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A Great Novel from a Master Satirist
on 27 June 2004
You know that when you see a passage from Eliot's THE WASTE LAND appearing before the title page that you are not headed for 300 pages of fun and games. Sure there is the usual stock of Waugh humor, wit, and snappy dialogue to be had here, but this ranks as amongst his darkest novels. It's tragicomedy at its finest. It's also one of the most beautifully written novels I've ever read, perfect in pitch, cadence, wording, razor sharp characterization, mood, you name it.
Like a number of his novels, it is set primarily in England, between the wars, bouncing back and forth between London and an Estate in the country. The plot boils down to the break up of a marriage and the decline and fall of the central character, Lord of the manor and eventual "Explorer," Anthony (Tony) Mast.
Tony means well. He really does. It's just that he's so fixated on maintaining Hetton, his hereditary estate, that he doesn't even notice when his lovely wife Brenda engages in an affair with an inconsequential and boorish young society chap to whom Waugh assigns the inglorious name, John Beaver.
Waugh's customary drollery comes to the fore as he depicts the cavalier attitudes towards the affair on the part of Tony's and Brenda's social circle. They are rather like actors in a Restoration play, whose moral compasses have become entirely skewed. Though not as moralistic as some of Waugh's late novels, A HANDFUL OF DUST definitely offers a portrait of a very decadent society, indeed. These are not sympathetic characters. Even the two children who enter into the plot are hardly what one would call likeable.
This novel definitely takes some unexpected turns, leading us eventually to a denouement in the Amazon Jungle. The ending has to rank as one of the greatest in literature.
I can't recommend this book highly enough. The English are the greatest satirists and Waugh was the master of the genre amongst 20th century writers. My only minor quibble is that at times I had a tough time keeping up with names of some of the characters.
I've got a couple more Waugh books on my list, but will go with VILE BODIES next, as it's already on my shelf.
This edition has print large enough that I didn't need my reading glasses. It's the quickest 300 page novel I've ever read. It only took about 6 hrs cover to cover, and I am not a fast reader. I really was so transfixed that I had to read it straight through, which I don't usually do these days.