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.

beauty school-deftones

what’s in a name?

henry lamb's evelyn waugh, 1929

Evelyn Waugh is a man, never mind his name or Henry Lamb’s portrait.

It’s a pleasant switch-up from the George Eliots, Carson McCullers, Ray Eames, J.K. Rowlings, Lionel Shrivers and Harper Lees who mask their gender in neuter/masculine names and initials to be ‘taken more seriously’.

Does your expectation of a novel’s worth vary with the author’s gender?

In an age of information, is this type of guile effective?


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*