bad manners on a platter

two words: bitter humour

a handful of dust, 1934

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.

'he evelyn' and 'she evelyn'

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.

soundtrack
beauty school-deftones

the great great gatsby

two words: deco decadence

fitzgerald loved cugat's illustration so much, he wrote the image into the novel

‘The Great Gatsby‘ is a title F. Scott Fitzgerald once dismissed as “weak, since there’s nothing ‘great’ about Gatsby,” (Jan 24, 1925 in a letter to his long-time friend, publisher and mentor, Maxwell Perkins.) He preferred the more modest and honest ‘Trimalchio in West Egg’. Let us all, in unison, thank the book gods he didn’t get his way. The title of this novel is splendidly evocative. The irony is just extra.

The Great Gatsby, a tale set in the summer of 1922 on the twin islands of East and West Egg, New York, is a contemplative recount of the brief but profound friendship between Jay Gatsby and the narrator of the novel, Nick Carraway. Gatsby, a quixotic enigmatic millionaire who nightly throws his arms out to a distant green light across the bay between East and West Egg, and Nick, a laid-back mid-westerner newly come east, partly to explore the bond trade and partly to flee a loveless ‘attachment’, have an instant liking for each other. But neither can foresee the devastating carnage that waylays them in that sticky boozed-up libertine summer.

The Great Gatsby evolves into a caustic critique of the physical and metaphorical divide between old and new money, the inevitable desolation of the self-made man, and the destructive power of greed, deceit and betrayal. With tight witty prose (including hilarious ‘Oggsford’ accents and drunken diatribes), decadent mansions and sweeping landscapes, and vain blindly romantic characters, Fitzgerald effortlessly delivers a breathtaking art-deco masterpiece.

Which makes it all the more staggering that it was a commercial flop when it was first published in 1925.

fitzgerald with his wife and muse, zelda. daisy quotes her when she wishes her daughter to be "a beautiful little fool."

Perhaps The Great Gatsby was swallowed whole by the new craze, i.e. the formless novel. James Joyce had recently dropped Ulysses on the literary world and stream-of-consciousness, peripatetic plots and the ‘serious novel’ were all the rage. A perfectly formed, circular, ‘trivial’ novel like The Great Gatsby may have been doomed, it certainly wasn’t on trend.

The intrepid author, however, knew he had a winner. In another letter to Perkins, Fitzgerald writes,

I think all the reviews I’ve seen have been stupid and lousy. Some day they’ll eat grass. May 22, 1925.

True to his -aah- expressive prophesy, The Great Gatsby has become one of the most celebrated American novels ever written. (Never mind that I’d neither read it nor seen the film adaptations, I knew the name and I’m catching up fast.)

The Great Gatsby is described as definitively Jazz Age, a term Fitzgerald is credited with, and is influential in creating a new wave of sexually empowered women as seen in the epigraph,

Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her;
If you can bounce high, bounce for her too,
Till she cry “Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover,
I must have you!
(a poem written by one of Fitzgerald’s own fictitious characters, Thomas Parke D’Invilliers, the cheek!) which demonstrates why Fitzgerald is highly revered by musicians and feminists alike, among countless others. Ninety years on, The Great Gatsby continues to inspire writers, illustrators, actors, directors and readers of all ilk: Baz Luhrmann of Moulin Rouge fame, has recently begun directing its fourth screen adaptation with a bonafide stellar cast including Carey Mulligan and Leo DiCaprio;

leo dicaprio, carey mulligan and tobey maguire: cast of the new gatsby adaptation, directed by baz luhrmann

the novel has been used as inspiration in other inter-textual and modernized novels such as Bodega Dreams and The Double Bind; there’s a Gatsby graphic novel; an opera; and even a video game. Which makes it all the more heart-breaking that Fitzgerald, having also written The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, died penniless at 44, believing himself a failure.

Let us learn to show our friendship for a man when he is alive and not when he is dead. The Great Gatsby p.103

So allow me to join Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway in professing the greatness of The Great Gatsby, no irony intended. It is a novel of the short and sweet kind, beautiful in every way, and one I thoroughly enjoyed.

soundtrack
i got rhythm-ella fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby is available free online.

titles…

Though still a work in progress, here are the novels that I’ll be reading in 2011.

Struck through titles have been completed.
Bold titles are presently being read.
* indicates reread.

  1. 1984-1948-George Orwell
  2. The Adventures of Augie March-1953-Saul Bellow
  3. All The King’s Men-1946-Robert Penn Warren
  4. American Pastoral-1997-Philip Roth
  5. An American Tragedy-1925-Theodore Dreiser
  6. Animal Farm-1946-George Orwell*
  7. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret-1970-Judy Blume
  8. At Swim-Two-Birds-1938-Flann O’Brien
  9. Atonement-2002-Ian McEwan
  10. Beloved-1987-Toni Morrison*
  11. The Big Sleep-1939-Raymond Chandler
  12. The Blind Assassin-2000-Margaret Atwood
  13. Blood Meridian-1986-Cormac McCarthy
  14. Catch-22-1961-Joseph Heller
  15. The Catcher in the Rye-1951-J.D. Salinger*
  16. A Clockwork Orange-1963-Anthony Burgess
  17. The Corrections-2001-Jonathan Franzen
  18. The Death of the Heart-1958-Elizabeth Bowen
  19. The French Lieutenant’s Woman-1969-John Fowles
  20. Go Tell it on the Mountain-1953-James Baldwin
  21. The Grapes of Wrath-1939-John Steinbeck
  22. The Great Gatsby-1925-F. Scott Fitzgerald
  23. A Handful of Dust-1934-Evelyn Waugh
  24. The Heart is A Lonely Hunter-1940-Carson McCullers
  25. The Heart of the Matter-1948-Graham Greene
  26. Herzog-1964-Saul Bellow
  27. Housekeeping-1981-Marilynne Robinson
  28. I, Claudius-1934-Robert Graves
  29. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe-1950-C. S. Lewis
  30. Lolita-1955-Vladimir Nabokov*
  31. Lord of the Flies-1955-William Golding
  32. Lucky Jim-1954-Kingsley Amis
  33. The Man Who Loved Children-1940-Christina Stead
  34. Midnight’s Children-1981-Salman Rushdie
  35. Mrs. Dalloway-1925-Virginia Woolf
  36. Naked Lunch-1959-William Burroughs
  37. Never Let Me Go-2005-Kazuo Ishiguro
  38. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest-1962-Ken Kesey
  39. The Painted Bird-1965-Jerzy Kosinski
  40. A Passage to India-1924-E. M. Forster
  41. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie-1961-Muriel Sparks
  42. Snow Crash-1992-Neal Stephenson
  43. The Sound and the Fury-1929-William Faulkner
  44. The Sun Also Rises-1926-Ernest Hemingway
  45. Super Sad True Love Story-2010-Gary Shteyngart
  46. Things Fall Apart-1959-Chinua Achebe*
  47. To the Lighthouse-1927-Virginia Woolf
  48. Ubik-1969-Phillip Dick
  49. Ulysses-1922-James Joyce
  50. Under The Net-1954-Iris Murdoch
  51. Under The Volcano-1947-Malcolm Lowry
  52. Watchmen-1986-Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons*
  53. White Teeth-2000-Zadie Smith*
  54. Wide Sargasso Sea-1966-Jean Rhys*