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Book Review: A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

a handful of dust

Continuing on with my month of reading books by Evelyn Waugh, last week I was reading A Handful of Dust. I seem to remember that it was the title of this book which appealed to me – which in fact was taken from T.S. Eliot’s poem ‘The Wasteland’. This feels like a much more serious book, and I think I was ready for that after the heady abandon of the characters in Vile Bodies. That’s not to say they aren’t reckless in their own way, but they are slightly older, with more commitments in the way of family homes to run and children to care for. This makes their actions all the more shocking I think – there’s nothing particularly alarming about young singletons going out on the ran dan, but when it is done with a lack of regard to a family they have built up and are required to care for that is another matter altogether.

The story revolves around husband and wife, Tony and Brenda Last, who live out in the country in the Gothic manor that Tony has inherited. They spend their mornings lolling about, leaving their young son John in the care of a somewhat uncouth stable-hand, then reprimand him for using naughty words and saying rough things about those he meets. There is a listlessness to the Lasts – they don’t seem to do very much and it is not much of a surprise to me that Brenda becomes bored. She embarks on an affair with the dull John Beaver, who is never quite at ease in the Bloomsbury set, always waiting on last-minute invitations to dinners and events as he is known for being a single man and a readily available space-filler if someone cancels at short notice.

There were elements of this book which reminded me a little of Anna Karenina – a bored woman seduced by a young man and giving up a lot to be with him. Brenda is bored with her life, and escapes to London, spending more and more time away from home ‘studying’ and fobbing Tony off with excuses as to why she cannot come home. She completely abandons her child and it is clear that she doesn’t care much for him. It’s really hard to have much sympathy for any of the characters in this novel as they are all very flawed but they are so vague that they don’t even notice their own failings. Writing this review I almost feel that this novel left a strange feeling of malaise hanging over me, drawn in as I was by their stories.

That’s what Waugh does so well, capturing this generation between the wars that doesn’t know what to do with itself. The characters are from a slightly older generation than in Vile Bodies but the sentiments are the same; a listlessness and feeling of unreality.

After the frivolities of the Bright Young Things in Vile Bodies, and the farcical comedy of errors that is Scoop, this came as something of a shock. It’s serious, but still retains a lot of elements which can be held up to ridicule. I almost would have liked for this book to be more realistic, more serious and grown-up, much as I’d like its characters to take a bit more responsibility. It’s almost as if nothing can be taken seriously again after the horror of the First World War. The beauty of what Waugh does in this book is to create these characters that are so affected by the War but they don’t even realise how affected they are.

I found the ending a bit odd and unbelievable. Like most people I’m sure, I thought that Tony was a bit wet and all too easily fooled by Brenda’s indiscretions. The moment that he finally does stand up to her feels like a big moment for the reader but leads on to him going on a strange journey into the heart of South America. I’d like to discuss this more but don’t want to give too much away! There is a particular part which Waugh had originally written as a short story called ‘The Man Who Liked Dickens’ – it’s quite creepy but I think led Waugh down a well-trodden road of being slightly absurd. I really enjoyed this episode and found it absorbing and quite unsettling, but I’m not sure about how well it fit in to the story.

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Book Review: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet LetterI picked this book up as part of Penguin’s half price sale last December. To be honest, I knew very little about it other than what I’d learnt from watching the teenage film Easy A, that an adulterous woman living in a Puritan community is forced to wear a large, scarlet letter ‘A’ on her clothes so that everyone can identify her as a sinner. I was intrigued by the story and how this woman would deal with her situation and whether or not the townspeople would forgive her, so I decided to give it a go.

The book begins with an introduction entitled ‘The Custom-House’. I struggled with it a little to be honest, I found the writing style quite dense and I hadn’t quite worked out what its relevance was to the story of the scarlet letter. It feels like a tableau of its own and I felt it to be superfluous as it was only towards the end of the introduction that I actually started to get into the book. This is when the narrator comes across a manuscript written 100 years before by a customs officer about a woman called Hester Prynne and a scarlet piece of fabric in the shape of a capital letter A. Although I wasn’t particularly enamoured with the introduction, it does serve a purpose, showing just how far removed the narrator is from Hester’s tale, and by implication, how far again the reader is removed as Hester was alive in the seventeenth century and her story is not her own but filtered through two different male writers.

I definitely enjoyed the second half of this novel more than the first. I think it doesn’t help that the story begins with Hester emerging from the prison and being vilified by the townspeople. I think I would have liked a little more preamble about Hester’s life before her ‘sin’. I wanted to know her motives, and her attraction to the man who fathered her child, Pearl, but it does give the reader a sense of how much Hester is defined by her ignominy and the scarlet letter as she is afforded no history prior to this.

There were some interesting scenes in the book, it’s split into chapters that describe different scenes and I did enjoy the structure of the book – I think probably because they were manageable chunks as Hawthorne’s writing style can be a bit heavy at times and I found I couldn’t read it for long periods of time. There are a couple of things that I won’t say as I don’t want to give away the story (even if it was written in 1850!) but I did enjoy the brooding presence of Roger Chillingworth and his machinations, and the scene where Pearl’s father becomes giddy after planning to run away with Hester and finds himself wandering through the town with thoughts of mischief, as if some tap has been turned on and he has been hiding all of his malicious thoughts away.

I did get a little tired of the imagery and symbolism in The Scarlet Letter – Hawthorne is constantly going on about how the scarlet letter burns into Hester’s bosom, and how Pearl is the physical embodiment of the letter – the sin brought to life in a wild and disobedient child. There were moments when the writing was passionate though it can be over-descriptive at times. Despite this I enjoyed The Scarlet Letter for its story and the character and resove of Hester Prynne.

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Evelyn Waugh Month

This coming April, I have decided to give myself a challenge to read three Evelyn Waugh books in a month as there were quite a few of his books I wanted to read. I read Brideshead Revisited a few years ago and just loved it, and I have to admit that I was also inspired by Stephen Fry’s wonderful film Bright Young Things which was inspired by Waugh’s Vile Bodies. If you fancy joining in at all please do let me know!

The three that I have on my shelves are:

Vile Bodies
A Handful of Dust

Scoop

I plan to start with Scoop and will be reading this in the first week of April if anyone is up for a read-a-long. I’m also happy to take suggestions if there are any other books by Evelyn Waugh you think I should be reading.

P.S. Isn’t the incredibly writerly photo of Evelyn Waugh just exactly what you would expect of him?

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Recent Reads

After neglecting to write notes on the following novels, and pondering how to write book reviews, I came up with this handy idea of doing a brief review of recent reads to catch up on books I’ve missed out of reviews recently. I would probably like to say more about them, and I know there were many interesting things about them but I just can’t remember where in the novels said things were. Here’s a round-up:

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

I had been meaning to read this book for a long, long time. It’s bookish subject of a young woman brought up in a bookshop, persuaded to write the biography of mysterious writer Vida de Winter was immediately going to appeal to my interests. I hadn’t expected the novel to be so Gothic – and I LOVED it. The references to Jane Eyre, Lady Audley’s Secret, madwomen and ancestral homes and family secrets. It was an engrossing read and will appeal especially to fans of Gothic fiction.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Another that had been on my list for a while, in fact I think it’s one of the only books from my 2012 Reading List that I have read recently. I seem to have been neglecting that list… But I digress. I enjoyed this book and its take on how past events shape us and the distinction between documentation and what our memory tells us happened. Something I think I would like to re-read.

Travels in the Scriptorium by Paul Auster

I’ll admit I was disappointed with this one – I usually love Auster’s playfulness with words, structure and character but in this novella it just all seemed a bit over-done, like an explorative exercise rather than a story. It intentionally plays with the reader’s perception but I think it was just a bit too post-modern for my tastes. I wasn’t in the mood for it, I think – might take a break from Auster for a while after this!

Have you read any of these books? What did you think of them?

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Book Review: The Confidant by Hélène Grémillon

Publisher: Gallic Fiction
Selected Edition: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-908313-29-4
Published: 2012
No. of Pages: 267
Price: £7.99

Translated by Alison Anderson

I received this book from The Inner Circle, run by Book Oxygen (find out more here).

The Confidant by Hélène Grémillon begins with a letter, sent anonymously, to the main character, Camille, an editor living in Paris in the 1970s. It comes just after the death of her mother, and this and subsequent letters tell the story of a young man, Louis, and a young woman from his town with whom he is in love, Annie. When a young married, bourgeois couple move in to the town, Annie begins visiting them, painting and acting as companion to Madame M. As time passes it is revealed that Madame M. cannot bear children and Annie offers to bear one for her. What is unveiled is a series of letters in which the decisions made by adults have dark influences on the lives of Annie and her baby, and consequences which reach far into the future that they could not have envisaged.

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