Book Review: A Handful Of Dust

A Handful Of Dust, by Evelyn Waugh

There are some writers whose writing hits a bit close to home, and Evelyn Waugh is definitely someone who I think I can relate to and whose writing I greatly appreciate.  This novel is the work of someone who is savagely witty, and who has within him the compulsive need to write about himself and his own experience with barely fictionalized names and situations that are full of inside references [1], and who has something to write about that isn’t very funny.  The novel itself has a bit of a structural problem in that the author more or less wrote himself into a corner and chose two ways out, one of which was to tack on an independent story at the end about a man imprisoned in rural South America reading Dickens to the local lord of the country that had been independently published as a short story, and the second of which was to make a particularly cynical ending that does not really end up being enjoyable, and which is evidence that he had come to an impasse and didn’t know how to end the novel.  There are worse crimes–this novel is biting and savage and fierce, and one can feel the author’s pain at betrayal, something which is not always comfortable for a writer such as myself whose savage wit and deeply autobiographical writing are not too far removed from his own.

The story itself centers on the disastrous breakup of a marriage between Tony Last, a decent and honorable man who happens to be passionately interested in restoring his old house in the countryside, and his bored wife who has an affair with a completely unsuitable young man only interested in her because she can be his sugar momma.  The two of them have a son, and although he gets fairly bratty in the face of the dissolution of his parents’ marriage, he ends up dying in an accident about halfway through the novel that is treated with savage comic wit, as he had the same first name as his mother’s paramour and she is relieved that it is her son and not her lover who died.  The author then takes some savage jabs at the justice system and how it screws men over when it comes to divorce cases, and one can get a feel for how the author himself felt when trying to get his first marriage annulled by Rome on account of his first wife’s fraudulent and adulterous behavior from the beginning of the marriage.  This book is the literary equivalent of someone cutting themselves in order to draw some sort of insight out of it.  Even though it is well-crafted and sardonically witty, one feels like a voyeur for doing it.

In this book something is true that is true in what is generally consider the later works by the author, and that is that two very strong tendencies of his were at war.  From the beginning of the author’s writings to the end, there is a strong tendency towards a cynical attitude of fatalism towards a world that seems without purpose and without a great deal of justice.  However, at war with that native tendency, a tendency I must admit I see within my own approach to our absurd existence, there was another tendency, and that was a desire to believe that there would be justice in this world, and a desire to write according to his religious worldview.  As someone who understands this tension myself, I must say that later Waugh is a lot less anarchical than early Waugh, and this book definitely marks a shift that adds a certain amount of weight and struggle to the author’s writing, which before was almost effortlessly witty and cynical and afterward carry with them a certain amount of distaste at the cruel way the world works, without entirely blunting the author’s rapier sense of wit and sarcasm about the failings of his culture and class and civilization, all of which are in evidence here.

[1] See, for example:


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Love & Marriage and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Book Review: A Handful Of Dust

  1. Pingback: Why U No Finish: The Far River | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Audiobook Review: Great Courses: Classics Of British Literature: Part 4 | Edge Induced Cohesion

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