volumes attested the variety of his inclinations, and from the productions which he left behind him, it appears that the former as well as the latter were designed for use rather than ostentation."

Over the years these two bibliophiles approvingly discussed the prose-music of Carlyle and A. E. Housman; argued about the merits of How Green Was My Valley; agreed that Martin Chuzzlewit was Dickens's best book; shared a dislike for Jane Austen, Theodore Dreiser, and Lolita; and admired Oliver Wendell Holmes and Macaulay, "who thought many of Socrates's dialectical victories were too easy." It is all utterly, irredeemably bookish. Roger Hudson's abridgment makes this epistolary conversation a bit more staccato than it was originally, but has the merit of leaving out the analyses of ancient cricket matches. If you like Boswell's Life of Johnson, or Flaubert's correspondence with Louise Colet, or the essays of Cyril Connolly, you really should treat yourself to these wonderful and—be warned—addictive letters.

—Michael Dirda

The Rotters' Club
by Jonathan Coe
Knopf, 432 pages, $24.95

The 1970s have become an object of such reflexive parody that it is often hard to look at those years as anything other than an opportunity for ridicule. Jonathan Coe's funny and astute new novel avoids this impulse to caricature as it traces the sentimental education of a group of teenage classmates in the much maligned English city of Birmingham from 1973 through 1979. Coe fills in this broad canvas with a series of comic set pieces that poke gentle fun at his characters while also deepening their appeal. In one, several boys team up to form an art-rock band with the hilariously Tolkienesque name of Gandalf's Pikestaff, only to see the group devolve into The Maws of Doom after the punk movement blows through town. When an auto-factory manager takes three employees to dinner in an attempt to avert a strike, the class distinctions between them are revealed in what they choose as accompaniments to the inevitable steak and chips: the boss recklessly orders "peas and mushrooms on the side"—"a touch of sophistication that was not lost on the others." Blue Nun is the drink of choice; the lyrics from Yes albums are dissected with Jesuitical zeal. And a family's wind-blasted, rain-drenched vacation in a camper park in Wales will ring true to anyone who has made the mistake of trying to take a summer holiday in the United Kingdom.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "Fast Times at King William's High" (March 27, 2002)
A talk with the author of The Rotters' Club, a darkly humorous story of coming-of-age in 1970s Birmingham, England.

Coe's attempts to tackle more-serious themes prove less uniformly assured. His evocation of police brutality against striking factory workers reads like plain old agitprop, and his inclusion of the IRA's horrific Birmingham pub bombings in the narrative is awkward and ultimately bathetic. His treatment of the racialist politics of Britain's National Front, however, is wonderfully deft, as a student prankster lampoons the Front's bombast in the school paper in a manner that would have made Auberon Waugh proud. The contrast reminds us that the strength of The Rotters' Club lies in its comic humanity, not its anger. If Coe is right to claim that the 1970s were "brown times," then it is a testament to his skill that he has rendered them in such vivid colors.

—Stephen Amidon

Mad in America
by Robert Whitaker
Perseus, 330 pages, $27.00

People who concern themselves with the treatment of the mentally ill can generally be put into one of two categories: those who push drugs, and those who push therapy. In this historical philippic the medical reporter Robert Whitaker firmly sides with the latter. He marshals all the attributes of investigative journalism—the liberal use of quotation marks, the tireless attention to malfeasance, the deep-rooted mistrust of authority—to argue that what he stubbornly calls "mad medicine" is and always has been misguided in its emphasis on physical therapies. His narrative begins in the "unheated, dingy" asylums of the eighteenth century and goes on to describe such ingenious innovations as bleeding, forced sterilization, organ removal, induced coma, and lobotomy. But the author's main concern—and the subject of more than half of this book—is the drug revolution, sparked by the introduction of Thorazine, in 1954. From that moment, Whitaker argues, psychiatrists picked up their prescription pads and dropped their patients, distracted by a need for acceptance from the medical community and by the lavish attention of pharmaceutical companies.

Whitaker's book, though marred by a lack of focus and by an overeagerness to ascribe unattractive motives to well-meaning scientists, scores a few valuable points. It is most damning in the evidence it gathers of the collusion between pharmaceutical companies and medical researchers—an unholy relationship if ever there was one. The book is most sensible in its call for humility. Biological psychiatry has made tremendous and valuable strides in the past fifty years (most of which Whitaker doesn't acknowledge), but the field is still an infant that acts like a grandfather. What we don't know about the causes of mental illness dwarfs what we do know, so an abiding concentration on the experience of the patient, which this book advocates above all else, is in itself a valuable prescription.

—Daniel Smith

Medieval Children
by Nicholas Orme
Yale, 388 pages, $39.95

A little learning is just enough to get things completely wrong: on those admittedly very rare occasions when the subject of pre-modern childhood comes up in conversation among self-described sophisticates, they inevitably insist that "childhood" is a modern concept and that medieval parents were largely indifferent to their offspring. Such views are mere parroting of the received wisdom, most famously promulgated in the 1960s by the then-trendy social historian Philippe Ariès, who, relying far more on theory than on evidence, asserted that the deep bonds of love and care between parent and child that we now associate with the nuclear family were essentially nonexistent in prior times. Over the decades, though, careful historians have been dismantling that interpretation. Nicholas Orme's exhaustive and fascinating portrait of medieval English childhood is the latest and perhaps most cogent of such works—and it demolishes the Ariès thesis. Orme, a distinguished if at times recondite historian (Early British Swimming and The Minor Clergy of Exeter Cathedral are among his previous fifteen books), examines and assesses a breathtaking range of source material—from primers, diaries, and poems to coroners' records and ancient shoes—and concludes, in a triumph of judicious scholarship and common sense, that medieval children were "ourselves, five hundred or a thousand years ago."

Ariès asserted that because the death of children was so common, parents, expecting the worst, were less emotionally attached to their offspring than are parents today. True, an astonishing number of children died (probably at least 42 percent before the age of ten), but Orme convincingly—and heartbreakingly—argues that parents cherished their children no less, and grieved no less at their loss, than do modern parents. His survey of a vast and complex subject is lightened by his obvious fascination with some of its more obscure details (children's emotional and religious world view, their reading habits, and the everyday dangers they faced), which makes his work both authoritative and eccentric. Orme's is one of the most beautifully and intelligently illustrated academic works I've encountered; in this and in his sensitive, reasonable, and lucid weighing of confusing and generally sparse evidence, Medieval Children is a model of accessible scholarly history.

—Benjamin Schwarz

The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz
translated, edited, and introduced by David Cairns
Everyman's Library, 676 pages, $25.00

In our age the memoir has become an exalted form of complaint, in which friends, family, and society itself are peevishly taken to task. But when Hector Berlioz sat down to tell his story, in 1848, the creator of the Symphonie Fantastique had other fish to fry. He meant, as he wrote in his preface, to set the record straight on his own life, but also to deliver a crash course for aspiring composers, in order to acquaint them with the perils and pitfalls of the trade. Regarding the latter, Berlioz tended to be gloomy: "The art of music, long since dying, is now quite dead. They are about to bury it or rather throw it on the dung-heap." Yet the Memoirs, which were not published until after his death, in 1870, are unlikely to have discouraged a single aspirant to the musical throne. They are too exuberant, too acerbic, and too entertaining—even when (or especially when) the author is caught up in one of his all too frequent Romantic agonies.

Determined to avoid a kiss-and-tell confession, Berlioz refracted his life through his art. An episode of puppy love, then, produced this comical snapshot of the artist as a very young man: "My youthful essays in composition bore the stamp of a profound melancholy. Almost all my melodies were in the minor. I was aware of the limitation but could not help it. My romantic Meylan passion had edged my thoughts in permanent black crepe." Elsewhere, though, his narrative instincts prodded him toward bravura storytelling. Indeed, the tale of his betrayal by the pianist Camille Moke, which nearly drove him to murder and suicide in 1831, has the snap and sizzle of Stendhal (whom Berlioz observed shortly thereafter in Rome, a "pot-bellied little man with the mischievous smile," driving his carriage through the sewage flooding the Piazza Navona). Other adventures took the author across the length and breadth of Europe, where he ran with a nineteenth-century equivalent of the Rat Pack: Liszt, Mendelssohn, Paganini, and the occasional crowned head.

The Memoirs were first translated into English by a Victorian sister act, Rachel and Eleanor Holmes, in 1884. David Cairns, the author of the definitive biography of Berlioz, produced his own version in 1969, which he has further updated for this edition. The result is a superbly readable text that should win the author a wider audience than ever (although I wish that Cherubini, the hero's arch-nemesis at the Conservatoire, weren't made to sound so much like Chico Marx). According to at least one witness, Berlioz's last words represented a kind of parting shot at posterity: "They are finally going to play my music." But as it turned out, that was only the half of it—they were going to read his book, too.

—James Marcus

Recent books by Atlantic authors:

"A Problem From Hell": America and the Age of Genocide, by Samantha Power. Basic Books/New Republic, 600 pages, $30.00. A portion of this book first appeared in the September 2001 Atlantic as "Bystanders to Genocide."

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