Evelyn Waugh, 1934, 300 p.
After finishing A Handful of Dust, I held it up and told my daughter that I thought I was in love with the author. She retorted that it’s stupid to be in love with a man who has been dead for fifty years and who has a woman’s name to boot. I told her his name was pronounced Evil-in, and she just gave me that peculiar look she wears when she’s thinking I’m retarded, and replied that he said it was Evil-in so that people wouldn’t make fun of his girly name. The wierd thing is, she could be right. I’ve always heard that it was Evil-in, but the info is secondhand, so who can really tell? I’ve read some background material on Evelyn Waugh, and he claimed to have been bullied in primary school. Perhaps his name played a major role in his victimization, so he tweaked it a little bit. I tweaked my name when I was a kid, and now, nobody makes fun of the great chartroose!
Next to Never Let Me Go, this is the best novel I’ve read all year. Mr. Waugh’s writing flows along beautifully and smoothly. I don’t think I’ve ever read any writing that seems as much at ease with itself as Mr. Waugh’s (if this makes any sense). It’s like all the words got together and held a conference and said, “let’s let old Evelyn take a nap while we arrange ourselves in perfect order on the pages here. When he wakes up, the novel will be finished!” This effortlessness translates into a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience. It didn’t hurt that A Handful of Dust is a satire, either. Give me a good satire, and I’m as happy as a puppy snacking out of a litterbox!
The novel is about a British upper-crusty couple named Tony and Brenda Last. They live in Tony’s family estate (Hetton), within easy distance of London. Tony is totally into his family home to the detriment of practically everything else. He is so immersed in fantasy about Hetton’s grandeur that he has even named some of the bedrooms after Arthurian characters (Guinevere, Lancelot, etc.). Brenda, bored with the whole “country squire and wife” existence, takes a lover in London. His name is John Beaver, and he’s an unattractive social climber, which is exactly why Brenda falls for him. A tragedy occurs that changes their lives forever, and I couldn’t help feeling that they got what they deserved, although I did feel very bad for Tony at the end. I think Tony was so blinded by his social class and what he perceived to be the correct way to behave as a “man of means” that he was truly handicapped, and he became an object of pity for me. Brenda, on the other hand, got exactly what she deserved, the stupid twit! She became an object of scorn.
What made A Handful of Dust better than practically anything else I’ve read this year is the underlying theme. We are all greedy and selfish. Appearances mean nothing; the outer shell of a person means nothing, because inside each of us is a grasping narcissist just waiting to emerge and become the center of the universe. It’s all about me, me, ME, and it always will be.
As mentioned above, I did a little background research on Evelyn Waugh. After a fairly conventional childhood, he was accepted to Oxford, where he was popular because of his astounding drinking abilities, nasty sarcasm and haughty disdain of school tradition. Due to a total lack of motivation as a student, he was expelled from Oxford and decided to commit suicide by swimming himself to death. Shortly after beginning his death swim, he ran into a school of stinging jellyfish and raced back to shore in agony. He wrote his first novel in his mid-twenties and died in 1966 at the age of 62. It has been said that he was insane at the time of his death, and it has also been said that he was a latent homosexual, even though he was married twice and fathered half-a-dozen children. Some people claim that his name was Evelyn, and not Evil-in. If his name really was Evelyn, I can see why he may have been gay. No matter what the truth is, I do know one thing for sure. I’m a little in love with Evelyn Waugh.