Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Handful of Dust

‘...I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rise to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust’.

[T. S. Eliot – The Waste Land]

From the moment I finished the book I’ve been wondering why Waugh named it, ‘A Handful of Dust’. 
Bored Brenda
The book has a myriad of characters but it mainly revolves around Tony and Brenda Last; a typical English couple living a mundane life at their family estate, Hetton. Brenda finds herself stifled in the Victorian Gothic family mansion of her husband and seeks amusement in an affair with a young man, Beaver. While Tony continues his routine existence in Hetton, Brenda buys a flat in London, under the pretence of studying economics, for her rendezvous with Beaver. Things take an ugly turn when their only child, John Andrew, meets with a riding accident and dies. Brenda files for a divorce. Tony takes a trip to South America, in search of a lost city, with a man he meets at the club. His past haunts him throughout the trip and he falls sick during the journey only to be rescued and imprisoned by a certain Mr. Todd. And that is the whole story, in a nutshell of course.

Tony is the central character, or so he seemed to me. His dull manner and immense love for his family mansion, Hetton, alienates Brenda. It is Tony who introduces Brenda to her future lover when he extends an invitation (out of sheer courtesy even though he hardly knows the man) to Beaver at the club to spend a weekend at Hetton. Waugh seems to be poking fun at the gentleman in Tony who allows his wife to stay in London for weeks and makes excuses for her busy schedule while, in fact, her wife is painting the town red! Not once, and it was quite annoying at times, does Tony seriously question Brenda about her life in London or admonish her for neglecting their son. And it isn’t just Tony who is the foolish gentleman. All his friends, too, play their part of the ‘cultured Englishmen/women’ by keeping Tony in the dark about Brenda’s romantic liaison.  

Beaver and Mr. Todd are the, rather, idiosyncratic characters. Both play a major role in changing the course of Tony’s life; the first has a brief affair with his wife while the latter imprisons him in a remote village in South America. Of the two, Mr. Todd is definitely the more idiosyncratic; a white man who lives in a far flung place in South America among local Indians, and in possession  of a complete collection of Dickens’ works which lay in his hut, gathering dust as he can’t read. Tony is the perfect companion; white, English and literate. Dickens proves to be the death of Tony, literally!

Young Beaver comes across as vain and incompetent. He has an indifferent attitude towards almost everything, has little money of his own and is a mama’s boy. A complete antithesis of the extra-marital affair man!  

Tony adjusts his buttonhole.
If there was a moral to this story, it escaped me. Tony suffered the most from the wrongs of other people and lost everything; his wife, his son and his beloved family mansion, Hetton. But Tony was to blame for his misfortunes. The great focus of his life, above all, was Hetton and material things never give any joy. I believe it was him, more than any other character, who was left with a handful of dust. 

The book was full of twists and turns so crazy that many a times Waugh took me completely by surprise. The Old Hundredth featured in this book also - seems like brothels are favourite haunts of upper class English boys/men (Charles and Sebastian spent an interesting evening there in Brideshead Revisited). Waugh is vicious and witty, making A Handful of Dust not just a delightful read but a crude caricature of the upper classes, English or otherwise. 

Photographs: Google Images

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Love List

Love is a funny thing.

How else can you describe an emotion, or rather, state which drives you nuts most of the times, especially when February comes along? No matter what crazy antics it makes one do, all is considered fair in love and war (a perfect justification for your exorbitant spending next Monday eve). No wonder love is a funny thing!

I, too, found myself affected by the love bug and decided to do some romantic reading this month. The past several days were dedicated to short listing books which turned out to be quite a formidable task. From the moment I decided to undertake this mission, each book seemed to call out from the book shelf. The screams of ‘read me, read me’ echoed in my room all day and each time I reached for a book, the melancholic looks of the others filled me with guilt and confusion. 

After a week, I'd had enough of this emotional black-book-mail! I have a feeling that the constant exposure to Egypt's revolt on the telly has something to do with this. But before the revolt at my end could start, I took corrective measures which primarily included rearranging the bookshelf and watching BBC in the living room. Having done all this, I have, now, finally settled down to reading the books in my 'love-list'. 

It is an interesting selection, if I say so myself! Except for Chekov, all these books are re-reads.  These books are my ode to love; a four letter word laden with expectations, mostly fulfilled. And what makes An Equal Music, A Russian Affair, Maurice and The Thorn Birds a part of my love-list is the ignored, yet ever present, aspect of love; tragedy. 

And yes, these books are dedicated to hubby dear who has made me very lucky in love!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

A literary weekend

Literature is going to be the talk of the town this weekend as Karachi hosts a literature festival jointly organized by the British Council and Oxford University Press. Hubby dear and myself are pretty excited about it and even though my university classes will be quite a bore, I'll still squeeze in time to treat myself to some literary talk. Hopefully there'll be some good stuff to write about!

Photograph: Google Images