Jesse's Reviews > A Handful of Dust

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
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Sep 20, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: 1930-s, brit-lit, bright-young-things, read-in-2016, literary-modernism, flappers-gin-and-jazz
Read from May 23 to June 07, 2016

Waugh’s novel makes me think of a curious little pen knife kept under plate glass display at an antique shop: a decorative little handle, perhaps delicately wrought in chrome, looking charmingly innocuous nestled among the moldering paste jewelry and assorted tchotchkes. But then, with the flick of a finger, the blade appears—unexpectedly sharp, dazzlingly shiny, potentially cruel. Careful now: Waugh might cut you.

A Handful of Dust is perhaps similarly deceptive, especially when read today. Like an alluring little relic of another age, it satirizes the values and behaviors of an era that today feel quite distant and removed. And yet, despite their obvious foibles I actually liked both Brenda and Tony Last, Downton Abbey-esque minor aristocracy whose happy-seeming seven year marriage suddenly but somewhat understandably begins to spiral. Quietly and unobtrusively things for the Lasts run off the rails, even if neither partner seems particularly discontent with their current situation. Instead each drifts about in a cloud of their own preoccupations and unvoiced concerns, making them oblivious to the fact that there is, in fact, quite a bit amiss. It’s a chilling indictment of how quiet enervation can be just destructive as fiery confrontation.

Which perhaps gives a misleading description of a novel which remains on the whole quite jaunty. Not exactly laugh-out-loud funny, the humor is instead incredibly dry—and perhaps a bit brittle—employing wordplay and double entendre (ie “Lady Cockpurse”) and acerbic caricature (the failed, faux-oriental vamp “Princess” Julie Abdul Akbar). But stealthily the glamor of London society rituals give way to an underlying despair—it’s not for nothing that the title and opening epigraph are plucked from Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”

Invoking that great landmark of literary modernism is apt for other reasons as well: though not as obviously experimental as Eliot’s poem, I was consistently impressed by the novel’s elegantly economical style. The reliance on dialogue and verbal interchange to convey meaning is almost cinematic, also emphasized in the way scenes are cut into small little snippets that skip around like so many jump cuts. Given the obvious technical mastery on display, I should have had more confidence in authorial control when the last third of the novel juts out into unexpected territory; I admit that for a while I was worried the story had gone irremediably awry just like the Last’s marriage. I need not have worried though, as everything plays itself out with a brutal efficiency and shocking force.

The Penguin Classics (UK edition) I own includes an alternate ending as an appendix, originally attached to an American serialized version of the novel for legal reasons. It’s certainly a much more conventional resolution, but even if it doesn’t contain the same jolt as the intended conclusion there’s still something deeply haunting about it. Perhaps, it seems to ask, reconciliation was indeed possible for the Lasts via roads not taken. But for how long? At the very last moment a turn is taken, and the entire cycle seems to snap back into place, poised to begin yet again.

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Reading Progress

05/23/2016 marked as: on-our-bookshelves
05/23/2016 marked as: currently-reading
06/02/2016 page 106
41.0% "Yikes: this is sharp as a knife, and it's starting to cut."
06/06/2016 page 181
70.0% "Hmmm... not particularly enjoying this unexpected detour to South America. Now that native people rather than out-of-fashion gothic furniture are being used as narrative props the arch, satiric tone just feels, well, uncomfortable." 4 comments
06/07/2016 marked as: read
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Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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message 1: by Evan (new) - added it

Evan I really honed in on this statement of yours: " It’s a chilling indictment of how quiet enervation can be just destructive as fiery confrontation. "

Because this is the beginning of Marc Antony's downfall in Antony in Cleopatra, which I just read, so it's very fresh in my mind. Antony's enervation was not quiet (certainly not for he and his lover and its ramifications were felt far beyond the lovers' embrace)... His enervation, or dereliction of duty is more of a decadent indolence .

Sorry, I always see connections. That's how my mind works.


Jesse A&C might be the last major Shakespeare work I've neither read nor seen(!!). I really need to get to it one of these days. A really interesting observation though.

(And I'm used to connections such as these--that's exactly how my bf's mind works too!)


message 3: by Evan (new) - added it

Evan Your bf is obviously a great man, then. Haha


message 4: by Dolors (new)

Dolors I like the literary and non-literary connections you've peppered this text with, Jesse. I do have reservations about Waugh's satirical style though, whereas I can take in poetry (hence, my complete admiration for Eliot), I do not digest it so readily when sophisticated prose is involved...


Jesse Thanks for your comment, Dolors! Over the years I've become less and less interested in the benchmarks of "high modernism" (Eliot, Pound, etc) and instead find myself fascinated by the many ways experimental techniques found their ways into a variety of texts considered more "mainstream." I find Waugh a beautiful example of how this can work--he subtly slips some of Eliot's disjunction into what is otherwise elegantly shaped narrative flow.


message 6: by Tom (new)

Tom Love the opening para: vivid and insightful.


Joseph the pen knife metaphor is very apt. Waugh 's later novels are more poetic than the early satires but they do lose much of the sharp wit


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