Sunday, August 12, 2018

A Handful of Dust (1934)

I read some Evelyn Waugh when I was a teen (and much later saw the TV miniseries Brideshead Revisited) but not much sticks. He's British and very dry, his humor easy to miss until you step back to look at the bigger picture. Tony and Brenda Last are in a comfortable if not passionate marriage, but trouble is on the horizon early in this story. Tony is landed aristocracy. His estate, Hetton Abbey, has been in his family for generations and is practically more important to him than his marriage. But Brenda finds it a cold old barn and has little interest in Tony's endless renovation projects. Before long she has taken an apartment in London, and then a lover, John Beaver, a shallow society player who amuses her. The marriage falls apart in slow motion and there's even more bad luck ahead for Tony. Eventually it's divorce, but Brenda and Beaver are heartless in their demands, overplaying their hand. Once Tony realizes they would force him to sell Hetton to settle with them, he finally understands what he is up against, says Fuck you (figuratively—that's me talking not Waugh), and trots off with a friend on a jaunt to South America as "explorers." This does not go well, to say the least, and Tony's final fate is inspired, creepy—and comic, when you step back. Interestingly, Waugh also wrote an alternative ending, in which Tony escapes the jungle and returns to England and reunites with Brenda, who has been rejected by Beaver when it becomes evident she's not actually wealthy. It's not a happy ending either, but it's happier. I thought it was interesting, and enjoyed the chance to read it, but prefer Waugh's first choice too. Waugh's language is careful and nuanced, very good in many small ways—his colors, for example, can be almost distractingly precise and vivid. And he's sly too. The story slips back and forth between a comically acerbic voice and tender moving tragedy, like an optical illusion with two competing images. Is it profiles of two faces or is it a vase? Still, though it is often well done and some parts are great, I think overall it might be just a little too reserved and British for me.

In case it's not at the library.

1 comment:

  1. Trotting off to South America w/ a friend in the 19th century makes me think of Alexander Von Humboldt, who was one of the first Europeans to do that. Love Andrea Wulf's book ab him, The Invention of Nature. Humboldt was gay, though; unlike Tony, apparently. I didn't do enough reading as a kid to even come close to Waugh and then generally developed this Merchant Ivory blindspot for most the romance lit stuff later. Someday I'll read a Jane Austen novel, though, I swear.