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D. Cloyce Smith
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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." There is no denying that the novel reads like an act of vengeance, and this contempt takes many forms: Brenda, at first charming and innocent, quickly and inexplicably devolves into vapidity and selfishness; Tony's closest friends hide from him their knowledge that Brenda is having an affair; and--at the book's most memorable, pivotal, venomous moment--Brenda shows more concern for her lover than for her only son.
Waugh published two entirely different endings, both of which are included in many editions. (Make sure you get a copy that has both versions.) Boyd explains: after writing "the first two-thirds of this novel at great speed," Waugh was unsure how to end it, knowing only that he wanted "a sad end." For the British edition, he appended, with minor alterations, an earlier short story, "The Man Who Liked Dickens," about an aristocrat trapped by a madman in Brazil. Yet he had to write a second ending for the serial publication for Harper's Bazaar in the United States, because he had previously published the "Dickens" story in a competing magazine. While the British ending is satisfying (and devious) on its own, it nevertheless seems out of place; readers who feel that they have suddenly picked up another story about a different character in the opposite hemisphere will feel some vindication learning that, in a sense, they have done exactly that.
I agree with Boyd that the American version, while simpler, is "truer to the novel's potent undercurrents than the short story Waugh recycled to finish off his sombre, disturbing tale of adultery." Other readers, obviously, disagree, and find the alternate ending too pat, too cynical, top predictable. (I, personally, enjoyed both endings for different reasons, but found both a little unsatisfying, each belying the book's claim to cohesiveness.) Yet the fact that Waugh could write two endings over which future readers and critics would war only attests to his brilliance.