I prefer his elegiac Catholic novel Brideshead Revisited to his relentlessly acrid satires, but Waugh was astonishingly able to do it all: satire, comedy, realism, Catholic fiction, a war trilogy, short stories, travel, and essays.
I just finished rereading A Handful of Dust.
And when I Googled it I discovered:
The WSJ Book Club is reading Evelyn Waugh’s tragicomic masterpiece “A Handful of Dust.”
Although A Handful of Dust is gut-wrenching, most critics consider it a satire. (Yes, it is a satire.) Is it Waugh’s masterpiece? Well, it is pretty damned good. Waugh is so harshly hyperbolic in his depiction of London society and the casual wantonness of the charming Brenda Last that we laugh. But as the novel progresses, we are shocked by the suffering of the innocent.
The relationship of the Lasts is the crux of the novel. Tony Last, a landowner who adores his unattractive Gothic house, Hetton Abbey, is not very sociable. While Brenda longs to go to weekend parties, Tony likes to putter about the estate. When he reads in the guidebook that his house is “now devoid of interest” because it was rebuilt in 1864 in the Gothic style, Tony is amused.
Unkinder things had been said. His Aunt Frances, embittered by an upbringing of unremitting severity, remarked that the plans of the house must have been adapted by Mr. Pecksniff from one of his pupil’s designs for an orphanage.
The Dickensian note sounds early in A Handful of Dust. The Pecksniffian architecture divides the feelings of Tony and his charming wife, Brenda, who finds the house depressing. Tony likes tradition; Brenda wants novelty. They are the Lasts.
At first they seem to be a happy couple. He and Brenda endearingly play games about being on a diet, though they are healthy and slim:. And they are amused by their son John, age 6 or 7, who hilariously quotes the racier sayings of Ben, the groom.
But when John Beaver, a London parasite who mooches off his mother, shows up at Hetton Abbey for the weekend, bored Brenda becomes infatuated. That shows a high degree of boredom, because he is very boring.
So she takes off to London and Tony believes she is studying economics.. Brenda is mad for Mr. Beaver, and Tony is the only one who doesn’t know she is having an affair.
I cannot go further without giving away the plot, but there are tragic, shocking developments. Tony pays a high price for Brenda’s infidelity (almost literally). So is this a Catholic novel? What happens is horrifying.
The ending may change your feelings about Dickens.
MORE SUMMER READING.
Now I suffer from the opposite ailment: “internet overload.” There are so many literary prizes to read about online in excruciating detail that I have become indifferent. Nay, I do not just have ennui: I am traumatized by prizes! Somebody just won? For WHAT! For 1-2-3-Ennui: a collection of poetry written at the End of the Empire. God, I don’t know when that was. I’m too busy blogging to remember any history dates except 451 B.C. Or was it 452? You get my drift.
Shall I catch up with the Man Booker this summer? If I can finish two, I will be satisfied.
Here are three I need to read:
Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies. I loved Wolf Hall, but a little of Cromwell goes a long way with me. And I didn’t see the PBS version.
Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. I read part of it and found it very entertaining, but I put it aside because I was in a Tolstoy phase. I shall go back to it one day (I hope).
I don’t think I can bear to read another war novel, so haven’t checked out Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I have already read Thomas Keneally’s Shame and the Captives (World War II POWs in Australia), and two Korean War novels, Jane Anne Phillips’ Lark and Termite and Chang-Rae Lees’s The Surrendered.
Why so much war?
End the war. Bring Home the troops.