A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh (Chapman and Hall: 1934). A novel following the fate of Tony Best, a man devoted to his wife and to his family home. As the declining morals of the age begin to impact on his own life, Tony takes everything quite in his stride as his world drifts away.
I’m on record as saying I love PG Wodehouse. I took a bit of stick for it at the time. All just a bit of fun, isn’t it? Just nice gentle comedy, right? Well, yes. Wonderful, sunny, affirming comedy. I don’t see why it should be downgraded as literature just for being funny. I don....
Well, let’s not get into that again. We’ve argued once you and me. Let’s not do it again.
Let’s instead skip into a bit of Evelyn Waugh. I bring up Wodehouse only to introduce Waugh. For me, the two have a lot of similarities. His books live in the same world. The carefree generation.
The (rather large) difference though is that Waugh takes it all a little more seriously. Not that you’d notice if you took every word at face value. It’s every bit as flippant and comedic and silly as Wodehouse. His characters are just as blind and just as wonderful. His plots carry the same eccentricity.
But between those ingredients are more serious issues. There’s so much between the lines in Waugh’s work that the subtext is almost louder than the words you read. Of the handful of Waugh books that I’ve read, this is the one where he packs the most into the space underneath the surface of the narrative.
It’s a skill. It really is. To bring out so much without ever really saying it. Whereas Wodehouse mined the quirkiness of this world for laughs, Waugh does so in a way that’s both amusing and heartbreaking. He makes you laugh at the antics of this valueless generation, but by the time you’ve finished the next line you’re also angry and aching and despairing.
I have no idea how he does it, but he does, and it’s beautiful.
Every inch of his pain from the breakup of his own marriage comes through in A Handful of Dust, but at no stage does he leap into arcs of emotional prose. At no stage does he catalogue the ways in which the hurt manifests itself. At no stage does he depart the whimsical, Wodehousian voice. But it’s all there. All the bitterness. It comes through and it hits you and it makes you feel. All in between the laughs.
Which leaves me with a dilemma. No doubt I love Evelyn Waugh. I’ve read a few of his books now and he’s fast becoming one of my favourite authors (watch out Steinbeck and Wodehouse...) And, of course, I gave Wodehouse a 10GBR score. Can I afford two in one year?
Let’s think about the downsides to this book.
I can’t. I just can’t think of the downsides. I don’t care if it’s another 10GBR and you’ll probably hate me for it. It’s only my second in ten months of reviewing a book a week. I’m afraid you’ll just have to live with it.
I loved this book. You should absolutely definitely positively go out and read it.
And if you don’t love it, come back here and tell me why.
Next week (if I finish it) a book that I’m reading for a bet. If I get through it, the loser will come on here and do a guest review of his own. You have been warned.