2009: 72. A Handful of Dust

“Was anyone hurt?”

“No one I am thankful to say,” said Mrs. Beaver, “except two housemaids who lost their heads and jumped through a glass roof into the paved court…

A Handful of Dust, Evelyn Waugh

I’ve read this book before, and not liked it, and I’d constructed a story that explained my previous reaction, namely, that this was the second Waugh that I’d read, after reading Brideshead Revisited, and that I hadn’t realized that it was supposed to be a dark satire - I was expecting something more in a Brideshead vein.  Well, now I reread A Handful of Dust having read many, many Waugh novels, some satirical, some more “straight”, and I come the conclusion that, no, it wasn’t the order that I read the books that shaped my reaction - rather it is the fact that I hate this book.  I understand that it’s supposed to be a dark satire, but it’s too much for little old me.  (SPOILERS below).  The book tells the story of Tony and Brenda Last and the break up of their marriage I could take the dissolution of a perfectly happy marriage on the wife’s adulterous whim*, I can take the ending where the main character is stuck in a remote jungle reading Dickens to a madman, but the cavalier treatment of the death of the Last’s son John was almost too much for me.  I mean, there is dark satire, and then there is plain cruelty, and I think that this book toes the line.  

The real problem is, I think, that the characters were too real for me to be able to read a blackly comic version of their demise - particularly the young boy.  I prefer my satire an inch deep, and I like my Waugh to either have thin characters and good satire (i.e. Scoop or Decline and Fall) or with real characters and real plots (i.e., Brideshead, and Men at Arms.) This falls in the middle and it is just too mean spirited for little old me.

*I originally had a whole bit on the nasty misogyny of the book, particularly with regard to Brenda, but I did a little reading, and now think this isn’t a hatred of women thing so much as a “hatred of Waugh’s first wife who broke up their own marriage through infidelity” which makes it less appalling.  Which isn’t to say Waugh wasn’t a misogynist - that I need think more about, but I suspect the answer will be yes - just that here he was picking a more personal grudge.

Date/Place Completed:  June 2009; D.C.

Categories: Fiction, Modern Library Top 100, Book Resolutions, The Evelyn Waugh Project , Re-Read

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017