Saturday, 2 November 2013

Week Forty-One - Jeanette

A Handful Of Dust by Evelyn Waugh (1934)
Recommended by Rebecca

You know those people who carry themselves so assuredly? Those people where everything they like is spot on? Those people who never suffer from l’esprit de l’escalier – the French term for thinking of a wonderful comeback way after the moment has passed?

True, these people are useful for talking to about the latest Josephine Foster album, but overall one gives their perfect arse a wide berth. BUT NOT OUR BECK! She has all of the above – no-one, but no-one, is cooler than she – but it’s all dwarfed by her sincerity and kindness. She is a true pleasurable presence in my life.

And I get to talk to her about the latest Josephine Foster album. Bonus.

Given how exemplary Beck’s taste is (and that I’ve wanted to read Evelyn Waugh for some considerable time), I was very much looking forward to this.

            ‘I’m afraid I’ve rather bitched your evening.’

A Handful Of Dust is chockablock with these memorable expressions. In one sense, it is a black satire on the British landed gentry coming to terms with their role in a modern world that doesn’t really know what to do with them. In another sense, it’s a black satire on the British attitude to marriage, especially when divorce offers a beguiling getaway from it.

But, in yet another sense, it’s a black, but non-satirical and deeply affecting, story of how, when we take life-altering decisions, we expect to be (at least psychologically) rewarded for them. We very seldom are.

Brenda and Tony Last, married with one young son, live in the crumbling country manor Hetton Abbey.

In order to make an appearance of coffered wood, moulded slats had been nailed in a chequer across the plaster. The squares between were decorated alternatively with Tudor roses and fleurs-de-lis. But damp had penetrated into one corner, leaving a large patch where the gilt had tarnished and the colour flaked away; in another place the wooden laths had become warped and separated from the plaster.

Tony loves his family home, and that’s just as well, since the thing takes up virtually all his capital. Brenda is less enamoured, insisting on a ‘modern bed’ and seeing the whole thing as an anachronistic money pit. The Lasts have rather aimless lives: visiting people, parties, gossiping, getting out of things they don’t want to do. The depiction of this particular strata of society reminded me of Jean Renoir's 1939 film La Regle Du Jeuthere’s money, but there’s no purpose, and an impending sense that the whole class is moribund.

Brenda, uninterested in Hetton, makes frequent trips to London and eventually takes a flat there. How things haven’t changed, from then till now, in the capital’s private rented sector.

It was in a large, featureless house, typical of the district. […] After the first flight the staircase changed from a marble to a faded carpet.

Brenda uses the glorified bedsit as a base to conduct an affair with the charmless freeloader John Beaver. The relationship between John and Brenda, and how it is received in society, is where Waugh is at his spikiest.

Opinion was greatly in favour of Brenda’s adventure. The morning telephone buzzed with news of her; even people with whom she had the barest acquaintance were delighted to relate that they had seen her and Beaver the evening before at a restaurant or cinema. It had been an autumn of very sparse and meagre romance; only the most obvious people had parted or come together.

Brenda isn’t in love with John, nor he with her; they don’t even seem to be having much fun. The overriding motivation for their dalliance is boredom. But the affair doesn’t even chase that away. Rather, their relationship becomes just another thing for them to get bored of. 

As for the cuckolded Tony, even before he fully admits it, he knows his marriage is on tilt and that he is losing Brenda. But he is also powerless to stop it. Tony feels no anger towards John; he realises that, if not him, it would be someone else. Waugh, with merciless and brilliant prose, depicts a state where love has been so debased that it becomes a mockery of itself. No-one quite knows what or how to feel anymore; all that’s left are the motions to go through, which the characters do with mechanical ennui.

Fitting in with the overall cynical tone of A Handful Of Dust, divorce is the thing that’s romanticised. It’s always there within a marriage, offering an escape route, a path to carefree freedom. When Brenda initiates proceedings against Tony, the whole thing becomes a very dark farce.

            ‘How’s the old boy taking it?’
            ‘Not so well. It makes me feel rather a beast,’ said Brenda. ‘I’m afraid he minds a lot.’
            ‘Well, you wouldn’t like it if he didn’t,’ said Polly to console her.
            ‘No, I suppose not.’

Yet in the second half of the book, and especially towards the very end, Waugh does inject far more humanity. He is especially sympathetic to Tony, but even Brenda is portrayed with a measure of compassion (although Beaver remains an absolute arsehole). Divorce is not the romantic adventure one would hope for, but yet another unhappy state from which people must look to break away from. Probably back into marriage, and so the whole despairing dance sets off once again.

A cheerful read, then. As befits the cheerful Evelyn Waugh.

Fellow writer James Lees-Milne called Waugh ‘the nastiest-tempered man in England’. Waugh believed that class divisions were natural and hated any attempt to rectify inequalities. He sent a bottle of champagne to someone he’d just sued the living shit out of. He was a Christian but struggled with his faith, chiefly because it meant he was supposed to be nice to his fellow man. ‘If I weren’t a Christian,’ he once told Nancy Mitford, ‘I would be even more horrible.’

A Handful Of Dust felt like a significant book for me to read at this stage of my life, an experience beyond simply enjoying a brilliantly observed and gripping story. It made me measure my own pessimism. First achievement: I am far less cynical than Evelyn Waugh. Second, and more noteworthy, achievement: I am far less cynical than I feared myself to be.