Saturday, 12 November 2016
Battered Penguins - A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
If Evelyn Waugh had opened A Handful of Dust with the first line from Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, he would have been quite justified, for Waugh's story is definitely and truly one of the saddest ever told - and not only sad, but funny and brilliantly written. In fact, while it cannot be the very best novel I have ever read, because there is no such individual category, it is certainly among the group of equal place getters in that field.
When the novel opens, Tony Last and his wife Brenda, the book's central figures, are living quietly - alas, a little too quietly for Brenda’s taste - in the 19th century “Gothic-style” Garden of Eden that is Hetton Abbey, the Last family seat. Their small son John lives there with them and thinks of nothing except his pony and the tales told him by Ben, the newly promoted “stud groom” - these revolve mostly around a strawberry roan called Thunderclap who “killed two riders and won the local point-to-point four years running” and Peppermint, the mule, “who had drunk the company’s rum ration, near Wipers in 1917.”
Into the Hetton Abbey idyll a viper soon intrudes. Tony, who asks very little of life beyond a few muffins to “make the English winter endurable” is reduced to misery - and then handed a truly terrible fate. What happens to young John is beyond awful - and brilliantly foreshadowed within the first pages. Brenda sails on, shallow, neither happy nor unhappy, simply passing from frivolity to frivolity.
Surveying the final wreckage, I wondered how Waugh managed to retain my attention while telling a story whose trajectory is so unremittingly downward. I am inclined to be a cowardly reader, putting down books that promise no happy ending. But the fact that I not only stayed with A Handful of Dust to the bitter end but read on compulsively is just one indication of Waugh’s genius.
In this book, as elsewhere, Waugh's characters are vivid, mercilessly drawn and extraordinarily believable. I am aware that I have a tendency to run on with over-enthusiastic quoting so I will stick with just one example of brilliantly observed characterisation, picked at random:
“He ate in a ruthless manner, champing his food (it was his habit, often, without noticing it, to consume things that others usually left on their plates, the heads and tails of whiting, whole mouthfuls of chicken bone, peach stones and apple cores, cheese rinds and the fibrous parts of the artichoke)"
and one incident, the arrival for the weekend of a glamorous "denationalised, rich" American at Hetton Abbey, which seems to me to be a first portent of the way in which new money and celebrity would eventually eclipse the older way of life of the English upper class, (somehow Madonna in her English lady-of-the-manor phase comes to mind):
"She arrived by air on Monday afternoon. It was the first time that a guest had come in this fashion and the household was appreciably excited. Under Jock's direction the boiler man and one of the gardeners pegged out a dust sheet in the park to mark a landing for her and lit a bonfire of damp leaves to show the direction of the wind. The five trunks arrived in the ordinary way by train, with an elderly, irreproachable maid. She brought her own sheets with her in one of the trunks; they were neither silk nor coloured, without lace or ornament of any kind, except small, plain monograms."
I found the book beautiful, witty, poignant - and ferociously convincing about how helpless is innocence in a fallen world and how everything will only end in tragedy - or, rather in tragi-comedy, for the sadness of the story is offset by the wry tone of the narration, which somehow keeps an awareness of the cruel absurdity of humanity's self-involvement always present in the reader's mind.
Like so much by Waugh, (possibly the major exception is Brideshead Revisited, which lacks the fierce bite of most of his novels, in my opinion), A Handful of Dust is a masterpiece.