Many critics consider Evelyn Waugh’s Handful of Dust to be a modern classic, and the Richmond Heights Memorial Library Book Club agrees that the honor is earned.
In this 1930’s tale of a man, Tony Last, ruined and wronged by his cheating wife Brenda, Waugh manages to viciously skewer the British elite class, their assumptions, and their mores. The satire is both sharp and subtle, though occasionally straining credulity. However, moment to moment, sentence to sentence, the book rings true, with a sort of unforced realism that lends credibility to each scene. It is a rare talent to take satire, normally so dependent on cardboard characterizations and exaggerated extremes, and wed it to realistic dialogue and believable moments, down to the unspoken social assumptions and blithe indifference of the characters. The result is remarkably effective, as the reader is both contemptuous and empathetic of characters with no redeeming qualities, products of a social environment where such qualities are never considered. The villain of the piece, Brenda, performs breathtaking acts of callous selfishness, for which her peers praise her consideration, since that vicious Tony has been such a cad; such a cad!
The book contains a series of set pieces surrounding the theme of corrupt social mores, including a painful piece on prioritizing the people in their lives, a wry commentary on commercial fashion as the enemy of tradition, and a sharp parody of divorce law as practiced by the upper classes. This structure also leads to what most book club members thought was a major flaw of the work, the ending. When searching for an end to his book, Waugh lifted wholesale a short story he had previously published, “The Man Who Liked Dickens”, and incorporated it. Most book club members noted the change in tone and theme, and the essential disconnectedness of the chapter. This is further evidenced by Waugh’s own decision, when publishing the story in America and faced with copyright issues keeping him from recycling the short story again, to write a new ending that completely differs in tone and message from the first. (The 2002 “Everyman’s Library” edition, available at RHML, contains both endings.) The book club discussed whether the novel as a whole can still hang together, even as each piece is wonderfully rendered.
Next month it’s spies, intrigue, and triple dealings as we delve neck deep into the icy underworld on both sides of the Berlin Wall, with John Le Carre’s 1963 breakthrough espionage masterpiece, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. See our website, rhml.lib.mo.us, for details and future book picks. The Richmond Heights Memorial Library Book Club meets the second Thursday of each month, from 7 to 8 pm, at The Heights, 8001 Dale Ave. Please join us!