This book is hilarious and it is brutal. I think I really get why Waugh is such a respected writer now. Reading this, more than anything else, gives me a genuine desire to (re-)read Brideshead Revisited. See, Brideshead is one of those Important Modern Classic kind of books that people tell you to read, but I generally try not to read things unless they have a real emotional appeal to me in the moment, as opposed to a theoretical appeal. Also, I read Brideshead when I was in high school and my "I am above all your childish teenage books" phase and I did not get it at all. It's sort of humorous the way I will see a reference to some important theme or character or event in Brideshead and have no idea that was even in there.
Anyway, back to the book I did read.
Tony Last is a deeply unfashionable person: he is in love with his life as a country squire, with his historic house, with his family's history and traditions. What he loves most of all is a quiet Sunday at home: he goes to the service at the village church more out of respect for the ritual than any personal religious feeling, and on the way home he picks a flower for his wife. He's a simple person with simply, old-fashioned pleasures. His wife Brenda, is a former London beauty who regards this lifestyle as a kind of role-playing game -- until John Beaver comes to stay a weekend with them. Beaver is a sophisticated mooch who is a kind of professional social straphanger, mostly getting invited to parties at the last minute to balance out the genders. Brenda and Beaver start an affair -- the urbane London people of course have no problem with this as a matter of principle; of course Brenda would want to escape that boring life in the country, although Beaver is a comical person for her to latch onto. Then something unforgivable happens. By the end of the novel, everything is in pieces, not that society knows or cares.
And all for nothing seems to be Waugh's point. It's perfectly acceptable, even laudable, to the fashionable set that Brenda has her affair -- it's also unsurprising when the affair peters out, after Tony and Brenda's marriage is irreparably ruined. No one gets anything they want, except for the bored society ladies who get a few years of juicy gossip, and both Tony and Brenda lose everything they had ever enjoyed. Although Tony's humble, good-hearted relatives end up with the historic house and the good country lifestyle, so there is some goodness to the ending, although it's a bit like seeing plants in the ruins of a building.
There are all kinds of cliche book-review words that spring to mind: "unflinching" "savage" etc. This is not a happy book, but it is good, and it's also very funny. One of my favorite jokes was the priest in the village church, an old man who spent much of his life ministering to the army in India. Since he's so old and senile he just reuses all his old sermons indiscriminately...
The vicar preached his Christmas sermon. It was one to which the villagers were particularly attached. "How difficult it is for us," he began, blandly surveying his congregation, who coughed into their mufflers and chafed their chilblains under their woollen gloves, "to realize that this is indeed Christmas. Instead of the glowing log fire and windows tight shuttered against the drifting snow, we have only the harsh glare of the alien sun; instead of the happy circle of loved faces, of home and family, we have the uncomprehending stares of the subjugated, though no doubt grateful, heathen."A Handful of Dust reminded me of An Evening of Long Goodbyes in the way it combined wickedly funny writing with a sad and even disturbing story. Both books go from a darkly fun beginning to a much darker ending, although unsurprisingly I think Waugh is clearly the master here.
Incidentally, one of the creepier stories in the collected volume I read earlier this year makes a reappearance here as the fate of Tony Last. I was a little sad about that because as soon as I got to that section, of course, I pretty much knew how it was going to play out. Another argument against reading short stories and/or "collected works"!