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Next Up: A Handful Of Dust

I expect my 49th book, A Handful of Dust, to be a nice break from some of the weighty novels I’ve read recently.

This novel, written by Evelyn Waugh, has two things I like right off the bat. First, it’s short–only 230 pages. Second, it’s satirical, and I love satirical novels like Catch 22.

The story looks to be about a mooch who has an affair with a wealthy married woman–a woman who lives in a massive British estate that sounds similar to Downton Abbey. So I’m interested to see how Waugh works satire into what seems to be a somewhat depressing story. But aren’t they all depressing?

Some quick facts about A Handful of Dust and its author Evelyn Waugh:

  • Evelyn Waugh is a dude. I didn’t know that until recently.
  • The novel, published in 1934, is ranked #34 on the Modern Library Top 100 in addition to appearing on the Time list.
  • The title comes from a verse in T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Wasteland (more to come on this).
  •  A Handful of Dust was adapted to an obscure film directed by Charles Sturridge in 1988.
  • Graham Greene called Evelyn Waugh “the greatest novelist of my generation.”
  • Waugh wrote many novels in addition to A Handful of Dust. The most notable, Brideshead Revisited, is also on the Time list.

What does Time say?

Devoted to his wife, Brenda, his son, John Andrew, and to Hetton, his very ugly neo-Gothic homestead, Tony Last will lose all three. As his name is always announcing, Last lives at the end of a dying age, the brittle, exhausted 1930s, when England, at least Waugh’s England, is a place where Brenda can throw herself at the feet of a childish lover and where Last can discard his life on an absurd caprice….If this is Waugh at his bleakest it’s also Waugh at his deepest, most poisonously funny.

Sounds like a sad story. But at least it’s supposed to be funny.

Any thoughts on Waugh or A Handful of Dust?

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13 Comments Post a comment
  1. ….by a boy named Sue.

    Like

    October 24, 2012
  2. Ryan #

    I finished it last week and, while some parts were incredibly funny, there were some very grim moments. I don’t want to give anything away, but the midpoint of the story clashed harshly with the mood of the novel. That being said, I did enjoy the novel.

    Like

    October 24, 2012
  3. This was the book that was selected to expose the raw recruits fresh out of High School to the decidedly more demanding experience of studying literature at the UC. Now, almost exactly fifty years later, I can still recreate much of the novel in my mind so I it is somewhat allowable for me to make comment (I also reread A Handful of Dust later in life).

    First, Evelyn, like Shirley, has been a man’s name in England for centuries. Many current women’s names were derived from the local aristocracy (like the Earl of Shirley).

    Second, think of “black humor.” Waugh is well known for his humor in most of his novels but it is decidedly dark. Most Americans only know his lesser novel, The Loved One (and who can forget Mr. Joyboy in the movie version of the book?).

    Third, Waugh is very British and much of his fiction represents an England (and the colonies) that existed between the world wars. You might find his approach to literature akin to other writers such as E. M. Forster and it’s not a stretch to see that Anthony Powell was influenced by the writing of Evelyn Waugh.

    Fourth, A Handful of Dust has possibly the most memorable conclusion in literature. Not much really happens in the book and the final scene is perfect!

    Like

    October 24, 2012
    • Good insight. Would you compare his dark humor to Vonnegut or David Foster Wallace? Obviously, his style is very different from both.

      Like

      October 24, 2012
      • Waugh is very much more British and proper (American authors are decidedly less disciplined and tend to be messy). It might be better to use the cardinality of the mystery genre: British mysteries are civilized and cerebral while American mysteries tend to be overly sensuous and violent.

        I think the comparison with Anthony Powell is a good one.

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        October 24, 2012
        • I can already see similarities to Powell even though I just started the book. But, like Theresa says below, it’s Powell with plot and drama. Seems like the characters in A Handful of Dust and Dance could’ve even ran in the same social circles.

          Like

          October 24, 2012
  4. We read this in my book club a few months back – it does introduce you to a dismal bunch of folks. When you look into Waugh’s life, you’ll find it to have some pretty striking autobiographical elements, which makes it interesting – and while reading it, I couldn’t always tell if he was writing about a life that he loved or hated – I think it might have been both. Like someone else mentions, the story takes a very jarring turn, but for me, that was what ended up moving into “classic” range. Look for the “funny” parts to be more like biting, true observations about life and people that make you laugh in the way you might if someone punched you in a fair fight and you respond with “good shot.”

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    October 24, 2012
    • I really like your insights into this – will keep them in mind when I read it!

      Like

      October 24, 2012
  5. Teresa #

    I agree with your comments. The writing feels like Powell, but Powell with drama and plot twists. And Brideshead Revisited, also by Waugh, felt like Forster The black humor in Dust is startling — a little much for me at times, but I liked the book.

    Like

    October 24, 2012
    • Teresa #

      I was referring to Mike’s comments. IPhone lost the thread …

      Like

      October 24, 2012
  6. Mayra #

    Fun fact: He was also married to a woman named Evelyn!

    Like

    October 24, 2012
    • They were called He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn.

      Like

      October 25, 2012

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