two words: bitter humour
Don’t piss Evelyn Waugh off, or he’ll write a book about it.
He had a bone to pick with the 1930’s ‘tween-war English gentry and his cheating soon-to-be-ex-wife Evelyn Gardner (yes, her name was Evelyn too,) so he picked it to critical acclaim: He wrote A Handful of Dust, a charming but caustic comedy (and tragedy) of the spuriously sophisticated.
A Handful of Dust starts off as a hilarious satire of the meaningless indulgences of the English 1930’s aristocracy, then it pivots after a tragic accident into a harsh critique of a cold, cruel and doomed class. Tony and Brenda Last’s decaying marriage mirrors the failings of this generation ripe with entitlement and boredom, where sex, gossip and hypocrisy substitute for entertainment; elegant London landmarks as well as Hetton, the beloved but crumbling country estate of Tony’s childhood, are under threat of money-grabbing ‘conversion’; and unsuspecting spouses and sons are unconscionably traded in for insipid ‘second-rate snobs’ like John Beaver. At the bitter end of his dull marriage, Tony Last, complicit in his prolonged and deliberate blindness and after bearing the brunt of a callous society, duly rejects England entirely and sets out on a chimerical quest to the Brazilian jungle, where the laws, he suspects, can be no more feral. There he experiences a Dickensian symmetry that tests his will to survive in an inescapably savage world, and the novel closes on an exquisitely brutal note.
While writing A Handful of Dust, Waugh was a man scorned, evident in his furious portrayal of Brenda Last – she is a silly, shallow and selfish caricature – and his inversely sympathetic portrayal of the male protagonist, Tony Last. Despite this, the novel is thoroughly enjoyable for its mitigating wit and flare,
Let us kill in the gentlest manner. p.207,
and inadvertently, women aren’t Waugh’s only target. So too are the men who love them. The humour is savory and the social assassination sublime, which makes me want to read more Waugh, since nothing is as delightful as a well-executed comedy (or tragedy) of unspeakably bad manners.
The novel was made into a movie in 1988, directed by Charles Sturrige and lead by a radiant Kristin Scott Thomas. As with other adaptations made for scholastic purposes such as Clayton/Redford’s The Great Gatsby (the two novels read like trans-Atlantic counterparts) A Handful of Dust was not nearly as successful on film, which gives me hope for Brideshead Revisited, another novel by Waugh also on the Times List…
Anticipate changes on My List.