The Resolution Project Book Forty: A Handful of Dust (1934)

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books / the resolution project

“But with the exception of her sister’s, opinion was greatly in favour of Brenda’s adventure … It had been an autumn of very sparse and meagre romance; only the most obvious people had parted or come together, and Brenda was filling a want long felt by those whose simple, vicarious pleasure it was to discuss the subject in bed over the telephone.” (p. 54)

The Resolution Project: For my New Year’s resolution this year (that being 2011), I decided to try and read all one hundred of the novels picked by Time Magazine as the best since their inception in 1923 to the list’s publication in 2005. I exempted myself from reading ones I’ve already read, leaving some eighty-six or so to read before the end of this year. Some spoilers may lie ahead, so be warned if you’re the type to be bothered by that.

A Handful of Dust cover

Tony and Brenda Last are members of the increasingly irrelevant landed aristocracy in 1930s England. Tony is somewhat obsessed with the upkeep of his estate, Hetton House, which he insists must keep its Gothic architecture even in the face of fashion and his own wife’s desires. When John Beaver (a worthless layabout who lives with his mother) is mistakenly invited over for a weekend, events are set into motion that will destroy the marriage of the Lasts and pretty much wreck Tony’s entire existence as he knows it.

First off, sorry about the late post here. In addition to the birthdays of four or five people, -30 degree temperatures making it a pain in the ass to go to the library, Christmas ramping-up at the store and getting ready for Graphic Content’s third outing (also the subject of my next post wouldn’t you know?), I also thought it would be a good idea to buy Skyrim. After all, I made it through Arkham City without missing too much reading time, so what could be the problem?

Skyrim Frost Troll

Frost Trolls. Frost Trolls are very much a problem.

Anyway, I powered through all of these temptations/complications and finished. My technique for Skyrim, by the way, was to not go into the room my Xbox is in, just to entirely disregard its existence for a couple of days. Success! It’s not even like A Handful of Dust is a long book, or tiresome to get through, it’s actually a fantastic read, which made this situation even more unpleasant for me. In fact, I’d be willing to say that I enjoyed it almost as much as I enjoyed the previous entry by Waugh in the list, Brideshead Revisited.

Dust presents us an interpretation of the sanctity of marriage that is only matched on the list so far by Doris Lessing’s apocalyptic The Golden Notebook. When Brenda Last begins her affair with the non-entity known as John Beaver, as the above quote indicates, the situation becomes one of great fun and enjoyment for everyone in civilized society, and no one care a whit about the feelings of her husband, or the well being of their child. Brenda even attempts to set Tony up with a mistress to give him something to do, resulting in hilarious scenes where “Princess” Abdul Akbar attempts to seduce a man who has no idea why she’s even there, much less any interest in her.

This all ends up in Tony having to do the gentlemanly thing and give Brenda a divorce. The only way this can be accomplished, however, is for Tony to be the adulterer, which results in him taking a dance-hall girl (and her eight-year old daughter) to Brighton for scandalous photos to be taken (with the dance-hall girl, I mean, not the kid). I will admit to being a little confused as to why Tony had to be seen as the bad guy for the divorce proceedings, it must have something to do with keeping Brenda’s reputation intact so that she can marry Beaver? The scenes where Tony mingles with the detectives he’s hired to follow himself are pretty funny though.

There were a lot of great pieces to this novel. I really liked the parish priest in Hetton who recites sermons he wrote while stationed off in India and Afghanistan, hoping that no one calls him on this fact. I also liked how everyone knew about this, but didn’t have the heart to tell him, and how the mention of exotic flora and fauna in the priest’s sermons presage Tony’s ultimate retreat from the civilized world. Dust also reaffirms my belief that horses in works of great literature are evil, and will kill children at almost a moment’s notice (see: Gone With the Wind, and I’m sure there’s more coming). I loved the last names everyone had, and I liked John Beaver’s mother a lot. She had the hustle and ambition of a Scarlett O’Hara, and was one of the few characters in the novel who weren’t completely ridiculous. I liked Jock Grant-Menzies, and the brief look at English politics he gives us (it’s completely ineffectual, dull and boring, not to mention incomprehensible).

While I don’t think Dust is quite as good as Brideshead Revisited, it does have a better title, for one, and it feels real with regards to the betrayal of a loved one. I’m continuing my tradition here of not really researching the novels much more than a quick wiki search while reading (apparently there’s a movie of this book?), but you can definitely tell from reading this book that someone hurt Evelyn Waugh very deeply, and he decided to immortalize them in the characters of Brenda Last and John Beaver, possibly as a revenge that would far outlast any of the participants.

Who would I recommend this book to?: People who like seeing the foibles and frailties of the upper crust laid bare. People who liked other entertainments featuring large manor houses, like Gosford Park, and Downton Abbey. People who won’t be crushed by the unflinchingly harsh portrayals of love, marriage and women found in the book.

Total pages read since January 1st: 13829 pp.

Total books on the Time 100 list read: 49/113, or 43% complete.

Next up on the Resolution Project: The Heart of the Matter (1948), by Graham Greene.

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The Author

Matt Bowes is a self-proclaimed cultural commentator/arbiter of good taste from Edmonton, Alberta. He enjoys movies and books, and writes about them sometimes at thisnerdinglife.com.

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