Saturday, May 04, 2013

Comic Novel with Tragic Moments

A Handful of DustA Handful of Dust 
by Evelyn Waugh

"Polly's party was exactly what she wished it to be, an accurate replica of all the best parties she had been to in the last year;  the same band, the same supper, and, above all, the same guests.  Hers was not the ambition to create a sensation, to have the party talked about in the months to come for any unusual feature, to hunt out shy celebrities or introduce exotic strangers.  She wanted a perfectly straight, smart party and she had got it." (p 55)

Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, on several end-of-century Top 100 lists,was published on September 3, 1934. Waugh took the title for his novel from a line in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land — “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” In Brideshead Revisited, Waugh returned to the same poem, sending Anthony Blanche out on an Oxford balcony to stutter a few lines from it. Waugh’s biographers have noted a particular connection to Eliot. Early in life, Waugh liked to associate himself with Eliot’s avant-garde style; in his late twenties, Waugh became a Catholic, as Eliot in his late twenties became Anglican; and later in life, both authors grew more conservative and wrote in support of preserving and improving the crumbling class system in Great Britain.
IN this novel we have a comedy that contains tragic events, but still manages to entertain the reader with Waugh's brilliant satire and wit. The protagonist, Tony Last, is an ossified country squire. As one of that system’s most doomed representatives when we first meet him, Last is living in blinkered bliss at Hetton Abbey, a rambling Victorian mansion renovated in tasteless neo-Gothic style. He is blithely unaware of his wife's peccadilloes. When the battle over divorce heats up Tony goes on an expedition to South America with a con man. Whether the trip is made because he is merely fooled by the con man or as a reaction to the divorce proceedings it does not work out quite as he expects. Eventually he falls under the spell of a madman named Todd who has a beloved set of Dickens novels; it is his passion to hear them read aloud, and it is Tony's personal hell to be the one required to do this.
This is Waugh at his satirical best and I can forgive his use of Dickens as torture (which reading him may be to some people anyway). While I had trouble understanding the foibles of most of the characters I understood enough of the story to become mesmerized by his brilliant satire and witty prose.

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