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