Evelyn Waugh (YGtCTO Words #26)

A Handful of Dust

Book written by Evelyn Waugh

If you have been following along with this blog, then you suspected this was coming. Peak interest in Waugh had to occur when Masterpiece Theatre broadcast a serialized drama of his Brideshead Revisited. If that is your only knowledge of Evelyn Waugh, then you may be in for something of a shock when you read the rest of his work.

A Handful of Dust could be described as an exploration of all the bad things that an author can inflict on his protagonist. It is truly a long walk through the destruction of a somewhat dim man, containing at least one horrible tragedy and culminating in one of the great final scenes of any novel. Did I mention that Waugh was going through a painful divorce at the time? Have I done a terrific selling job?

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

Perhaps the better strategy would be to ease into Waugh via Decline and Fall or Vile Bodies. Both portray the English milieu between the World Wars with a very jaundiced eye. The former sends up the education system and the latter gives a walk through the world of the young and rich of the day.

Before we go any further,

let’s place Waugh in some context. He was a contemporary of P.G. Wodehouse, but reads like Wodehouse after a hard night drinking. Waugh’s books seem no denser on the surface, but they tackle vital subjects about war and social convention and foreign policy and journalism that showed a willingness to face the opprobrium of his world. His private writings (gone quite public since his death) reveal a conservative who did not much care for other people. Really, the sarcasm dripping from his novels might have been a clue.

Men at Arms, Officers and Gentleman and Unconditional Surrender form the Sword of Honour trilogy about World War II and the sheer idiocy inherent in so many decisions made by those entrusted to carry out the war. Black Mischief captures a situation all too common in Africa transitioning from colonialism to independence. More than anyone before him, Waugh took the humor and social commentary of Punch and Wodehouse to new territory, places that humor made an uncomfortable bedfellow of tragedy and realistic horror. Give The Loved One a read for some fun at the crematorium.

As much as death, the past is often an undiscovered country. Artists, on the whole, tend to mine the work of those who came first. If you have read much at all, reading Waugh sends off sparks of joy as his pervasive influence becomes apparent. A clear line goes from Austen through Dickens and onward, including Waugh. One interesting side effect of that line is that it works in the other direction. As a reader, we are given a path that allows empathy and understanding of past lives and viewpoints.

What’s it all about?

You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 223 more to go.

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