On “A Handful of Dust”
Evelyn Waugh finished A Handful of Dust by practically stapling his short story “The Man Who Liked Dickens” at the end of the manuscript, lending its somewhat disjointed and unexpected ending, in which our hero is kidnapped in Brazil and forced to read Charles Dickens to his captor for the rest of his life — a tight smirk, I suppose. The novel was first serialized in Harper’s Bazaar (then with literature content), who asked Waugh to write an alternative ending which skipped the ill-fated trip to Brazil. In this ending, often included in the appendix, our hero, having waived a divorce, simply comes home to his adulterous wife under the same charade from which he had tried to escape. In the closing scene, he keeps on dozing off in the car on the way back home. Waugh’s remark, I think, is that both fates — however exotic or prosaic — are a kind of inextricable death, one in which we are all destined towards. A passport is a chapbook offering self-publishings of where we’ve been, which is short for who we think we are. The best amnesty is at home.
This “choose your own adventure” ending(s) was, and is not, meta-fiction — simply the tactical lineage of the book’s publication. Were Waugh to contain himself in the novel, one suffering under the editorial constraints of a magazine, then he would be ahead of his time. It’s notable that the alternate ending, which he wrote for money, was the ‘conventional,’ more publishable one; and that the actual aesthetically/conceptually driven ending (the Brazil one) was affixed rather nonchalantly in lieu of a cohesive resolution. He was a complicated writer in the sense that his ego was intact without having to be an artist. He wrote quickly, at glib-like speed; though nothing about it was glib.
Evelyn Waugh was married to Evelyn Gardner; one can imagine what her name would have been had she taken her husband’s last name. They went by “he-Evelyn” and “she-Evelyn” in small circles. Their brief unhappy marraige led to divorce within two years, he having chosen to spend most of his time alone. A Handful of Dust borrows a line from “The Waste Land,” having let go of the original title “A Handful of Ashes.”
Ashes imply something was burnt, cremated perhaps, like a life lived. Dust implies nothing, only that it landed a long time ago, that its very existence relies on a negligent housekeeper. (Of all the things Neil Young said, I believe “A man needs a maid” more than anything else.) Waugh, if you’ll trace the lineage of his biographical photos, got fat and died. Fate is the real four letter F-bomb. So bitter and sad, never haha funny, despite what the critics say, though sometimes he makes me smile. People rarely call me, so call me “The Man Who Likes Waugh,” forced to read into the night with dry red eyes, my captor something, somebody inside me.
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