A Handful of Dust

Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust - e-book
Read from November 11th to 18th, 2012 
My rating: 4/5 stars


I'd say the contrast between appearance and essence is the main theme of this intriguing book, if I could find any depth in the characters that seem marionettes, navigating through life guided by the string of their basic desires barely dissimulated by social conventions. 

No moral code, no humanity, no understanding, only indifference for the others' feelings and appalling gestures that pay tribute to the moment's desires: a wife so bored that commits adultery with a "dreary young man" and shows no remorse, au contraire she seems to think her husband behaved badly towards her, because he didn't accept to give her money with the divorce; a mother (the same wife) who, while hearing that her son is dead thanks God it was not her lover (they had the same name, hence the confusion).
A decadent society presented with acerbic irony in a novel that exploits the aesthetic possibilities of cruelty using (as the author himself revealed) the technique of the external approach. Meaning no introspection is permitted, only external facts and gestures are sometimes told and often shown in alert and almost Ionescian dialogues (Tony's delirium, in which all the facts are blended in fractured replies of an absurd and hilarious mixture, is a very good example).

In this context, the question that opens the novel, "Was anyone hurt?" - reveals its full significance, establishing right from the beginning the appearance - essence contrast I was talking about: the apparent human concern of the question will be contradicted presently by the paltry material actions of the protagonists.

The story (which has some autobiographical traits - Waugh's first wife left him for a lover) is not unheard of: a young family is dissolved after the wife's infidelity and their child's death. The husband decides to go to Brazil where (and this is the uncanny part) he will be kept captive by an old man who wants to be read Dickens ad infinitum.

The author's resolve not to describe feelings leaves the reader with the task of experiencing them: it's up to us to measure the characters' profundity, to pity or condemn them, because, as Jonathan Greenberg said: "Waugh's external method does not so much deny the interiority of the self, but rather suggests that it is oddly unknowable, buried beneath layers of social custom and ritualized expression."

Like Oscar Wilde (considered his precursor, anyway), Evelyn Waugh is a fascinating modernist writer who uses the satire and the comedy in order to emphasize the same belief: that feelings do not guarantee aesthetic quality. The reverse could be also true, of course. However, not in this extraordinary novel.

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