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A Handful of Dust (Everyman's Library) Hardcover – April 9, 2002

4.2 out of 5 stars 118 customer reviews

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The Underground Railroad
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

"All over England people were waking up, queasy and despondent."

Few writers have walked the line between farce and tragedy as nimbly as Evelyn Waugh, who employed the conventions of the comic novel to chip away at the already crumbling English class system. His 1934 novel, A Handful of Dust, is a sublime example of his bleak satirical style: a mordantly funny exposé of aristocratic decadence and ennui in England between the wars.

Tony Last is an aristocrat whose attachment to an ideal feudal past is so profound that he is blind to his wife Brenda's boredom with the stately rhythms of country life. While he earnestly plays the lord of the manor in his ghastly Victorian Gothic pile, she sets herself up in a London flat and pursues an affair with the social-climbing idler John Beaver. In the first half of the novel Waugh fearlessly anatomizes the lifestyles of the rich and shameless. Everyone moves through an endless cycle of parties and country-house weekends, being scrupulously polite in public and utterly horrid in private. Sex is something one does to relieve the boredom, and Brenda's affair provides a welcome subject for conversation:

It had been an autumn of very sparse and meagre romance; only the most obvious people had parted or come together, and Brenda was filling a want long felt by those whose simple, vicarious pleasure it was to discuss the subject in bed over the telephone.
Tony's indifference and Brenda's selfishness give their relationship a sort of equilibrium until tragedy forces them to face facts. The collapse of their relationship accelerates, and in the famous final section of the book Tony seeks solace in a foolhardy search for El Dorado, throwing himself on the mercy of a jungle only slightly more savage than the one he leaves behind in England. For all its biting wit, A Handful of Dust paints a bleak picture of the English upper classes, reaching beyond satire toward a very modern sense of despair. In Waugh's world, culture, breeding, and the trappings of civilization only provide more subtle means of destruction. --Simon Leake --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


“A vicious, witty novel.” —New York Times

“Waugh’s technique is relentless and razor-edged…By any standard it is super satire.” —Chicago Daily News

“The most mature and the best written novel that Mr. Waugh has yet produced.” —New Statesman & Nation

“A story both tragic and hilariously funny, that seems to move along without aid from its author…Unquestionably the best book Mr. Waugh has written.” —Saturday Review

The latest book club pick from Oprah
"The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead is a magnificent novel chronicling a young slave's adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South. See more

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 264 pages
  • Publisher: Everyman's Library (April 9, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375414207
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375414206
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.1 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (118 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,585,134 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

By Bruce Kendall VINE VOICE on June 23, 2004
Format: Paperback
You know that when you see a passage from Eliot's THE WASTE LAND appearing before the title page that you are not headed for 300 pages of fun and games. Sure there is the usual stock of Waugh humor, wit, and snappy dialogue to be had here, but this ranks as amongst his darkest novels. It's tragicomedy at its finest. It's also one of the most beautifully written novels I've ever read, perfect in pitch, cadence, wording, razor sharp characterization, mood, you name it.
Like a number of his novels, it is set primarily in England, between the wars, bouncing back and forth between London and an Estate in the country. The plot boils down to the break up of a marriage and the decline and fall of the central character, Lord of the manor and eventual "Explorer," Anthony (Tony) Mast.
Tony means well. He really does. It's just that he's so fixated on maintaining Hetton, his hereditary estate, that he doesn't even notice when his lovely wife Brenda engages in an affair with an inconsequential and boorish young society chap to whom Waugh assigns the inglorious name, John Beaver.
Waugh's customary drollery comes to the fore as he depicts the cavalier attitudes towards the affair on the part of Tony's and Brenda's social circle. They are rather like actors in a Restoration play, whose moral compasses have become entirely skewed. Though not as moralistic as some of Waugh's late novels, A HANDFUL OF DUST definitely offers a portrait of a very decadent society, indeed. These are not sympathetic characters. Even the two children who enter into the plot are hardly what one would call likeable.
This novel definitely takes some unexpected turns, leading us eventually to a denouement in the Amazon Jungle. The ending has to rank as one of the greatest in literature.
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Format: Hardcover
This odd, clever, scathingly bitter satire seems a patchwork of various pieces of fiction--and, as its history attests, it is. A little over halfway through the novel, "A Handful of Dust" veers, rather unexpectedly, from a bitter reflection on an unfaithful wife and her upper-crust coconspirators to a Conradian parody of explorers in the Brazilian wilderness.
To explain this incongruity, The Everyman's Library edition of this fascinating work features a must-read introduction by William Boyd, but (as such introductions often do), it contains so many "spoilers" that readers are warned to wait until afterwards to peruse it. Boyd's essay does, however, summarize two salient aspects of the novel that are prerequisite to understanding (and perhaps enjoying) it.
Waugh's first marriage to Evelyn Gardner ended acrimoniously in 1929; four years later (and the year before he wrote "A Handful of Dust") his heart was broken a second time when Teresa Jungman turned down his proposal of marriage. Knowing this, it's hard not to read the fictional account of Tony and Brenda's marriage, as Boyd does, as "Waugh's own exploration of betrayal and sexual humiliation and . . . a form of revenge against the damage inflicted on his psyche by Evelyn Gardner. . . . It is an unyieldingly cruel and vicious portrait of a worthless woman. . . . The novel is full of hate and scorn, not just for Brenda, but also for the society in which she moves.
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Format: Paperback
This novel is not satirical, but dead-on accurate in its observations of a certain stratum of English society which is no longer shamed or shocked by its own actions. Brenda is put off by the "monstrous way" Tony has behaved -- namely, not allowing her to continue as the "victim" of the divorce proceeding. Her "friends" aid and abet her philanderings while gossiping behind her back, and allowing her to become penniless while they go off on holiday. Mrs. Beaver, whose son is the amoral, parasitic lover, is interested in the affair only by what can be gained monetarily from it.
The astonishing twist in the story line, following Tony's harrowing adventures in the Amazon jungle, is perplexing to some readers, but in fact serves as an interesting comparison of the two totally different environments Tony has had to deal with, one of "civilized" society, and the other of the jungle. The more "civilized" people in the jungle (all the English-speaking characters) create just as many problems for Tony as the bats and mosquitoes. (Perhaps some of the previous reviewers could have thought a little more along these lines before writing a bad review.)
Also, one has to think how Tony could have avoided his misfortunes. He is undone by his staidness, until it is too late. Perhaps Waugh is commenting on the English gentry in general(?) Waugh also pointedly observes how the upper-class children are brought up by nannies and stablehands, while the parents remain aloof to their daily activities.
A great novel causes the reader to think on several levels, while also being an entertaining read. This novel accomplishes both goals. Every word and action has its significance in a great work such as this one!
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