First published in 1934, and read in a gorgeous Penguin Modern Classic Edition.
Waugh is the great chronicler of mid-war upper class British life, and this is one of his bleakest, blackest novels. This savage, bitter comedy charts the end of a aristocratic marriage. The world the characters inhabit is not the comic, chaotic swirl of events seen in for example Vile Bodies, in which characters are not far from caricatures. Although all Waugh’s novel contain an element of bile, the taste here is particularly bitter – one would imagine the writer had experienced a relationship breakdown or divorce. There is a moment about half way through the novel when tragedy strikes. Even though I had read it before it still struck me with a visceral force, such is the quality of the writing and characterisation.
The title of the novel, in case you weren’t able to place it, is from the Waste Land:
“I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust”
When I was taught Eliot at A level I was told I would find, or simply found, the Waste Land impenetrable, but looking back and re-reading it now I find lines like those above chillingly straightforward, even of they are open to many different readings. Here, a handful of dust can either be anything mundane – ie fear can be found in the everyday or ordinary, or the phrase can suggest the burial ritual, dust to dust.
The ending of the novel disappoints – there is a feeling of not knowing quite how to draw matters to a close, and it lapses almost into absurdity, as if the writer wanted to allow us to dismiss the novel as a straightforward, farcical comedy, rather than the tragedy which dominates the heart of the book.
If you haven’t read Waugh before this is probably not the best place to start, not because it is inaccessible – it is a compelling read – but because it is not the most representative of his writing. Try Vile Bodies or the Loved Ones for something less likely to leave you in quiet desperation.