- Have got out of dinner 16th. Are you still free?
- Delighted. Second thoughts always best. Brenda.
This short interchange via telegrams between Mr Beaver and "her ladyship" Brenda Last may be considered the turning point of this novel, written in 1934.
While reading this passage, it occurred to me that the same thrust and counter-thrust may have happened today, via textings.
Don't you think so?
Sure, a present-day Mrs Last would have texted "2nd thoughts" while a contemporary Beaver -being just 25- would have more likely texted "r u still free". But still, not that much changed in seventyfive years.
Here we have a book that although treating adultery in the 1930s, using confidently terms like "negroes" and "moor" (Waugh had always played the part of the reactionary colonalist) and having chapters named, say, "Du Côté de chez Todd" may be considered ageless.
Well, at some point.
There are two ways for looking at "A Handful of Dust".
On the one hand we have the symbolism involving direct or indirect references to T.S Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Marcel Proust, Charles Dickens, the decay of a certain once opulent English aristocracy.
A real literary critic would entertain (or rather annoy) you for hours on this stuff, discoursing on the importance of this and that, but it's not my case. I look at the novel on the other hand.
What I read is good, but not extremely good. There are irresistible comical moments in this novel, especially the ones involving the disturbing, unnerving and chatting presence of a little kid. Then we have funny situations with a respectable duo of "professional dancers" and an exquisite sketch of a character named Princess Jenny Abdul Akbar.
The language is very enjoyable and most of the dialogues are pure perfection, wrapped up in a foil of agreeable frivolity.
But there is also some shallowness I think.
For example an astonishing copied and pasted moment from "Barry Lyndon" by Thackeray involving the fall from a horse that would probably please an implacable literary critic. Please find it and let me know what you think about this unstated "cover".
Besides, I would have liked to find a better work on the whole cast of characters albeit I know that Waugh did not care that much about this.
In my edition of the novel there is also an alternative ending that Waugh once wrote while asked by an American editor, but was not published. Well, in case you have this alternative ending on your copy of "A Handful of Dust", do yourself a favour: avoid it. It's totally unnecessary and written in helter-skelter.
The original ending of this novel is pretty brilliant and it will make you leave this novel with a bittersweet smile upon your face.