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.
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."