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.
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.)