A Handful of Dust, by Evelyn Waugh
This edition: Back Bay Books, 1999. Written 1934. 320 pages.
The first text message I ever received from my mum read: “Just finished Brideshead. So depressed.” I laughed out loud in the middle of the ER. After years of intending to do so, she had finally buckled down and read Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisted, partly due to my urging. I’d read it for my own first time last August, on my honeymoon. I had loved the novel, but Waugh turned out to be far too dark for her taste. I told her she probably wouldn’t enjoy A Handful of Dust much more.
(NB: With fiction, if I’m determined to read a story, I do my best to learn as little about it as possible. I avoid jacket descriptions and reviews. Thus it pains me to give away bit of a story, especially a story I enjoy, so any reader of these literary wanderings of mine will have to bear with any vagueness of description.)
I started reading A Handful of Dust sitting in the ER during a slow shift. At various points a tech, a P.A., or a nurse would pass, politely asking, “What are you reading?” The trick of not finding out what the book is about before starting is until you are a goodish way into it, you are woefully unprepared for those questions. At those various points, I answered, “I’m not sure yet. I think it’s a book about marriage;” “I don’t quite know, I think it’s about an affair;” and “It’s about the effects of divorce.” Those are all bits of the answer, but none is quite it.
Waugh is well known for having had a certain acidity of character, within and without his writings. That acidity flows beautifully through his pen in this biting satire, for without it this tale of frivolous betrayal, shallow high society, and a disintegrating family would fall into pathetic sentimentalism. His mordant comedy reveals the pettiness of his characters’ flaws without reveling in it. More importantly, perhaps, the author’s darkly light treatment underscores both the avoidability and the gravity of sin–even sin flippantly committed.
For lack of a better conclusion, let it be repeated: Tolle, lege.