A handful of dust

by Evelyn Waugh

Hardcover, 1999

Status

Available

Genres

Publication

London : The Folio Society, 1999.

Description

A 1934 satirization of a segment of English society in which all the characters have money but few other qualities to recommend them.

Media reviews

New York Times
The characters of Evelyn Waugh are ... the natives of a highly articulated culture that has no myths, only rituals. ... Dying of manners, they are determined to go on snubbing reality ... The most thoroughly weaned generation in the world, they are discovering that a little money is a dangerous thing. ... There is no comfortable catharsis in Mr. Waugh's comedy of manners.

User reviews

LibraryThing member lucybrown
Waugh's look at the thoroughly debauched, morally bankrupt English gentry. He savages these urbane savages with his cold rapier wit. If you like the early satires of Waught this one is for you. If you have always found Waugh too mean-spirited to be effective, this book will only strengthen that opinion. Though not quite a favorite, I rather liked the book myself, but haven't read it since the mid '80s and can't offer a really good review. For what it is worth, this book made Modern Library's List of the 100 Most Important Fiction Works of the 20th century and is considered one of the author's best works.

If you like stories of this millieu and era,but can't stomach Waugh's tone, I would suggest Anthony Powell's The Dance to the Music of Time sequence which have more depth and human sympathy, while still maintaining a level of social satire that is unparalleled.

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LibraryThing member TheAmpersand
It's pretty brief, and its prose is pretty spare, but there's marriage, tragedy, divorce and a various kinds of finality in "A Handful of Dust," a cold-blooded, straight-faced satire of the high society types that Waugh once knew and loathed. There's humor in it, too, both of the dry, high-minded British variety and of the more accessible kind. The novel features two of the funniest, brattiest fictional children I've ever witnessed, and they do a lot to liven up a narrative that gets somewhat slow in places.

My main complaint about "A Handful of Dust," though, is Waugh's own attitude toward his characters. As expected, most of them are reprehensible: shallow society types enamored of flash, flattery and everything that signifies newness. That's more or less to be expected of Waugh, but he even seems to dislike Tony Last, a character whose sentiments most closely resemble his own. To hear Waugh tell it, Tony, who does his best throughout much of the novel to keep his family's estate intact and honor the traditions of the English countryside, isn't mistaken as much as lacking in intestinal fortitude; he aspires to standards he seems congenitally incapable of meeting. Cultural conservatives might sympathize with the author's view that the present is lacking in the sort of personages that made the past so exceptional and that the current generation is unworthy of inheriting the past's traditions. Still, by the time I reached the end of the novel, I began to suspect that Waugh had created Tony specifically in order to find him wanting, and that hardly seems fair. Waugh seems to have little sympathy for anyone trying to steer a middle path between modernity and tradition, and the novel's last chapter, which sees the Last family's traditions miraculously resurrected, smacks of deus ex machina.

It'd be easy to dismiss "A Handful of Dust" as the work of a bitter, culturally atavistic British curmudgeon if the novel weren't so expertly constructed in so many other respects. Unpleasant as they can be, Waugh seems to know most of his characters through and through, and he matches them with social situations and personal possessions that seem perfectly appropriate to them. In fact, at no point in this novel do any of these characters act like anyone but their truest selves, and that's a rare and wonderful attribute for a novel to have. He describes the Lasts' marriage, to cite just one example, as a union that will fall apart with the slightest shove, and when such an event occurs it seems to collapse entirely of its own accord. The aforementioned ending aside, I wasn't at all conscious of Waugh using his authorial license to consciously arrange his character's fates. Tony's own end, which I can't spoil here, is delightfully unexpected, strangely poetic, and, in its way, wholly appropriate. As the novel ends, a sort of Victorian super-order has been achieved: there's a place for everyone, and everyone's in their place, even if you didn't catch the author putting them there.

This sort of subtlety suggests that Waugh may have possessed the skill that separates great writers from merely good ones, but the reason I can't bring myself to award "A Handful of Dust" more than three stars is rather personal: I just don't cotton to novels completely bereft of sympathetic characters. In the hands of another author, Tony last might qualify as sympathetic, or at least nobly conflicted, but Waugh's own contempt for him ruin him for me. Since I'm a twenty-first American of liberal sensibilities, it's possible that Evelyn and me are just poles apart and too hopelessly different to get along. Whatever the reason, and although I recognize his talent, "A Handful of Dust" left an appropriately unpleasant taste in my mouth.
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LibraryThing member Cecilturtle
It starts innocuously enough; gentlemen and ladies having fun. As the book carries on, the characters become stranger and the plot more dramatic, until at the end the main characters have all but disappeared, replaced by their likes, ready to make the same mistakes. A clever and disturbing look at how simple decisions can cause major life changes.… (more)
LibraryThing member VivienneR
I first read this decades ago and it seemed time for a re-read. I was surprised by the amount of detail I'd forgotten although it was just as enjoyable as ever.

Waugh chose to end A Handful of Dust by inserting The Man Who Liked Dicken, a short story inspired from his travels in Brazil and Guyana just two years earlier in 1932. As the story had already appeared in America, he was obliged to write a different ending for the American version of the book. Personally, I prefer the original ending which provides a bizarre type of horror that sticks in the mind. I have never looked on Dickens' books without thinking of poor Tony Last forced to read Dickens aloud until his last breath. Many readers complain that the story is ruined by the change of locale, from stately English home to the jungle. I found this was what I liked most as it gave it the quirkiness that Waugh seemed to enjoy. I gave this five stars the first time around and I still think it's deserved. I enjoyed it enormously.

Note: it reminded me of Mister Pip reading Dickens to his young charges. While reading Mister Pip I wondered if Lloyd Jones had been influenced by Waugh's story.
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LibraryThing member otterley
Darkly cynical, Waugh portrays a world where appearance (chromium plated walls and flashy London flats, appearing at the 'right party' with the 'right person') rules, where tragedy strikes suddenly, knocking the world out of kilter in very unexpected ways, and where nothing in the end is real or valuable. Waugh's world of high society is remarkably contemporary - the Peaches Geldofs and Henry Conways of today's London society would be at home with Mr Beaver and Mrs Beaver's work at Hetton would feature in the Sunday supplements. Waugh tells us that the world of chivalry and tradition is equally arbitrary, a mirage in the jungle, and provides no alternative in a remarkably unsettling and uncomfortable novel. Which is, of course, also very funny.… (more)
LibraryThing member Dr_von_K
Waugh gives us a bleak yet blackly comic account of a failing marriage between the aristocratic Tony and Brenda Last, set in a climate of genteel social barbarism.

Moving between the worlds of sham-gothic English feudalism and decadent inter-war London society, Waugh's characters act with increasing selfishness and amorality. In the aftermath of the Lasts' breakup, we are given a disturbing vision of where such behaviour leads.

This is a starker book than his more exuberant, earlier novels 'Scoop' and 'Decline and Fall', though still with plenty of darkly absurdist humour.
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LibraryThing member dmzach
What a discouraging book. The author was giving a slice of life of the idle rich moderns back in the early 20th century - and I ended up disliking all the characters and now even have a grudge against the author.
LibraryThing member bensdad00
I don't know how this got on my reading list but I am glad it did. Going in to the story blind I did not know what to expect and was not (could not be?) disappointed. A tale of love and loss set in England between the wars, Waugh draws compelling portraits of every character and has a way with dialogue that most of his contemporaries did not.… (more)
LibraryThing member lucybrown
Waugh's look at the thoroughly debauched, morally bankrupt English gentry. He savages these urbane savages with his cold rapier wit. If you like the early satires of Waught this one is for you. If you have always found Waugh too mean-spirited to be effective, this book will only strengthen that opinion. Though not quite a favorite, I rather liked the book myself, but haven't read it since the mid '80s and can't offer a really good review. For what it is worth, this book made Modern Library's List of the 100 Most Important Fiction Works of the 20th century and is considered one of the author's best works.

If you like stories of this millieu and era,but can't stomach Waugh's tone, I would suggest Anthony Powell's The Dance to the Music of Time sequence which have more depth and human sympathy, while still maintaining a level of social satire that is unparalleled.

… (more)
LibraryThing member Tafadhali
I know Waugh considered Brideshead Revisited overblown, but that's still where I first encountered his work and it's still my favorite. I miss its expansive, elegiac tone sometimes when I read his other work. This book is obviously brilliant, but the satire was so black that I just felt a bit repelled.
LibraryThing member ritaer
Woman betrays her husband for no particular reason, asks for divorce after their child is killed in riding accident. When he kicks up over her outrageous alimony demands and goes to Brazil we are left with two possible endings, one which leaves him imprisoned in the jungle and assumed dead, the other returns him to their marriage. An odd book partly a response to breakup of authors marriage.… (more)
LibraryThing member trench_wench
The first book by Waugh I've ever read. It was a quick read, Waugh's style is nice and light. the characters ar detestable, mainly for their shallowness and lack of morals in the case of Brenda and Beaver, and cowardice in the case of Tony. The best bit about the book was the creepy Mr. Todd at the end, he certainly freaked me out a bit.… (more)
LibraryThing member mikestocks
You can't beat Waugh for prose style and QLPC (Qualiy Laughs Per Chapter)
LibraryThing member madmouth
This is in my opinion the most tragic of Waugh's novels, focusing on the cruelty of gender relations and the disintegration of the aristocracy in the topsy-turvy twenties and thirties. Protagonist Tony Last is the space case English peer crushed flat by the several boots of reality.
LibraryThing member accidentally
waugh's finest, and most scathing. the ending clubs you from behind.
LibraryThing member maryanntherese
The story of Lady Brenda and Mr. Tony Last in 1930's British society. A stinging satire of the upper class, where stories don't always have happy endings.
LibraryThing member RobinDawson
The writing is excellent. Waugh is scathing about the world he describes, yet he does so with such light, satirical humour. However, the characters are so odious I didn’t want to know them and don’t want to think about them now that the book is behind me.

Furthermore, I found the structure very bizarre. Two thirds of the novel is set in England and centres on the vapid life of English ‘society’, then in the final third the husband sets off for the deepest, darkest Amazon jungles with a stranger he chances to meet. The stranger has some absolutely crackpot idea and the two go off very poorly prepared into the jungle where the hero and the stranger both perish. This final section is actually a short story Waugh happened to have lying around and tacked onto the end, and it reads just like that – the final section is alien and unrelated to the first section of the novel.

If this is his best book I'm not sure I'll be on the lookout for more Waugh.
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LibraryThing member SanctiSpiritus
The author paints a poignant tale of immorality, Carnality, and Sordidness. The book teaches one of the hollow and shameful lives most of the wealthy live. Caught up in selfishness and materiality; they breath only to sate themselves. The top antagonist, Brenda Lost is one of the most loathsome characters I have ever read about. This story was published in the 1930's. However, it is as elucidating about today's world as it was then.… (more)
LibraryThing member RoseCityReader
This struck me as a mix between Brideshead Revisited and Scoop. It starts off as an English country house drama, and ends up as an adventure story in the jungle. Huh? But it was entertaining through and through -- Evelyn Waugh at his snarky best.
LibraryThing member roblong
Probably my least favourite Waugh of those I've read (Decline & Fall, Black Mischief, Brideshead Revisited), in that I thought it merely quite good. It's really funny in places but reached a point where I felt Waugh was being cynical for its own sake (or maybe out of bitterness, as the novel mirrors the breakdown in his own marriage), rather than to satirise people who deserve it. Also in the second half Anthony goes on an adventure which, while justified within the themes of the book, breaks the plot in half and doesn't really work within the whole in my view. So a fair few negatives, but when it's funny it's really funny.… (more)
LibraryThing member js229
Unattractive but recognisably human protagonists subjected to brutal plotting. Brilliantly terrible final misfortune for the hero in passages that rather reminded me of the later Michael Innes books of 'abroad' like The Daffodil Affair.
LibraryThing member murraymint11
Fairly bland book, written in an easy style with some humorous parts. I find the lifestyle of the landed gentry in this era mildly irritating. My favourite part of the novel was Tony's trip to Brazil, and what happened to him there. SO much better than the Alternative Ending which the American magazine insisted upon!
LibraryThing member stillatim
I'm unsure about this one- the ending seems just too absurd for the rest of the novel. How does homebody Tony end up as a reading slave in the Amazon? I have no idea. On the other hand, it's incredibly creepy/witty as a stand-alone story and I can see why Waugh liked it enough to include in the novel. It provides a nice encapsulation of the moral of the story: everyone sucks, and if you don't suck, you're f'ed. So although it's not as tight as Brideshead, or as funny as Vile Bodies, it's worth reading.… (more)
LibraryThing member jwhenderson
Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, on several end-of-century Top 100 lists,was published on September 3, 1934. Waugh took the title for his novel from a line in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land — “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” In Brideshead Revisited, Waugh returned to the same poem, sending Anthony Blanche out on an Oxford balcony to stutter a few lines from it. Waugh’s biographers have noted a particular connection to Eliot. Early in life, Waugh liked to associate himself with Eliot’s avant-garde style; in his late twenties, Waugh became a Catholic, as Eliot in his late twenties became Anglican; and later in life, both authors grew more conservative and wrote in support of preserving and improving the crumbling class system in Great Britain.
Waugh's protagonist, Tony Last, is an ossified country squire. One of that system’s most doomed representatives. When we first meet him, Last is living in blinkered bliss at Hetton Abbey, a rambling Victorian mansion renovated in tasteless neo-Gothic style. He is blithely unaware of his wife's peccadilloes. Overall, it is a quirky tale that finds Tony in Africa under the spell of a madman named Todd. Mr. Todd has a beloved set of Dickens novels; it is his passion to hear them read aloud, and his decree that Last will do so until he is told to stop.
This is Waugh at his satirical best and I can forgive his use of Dickens as torture (which reading him may be to some people anyway) for I so enjoy his brilliant satire and witty prose.
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LibraryThing member Devin56
A Hand full Of Dust, at times had funny parts of the story. Nine times out of ten which was other besides the humor, the author didn’t grab my attention. Couldn’t really understand without their being an interesting topic to get me more in the book wanting to know what’s going to happen next. More dull than any other book I’ve ever read.… (more)

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