Caught up to her among the luminous clouds of deity

A Handful of Dust
by Evelyn Waugh

After my recent discovery of Waugh’s genius, I was glad that this title was picked by my book group. I must say it didn’t bowl me over the way Vile Bodies did, and if it hadn’t been for the book group discussion I would have been left very confused by it.

By which I don’t mean that the style or storyline was confusing. I mean that it has an odd tone, one that I didn’t entirely like. It’s, as you might expect, a comedy, but always at people’s expense – the comedy is never about the circumstances or event, so it’s a painful comedy.

The story is that an apparently happy marriage – that of Tony and Brenda Last – very suddenly falls apart thanks to an unappealing interloper. But can it really have been as happy as it first appeared if it is able to fall apart so suddenly and apparently easily? There are clues that boredom may be setting in:

“Although they were both in good health and of unexceptional figure, Tony and Brenda were on a diet. It gave an interest to their meals…Under their present system they denied themselves the combination of protein and starch at the same meal…
‘I’m sure it does me a great deal of good.’
‘Yes, darling, and when we get tired of it we might try an alphabetical diet, having things beginning with a different letter every day.'”

This is a book absolutely loaded with irony (in a possibly very bitter, personal way) and crammed full of vicious attacks on high society and the people therein. It simultaneously deplores and is guilty of snobbery. And yet, if you cut through the irony, what you are left with is really a sad, painfully real story of a marriage falling apart.

“…opinion was greatly in favour of Brenda’s adventure. [She} was filling a want long felt by those whose simple, vicarious pleasure it was to discuss the subject in bed over the telephone. For them her circumstances shed peculiar glamour; for five years she had been a legendary, almost ghostly name, the imprisoned princess of fairy story, and now that she had emerged there was more enchantment in the occurrence, than in the mere change of habit of any other circumspect wife. Her very choice of partner gave the affair an appropriate touch of fantasy…the joke figure they had all known and despised, suddenly caught up to her among the luminous clouds of deity…”

If you asked most people when they were halfway through this book I imagine they would say they didn’t like and didn’t care about any of the characters. And yet when bad stuff happened to them, or threatened to, I found that I did care. (And according to my book group I was not alone in this.) I think Waugh’s real genius is in observing people so well, so minutely, that even his least appealing characters are genuinely believably real.

Which is not to say that there isn’t some element of send-up going on. Considering Waugh’s cleverness it can’t be accidental that the couple at the centre of it all are Mr and Mrs Last. But the last of what? At first, you might conclude that they are the last couple about who married for love rather than money/convenience. But actually there are other love matches in the background and Brenda’s love for Tony disappears so quickly you have to wonder whether it was ever really there.

Perhaps Tony is the last of his generation to care about his big country house; he is completely devoted to it where other families are all selling off their estates. But he’s not very good at being a country gentleman, so maybe that’s not it either.

Perhaps Tony is the last faithful man in high society. There are some painful sequences where various friends (including Brenda) try to throw women at Tony to make the break-up easier on him. And even when he tries to have an affair he just can’t do it. Which should be admirable but somehow makes him look pathetic. (I believe there are elements of Waugh’s own marriage break-up in this novel so it could be that his self-pity and self-hatred became part of Tony’s character. This might also explain the sudden switches in sympathy, sometimes abandoning a character mid-scene.)

There is a long section at the end set in South America that is markedly different from the rest. It was originally a short story, which explains some of the tonal difference, but it actually works well as a new way of looking at British society. It’s pretty racist, which is partly a product of its time but also, I suspect, a comment on the characters who are there for all the wrong reasons, as it’s through their eyes that the racism occurs.

Someone at book group pointed out that Waugh heavily references T S Eliot, and in particular The Waste Land in this novel, which I must admit I missed despite having studied (and enjoyed) The Waste Land at uni and a verse of the poem being the epigraph for it all (and indeed the origin of the novel’s title). Ah well; what was that conversation The Readers were having about not being literary enough…?

First published 1934 by Chapman & Hall.

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