A Handful of Dust is a strange novel. It’s also really good, though not nearly as good as Waugh‘s earlier novel, Brideshead Revisited. It’s strange because of the ending. The penultimate chapter of the novel was originally a short story called “The Man Who Liked Dickens,” which had been published in a magazine. Another American magazine wanted to serialize the whole novel sans that short story, so Waugh wrote an alternative ending, which is wildly different. The short story part isn’t anything like the rest of the novel.
A Handful of Dust is a satire about English society. Brenda Last, Tony Last’s wife, has an affair with Mr. Beaver, a young London man who is basically a player and who has no money. Brenda falls in love with him and convinces her husband to rent a flat in London because she is supposedly studying economics at the university and can’t be bothered to go back to their family home in the country even though she has a son who is constantly asking about her. The kid is my favorite character in this novel and (whoa, spoiler!) Waugh kills him off before the halfway point. Brenda doesn’t really care and uses her son’s death as an excuse to divorce Tony. Then the story splits: Brenda continues her life in London, and Beaver eventually breaks up with her after the party season is over, and Tony goes to Brazil. Here’s where the endings split. In the actual novel, Tony goes with an anthropologist-of-sorts looking for a certain tribe around Brazil, ends up with a fever and hallucinates, and he and the anthropologist get lost. The anthropologist goes down a river in a canoe and gets killed in a waterfall. Tony, hallucinating, starts walking until he comes upon another tribe that’s run by an insane Englishman who keeps him captive and makes him read Dickens aloud every day. The End. Then there’s the alternate ending, in which Tony just went on a tour around the Americas, and when he returns to England, Brenda is there, and they (sort of) reconcile, except when Brenda asks Tony to get rid of the flat in London, he secretly keeps it for himself. The End.
The more I think about A Handful of Dust, the more I like it. It’s a good summerish sort of read, and it’s really interesting. The alternate ending situation is cool if for no other reason than its novelty. Waugh says it’s “included as a curiosity.” If I were one to sit on a beach and read, this would be the novel to take with me. It’s really light reading, but Waugh does a lot of interesting things that veer away from what you might expect of an English novel from the 1930s.
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