REVIEW: A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

REVIEW: A Handful of Dust by Evelyn WaughA Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
Published: Dell Paperbacks (1934), Paperback, 270pg
Source: Freebie
Genres: Contemporary, Fiction, Satire

Evelyn Waugh’s 1935 novel is a mordantly funny vision of aristocratic decadence and ennui in England between the wars.

It tells the story of Tony Last, an aristocrat who, to the irritation of his wife, in inordinately obsessed with his Victorian gothic country house and life. Bored with her husband’s old-fashioned ways, Lady Brenda begins an affair with an ambitious social climber. Faced with the collapse of his marriage and a sudden family tragedy, Tony is driven to seek solace in a foolhardy search for the fabled El Dorado in the wilds of Brazil, where he finds himself at the mercy of a jungle that is only slightly more savage than the one he left behind in England.

Here is a sublime example of the incomparably brilliant and wicked wit of one of the 20th century’s most accomplished novelists. (from Amazon)

You may remember my review of another Evelyn Waugh book from last summer’s British humor class. Or maybe not, because I can barely remember that post, and I’m the one that wrote it. But basically I hated it, and I hated Evelyn Waugh and I wanted nothing more to do with him.

Then I found a two-in-one book of his in a free book box (the same box that had Rebecca) and I thought “well, why not.” I think I decided to give Evelyn Waugh another go because of something Stephen Fry said about him– about Waugh being one of his favorite authors alongside Wodehouse and Wilde– anyway, I had the book, and I brought it to BEA with me, and then I read the first novel and I realized what, exactly, was so good about Evenly Waugh’s writing.

The author

That book I read last summer? Wasn’t my thing. THIS book, A Handful of Dust, THIS is more my thing. I’ll tell you why it’s my thing, and I’ll do it in a handy list format because I’m nice like that:

1. I didn’t get the humor in The Loved One. I get the humor in A Handful of Dust! It’s less fuck-you and more oh-you-people-annoy-me. It’s satire and dark humor and it doesn’t involve too many dead people, which I guess is a bonus. I suppose Evelyn Waugh must have been less cynical and irritated when he wrote A Handful of Dust.

2. The characters are much more relatable and much less irritating, despite the fact that they’re basically stereotypes of Silly Modern British People. For all that they’re stereotypes, they still felt like real people, something that the characters in The Loved One never managed to accomplish.

3. The ending was one of the spookiest things I’ve ever read. It’s like the book went from satire to thriller to horror, although really I might have only been so horrified because Charles Dickens was involved.

4. I also think the writing in general is just better in A Handful of Dust. It’s got the same punch to it that The Loved One has, but it’s more…refined. Or something. (There are way too many ellipses, though.)

So I just really liked A Handful of Dust and now I like Evelyn Waugh much more than I did before. The other novel in my book is Decline and Fall, and I’m going to read it just as soon as I can find the blasted book again. I’ve lost it somewhere in the unpacking of suitcase/book box/etc from the BEA trip. It’s got to be around here somewhere

Read: May 22-31, 2011

The title comes from a passage in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:

I will show you something different from either

Your shadow at morning striding behind you

Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

There’s a movie adaptation with James Wilby and Judi Dench and Rupert Graves(!), and Anjelica Huston and Alec Guinness and Kristin Scott Thomas! I want to see it for the actors alone, really, even if it doesn’t really have a good rating at IMDB.

I also quite liked this quote from Waugh about how he came up with A Handful of Dust:

I had just written a short story about a man trapped in the jungle, ending his days reading Dickens aloud. The idea came quite naturally from the experience of visiting a lonely settler of that kind and reflecting how easily he could hold me prisoner […] eventually the thing grew into a study of other sorts of savages at home and the civilized man’s helpless plight among them. (via Wikipedia)

And finally, apparently some American versions have a different (happier!) ending from the original, about which I can only say: “Fuck no.” The original ending is perfect! Not everything needs a happy ending! And now I no longer wonder why Waugh became so embittered towards Americans! (Although he could have said no and not written the alternative ending. I wonder why he did it.)

15 thoughts on “REVIEW: A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh”

  1. I have only read one Waugh book, Brideshead Revisited, but I’ve always wanted to read more of his work because I know he was a close friend of Nancy Mitford, and I absolutely love her.

    1. I remember hearing something about Nancy Mitford during my summer class where I was introduced to Waugh, but I’ve never read any of her stuff. Would you recommend something in particular I should read?

    1. I know! That’s the most confusing title ever. And I keep forgetting it’s a Waugh book, besides. I just don’t think of Waugh when I think of BR, which is completely weird as it’s probably his most famous book.

  2. I’ll have to give this one a try, because my attempt to read Decline & Fall didn’t go so well. It’s very rare for be to abandon a book that’s so short to begin with, but I just didn’t care enough to finish it!

    1. Yikes! Well, now I’m worried about D&F. But I think for Waugh’s books you have to go into them expecting to not like basically all the characters, and to just focus on the plot/hidden meanings. I didn’t know that for The Loved One but I did for AHOD, so maybe that’s why I liked it better.

    1. Well, now you’re making me feel guilty! 😛 But I really didn’t like that book. I just didn’t think it was funny, and since I was in a British humor class, I think my hatred for TLO can be excused. Maybe.

    1. I think you would like his stuff! Well, probably. I’m always unsure of recommending British satire, because it can go either way so easily.

    1. Yay! Sometimes I think older books are best appreciated when you read an old copy instead of a new one. Just makes it more fun– sort of enhances the experience, I guess.

  3. I have been infinity slow about reading Brideshead Revisited, which I own and which I want to read. I somehow can’t make myself believe it will be good, even though loads of people have said loads of nice things about it.

    1. I know! Even after reading A Handful of Dust and liking it, I still don’t want to read BR. It just sounds boring, although I know it must not be. Well, hopefully it’s not.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.