Books March 2002

New & Noteworthy

Stories of doomed affairs, by Richard Ford; a "profoundly satisfying" literary correspondence; children of the Middle Ages

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

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