A Handful of Dust (Evelyn Waugh)

Posted: August 17, 2014 in fiction, other media
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Evelyn Waugh writes about Britain’s upper middle class during the Great Depression; a bit like Jane Austen a hundred years later, or Aldous Huxley when he’s not being science fiction-y, but without the comedy of either of them. There are a few vague attempts at humor, but this is not a funny story.

The book opens introducing John Beaver, a young man whose family was once wealthy though he is not. He lives with his mother, who does dreadful interior decorating, and survives by getting invited to lunch or dinner. No one actually likes him, but he’s useful in filling up the numbers at a party because he’s always available and knows how to look and act in a drawing room. In a world where one of the worst possible things is to have an odd number of guests at dinner, this is an invaluable skill. However, Beaver’s not the protagonist, and soon sinks into obscurity. His existence in the novel is more important than his actual presence.

Beaver was sort of half-heartedly invited to go down to the country for a weekend, but the host forgets he had said anything to him, so it’s rather a surprise when he shows up. Tony Last, the actual protagonist, introduces him to his wife and then manages to avoid him for most of the weekend. He apologizes to Brenda, but she says it really wasn’t that bad. Their house was redone in the neo-Gothic style of the mid-nineteenth century, and it symbolizes Tony’s adherence to tradition. It’s out of fashion and a bit isolated, it evokes an idealized past that never quite existed, and his wife only pretends to be happy there.

Brenda goes up to town and begins an affair with Beaver, one of those discreet affairs that is only a secret from the husband. Tony has his son and his farms, but as Brenda spends more time in London, he gets increasingly lonely. She hires a bedroom in a block of flats, the sort of room that really only has one purpose. All the fashionable people are getting such rooms in a city where they already have a house or apartment so they can carry on their affairs. She pops down to the country to see Tony on the weekends, or not, and always brings a group of friends with her. For a while she tries to get him interested in one or two young ladies, but he’s not interested. Some people are congenitally faithful.

Then their son dies in an accident and Brenda petitions for a divorce. They decide that it’s better for her to be the plaintiff, so he goes off to Brighton with a lady-for-hire. This was really funny in The Gay Divorcee, but in the novel it’s just pathetic. Tony’s not happy and barely goes through the motions (of seeming to have sex, not of actually doing it) and the lady brings her eight-year-old daughter. Then he finds out that her lawyers are asking for a settlement large enough to support her and Beaver in their new marriage, and he quits being reasonable. Eventually he goes off to Brazil to let things adjust in his absence.

There’s a film, done in 1988. It seems as faithful as film could possibly be. The movie opens with a scene in Brazil, after Tony’s camp is destroyed but before he meets Mr Todd, so the majority of it is a flashback with a slight air of delirium. It seems strange to me to see James Wilby and Kristen Scott Thomas leading a film (who are they again?) when names I know so much better have such minor roles – Judi Dench, Anjelica Huston, and Alec Guinness are all supporting cast. The book’s attitude toward the Brazilians is quite sufficiently colonial, as expected for an English author writing in 1934, but the film actually makes it worse by having the Indians steal all of Tony’s stuff. Waugh is careful to point out that they do not take anything that doesn’t belong to them. The film does tone down some of the misogyny, but I actually regret that. When men are rejected by a woman, they spread their anger to all women. This is just what we do; I understand that women often do the same to us. In the wake of the divorce, I’ve had moments when I’m very misogynistic indeed, so when Jock’s girl cancels on him and he says,

It’s the last time I ask that bitch out.

I almost cheered. It seems so natural. When men are alone and unhappy, this is how they really talk, even today. Generally, novels sanitize this sort of thing. It’s not the misogyny that I celebrate, but Waugh’s freedom in portraying it. A moment of unlooked-for realism.

At some point I’m going to have to stop thinking of myself as recently divorced. Books like this tend to bring that time closer to me, but at least the old wounds aren’t opening back up. This novel didn’t hurt the way that some others have done. In some ways my divorce was exactly the same as Tony and Brenda’s, and in other ways it was completely different. My ex never had an affair, but having children can create that distance too. All of the ways that she had shown me affection went to them; my role became more functional, paying the bills and fathering the children. Over time, love becomes an assumption that you don’t examine closely. I’ve had to stop talking about this part of things because people tend to assume that the fact that I was unfulfilled in my marriage means that I’m not really gay, I only came out to create a situation where I could get a divorce without it being anyone’s fault. Throughout the proceedings, though, we both tended to act like it was someone’s fault – mine.

When you’ve been together for eight years, you tend to have all the same friends. The ex didn’t much care for most of my previous friends, so the only people I spent time with only knew us as a couple, not as singles. They tried to get us back together, but only drove us further apart. When people talk to your very recent ex and then talk to you, they distort things to make it seem like reconciliation is possible. They mean well, but it’s just not helpful. There are times when offering hope is just cruel. Waugh captures this aspect of divorce quite well. Brenda might be tired of Beaver by now, but until she figures that out herself, that piece of information is not going to help Tony. She may not want Tony to be sad, but she doesn’t want to be with him either. My divorce had a great deal of confusion on this topic for a few weeks, until she and I met and she made her feelings clear. Then I had to tell people to stop helping, that we were not going to get back together. I tried to avoid telling them flat-out that they were wrong about her feelings; I don’t remember whether I succeeded.

There comes a point when you realize suddenly that everything is over. At first, it’s like this:

For a month now he had lived in a world suddenly bereft of order; it was as though the whole reasonable and decent constitution of things, the sum of all he had experienced or learned to expect, were an inconspicuous, inconsiderable object mislaid somewhere on the dressing table; no outrageous circumstance in which he found himself, no new mad thing brought to his notice could add a jot to the all-encompassing chaos that shrieked about his ears.

Then, something happens, and

His mind had suddenly become clearer on many points that had puzzled him. A whole Gothic world had come to grief . . . there was now no armour, glittering in the forest glades, no embroidered feet on the greensward; the cream and dappled unicorns had fled . . .

You lose your illusions about the situation and about the person you had been married to. Once the unicorns flee, you can face your future resolutely, realistically. You can let go.

Tony and Brenda agree on a settlement privately, but when the lawyers get involved the amount quadruples, at least partially on the insistence of Beaver. He doesn’t have an income large enough to support himself, much less her. Part of the advantage of the affair is that she feeds him; when that’s done, so is he. The larger amount, though, would require Tony to give up his house, which he refuses to do. When we split, my ex gave notice on the apartment without consulting me, so I ended up homeless for a while. Tony draws the line at that, and cuts Brenda off with nothing. Since the weekend with the girl is obviously faked and everyone knows about the affair with Beaver, it’s not hard to get away without being required to pay her anything. I didn’t have a single turning point when I was suddenly ready to stick up for my rights; it came on slowly. The ex and I settled on an amount of child support that was reasonable for three kids, but completely out of proportion to my income. I spent the next year trying not to starve to death, and only barely succeeding. When you’re raised on the Protestant work ethic, you see your ability to provide for yourself and your family as a marker of self-worth. Economic anorexia is a dangerous thing, because while you can justify it because you can’t afford to eat, the truth is that you feel like you don’t deserve to eat. That can take the joy out of food that you don’t pay for as well. Eventually, I had to sell my car to pay my child support.

I find that emotions are often tied to places. When I came back home after vacation, all the loneliness and depression I had left behind were waiting for me at the door. I am rather anxious to relocate when my contract is over. But when separating from a spouse, it can be good to put some physical distance between yourself and the situation. Tony and I both thought an ocean would be enough. He left England for Brazil, and I left America for the Middle East. Tony’s such a quiet, stay-at-home sort of fellow that it’s strange when people start calling him an explorer, but he really does go off to the Amazon to look for El Dorado. Instead he finds Mr Todd, a missionary child left in the jungle when his parents died. Now he’s an illiterate old man with the complete works of Charles Dickens. He captures people who know how to read English and forces them to keep reading aloud. One of his favorites is Little Dorrit, a book about the different types of imprisonment in Victorian England; part of the absurdity of the situation is that Tony clings to his Victorian home and values, only to end up imprisoned by the literary embodiment of them. Living where I do is a bit like Mr Todd’s. Of course I have the freedom to leave when I like, but there’s nowhere to go. The difficulty of getting anywhere makes it an effective prison. It was good for me to come here and sort out my issues with being divorced, being gay, yet still being worth keeping alive, but I’m beginning to fear that I’m going to end up like Tony. It’s time to find something else to do, to go live another life.

There are some events that seem to divide a person’s life into two equally important halves, even though there are many years before and only a few days or hours after. Marriage, the birth of a child, moving to a foreign country. Divorce is one. But given time, the event becomes a part of your past and you can see it in its proper perspective. I thought that getting divorced was going to kill me. I thought it was the worst possible thing ever. But now I’m quite pleased that it happened. I’m free in a way I could never have been when I was still married. Maybe this is why I don’t get all excited about gay marriage. I’ve been a husband once; I’m not in a rush to try it again.

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Comments
  1. Waugh is superb. I love his style of writing. Whether or not you agree with Brit aristocracy, it doesn’t take away from his acidic prose.

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