A Handful Of Dust by Evelyn Waugh, published in 1934, is the story of country squire Tony Last, who, after the collapse of his marriage, takes a trip into the South American jungle.
I found this a difficult book to get my head around, but it wasn’t hard work to read. Far from it. While there were many jumps in viewpoint, these shifts were so deft that the book read as easily as a country house comedy, which is where I suspected we were as the book opened. Then Tony’s son dies in a riding accident, and it becomes clear that country house comedy isn’t what we are dealing with. The humour takes a dark turn. For example, we have the dreadful Jenny Abdul Akbar getting muddled about the casualty’s name:
‘Quick,’ she whispered, ‘Tell me. I can’t bear it. Is it death?’
Jock nodded. ‘Their little boy … kicked by a horse.’
‘John … dead. It’s too horrible.’
So what to make of it. I had a look at what other people said about the book. There was much debate about Waugh’s conversion to Catholicism which was on-going at the time of writing. Apparently the critic Frank Kermode thought A Handful Of Dust portrayed the awful, frivolous world which exists without religion, specifically the Catholic religion. This seemed ridiculous. The idea that the characters in A Handful Of Dust might have avoided their collective disappointments if only they had converted to Catholicism, was far fetched to say the least.
Besides what good novel has ever been propaganda for a particular religion? So I forgot about Catholicism, and went back to A Handful Of Dust and my reaction to it.
A Handful Of Dust features polished lives hiding all kinds of depth, whether it’s depth of resentment, hurt and depravity on the one hand, or beauty, comfort and stability on the other. Sometimes superficiality is painful, and sometimes it’s light relief from pain. During Tony’s post break-up jungle trek, he falls ill with a fever, and discovers that both poisons and medicines are to be found amongst the tropical trees and flowers. Similarly, back in England, superficiality can be a medicine or a poison depending on how you prepare the raw material.
Although my reading about the background of A Handful Of Dust had mostly been a matter of wading through paragraphs debating Catholicism versus humanism and so on, there was one thing I did discover that interested me. Waugh was an admirer of his contemporary Anthony Powell, author of A Dance To The Music Of Time. Powell is one of my favourite writers. He had a great ability to take the surface elements of life – English life in particular – and plumb hidden depths. I realised that Waugh might be seen as a reluctant Powell, playing with the same themes whilst appearing more uneasy about them. Rather than seeking a religious shortcut to the apparently profound, Waugh might have done better to have gone all-in with the apparently superficial, embracing and enjoying it for good or ill, which is the secret of the wonderful A Dance To The Music Of Time.
Maybe Evelyn Waugh wrote a good novel despite himself. I much prefer Powell’s writing, but I still enjoyed A Handful of Dust, which remains primarily a novel rather than a demand that we look at the world through the lens of a particular religion.