Sunday, June 11, 2017

On "A Handful of Dust" by Evelyn Waugh ***

Were it not for the masterfully cold ending--one that is an almost verbatim casting of Waugh's great story "The Man Who Liked Dickens"--this novel likely would have been almost entirely forgettable. This is not Waugh the humorist at work here; this is Waugh the bitter divorcee. There is plenty of commentary about English high society, and the story itself is compelling enough to keep one reading, but the book consists in large chunks of dialogue and much of it not very good. Characters speak for paragraphs, expositorily telling the story: "I am going to do X, and then because I feel this way, I will do Y. Do you think that will please my spouse or will it make for hurt? I do so hope for hurt." "I believe that your husband will find your actions to be difficult to adjust to. He has always been . . ." And several of the central characters in the story have little to recommend themselves as people.

The book is forged mostly around the Lasts--Tony and Brenda--who maintain an estate called Hetton and throw regular parties. A man named Beaver comes to visit Tony, a man whom Tony barely knows. Brenda takes a kind of liking to him. He is young and difficult to make love her, and that is precisely why she likes him.

Bored by life in the country and wanting to take up with Beaver, Brenda arranges to rent a flat in London that the family can barely afford. She tells Tony it is so that she can study economics. More and more time is spent away from him--and more and more time with Beaver. Tony never seems to catch on, even as Brenda and Beaver become the talk of high society.

Brenda attempts to set Tony up with another woman. The efforts fails masterfully.

Meanwhile, their son John (whose age is hard to fathom since he too speaks in complete paragraphs) is left without a mom. Reared by nannies and butlers, he has a great liking for horse riding. And it is a tragedy involving him that brings the whole affair to light.

So little sympathy can be thrown Brenda's way by the time that divorce is in the offing, Waugh's description of her next acts make her utterly detestable. She's conned her husband of money for months, ignored her child, and taken up with another man. And now Tony agrees to go through with setting up a divorce for her by faking his own affair. The attempt does not go well, but rather than be happy with the alimony Tony is offering, Brenda opts to sue him for an amount that will force Tony to put the family estate on the auction block, this so that she can be supported in the manner in which she is used to and so that her lover, Beaver, can be supported as well (since he has no means of support for himself). It is this that pushes Tony to run away to the jungles of Brazil, where the story's final tragic ending comes into being.

What readers get then is a sense of the utter desolation that divorce works on a man, one that is put into metaphor by Tony's experiences in the jungle. But because the text seems so one sided, the characters fail ultimately to feel fully forged.

2 comments:

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