Friday, April 3, 2009

Classic Satire

Recently I re-watched the wonderful British television series “Brideshead Revisited” (Jeremy Irons was great but what ever happened to Anthony Andrews?), and it made me want to read more Evelyn Waugh. We read “Scoop” in Book Group in 1991 (thanks to our catalog I can track this sort of minutiae) but I honestly don't remember it. And I had read and enjoyed “The Loved One” when I was in college. So I decided to read the book most critics seem to feel is his best – A Handful of Dust.

Waugh was renowned as a satirist, and in this book there is little he doesn't satirize. It is set in England in the 1930s, and revolves around the breakdown of the marriage of the upper class couple Tony and Brenda Last. Tony prefers life at his inherited country estate, which gives Waugh ample material for satirizing the pretensions of country life, the bad architecture of Victorian Gothic homes, and the Church of England in the form of a country priest who still re-uses the sermons he preached to the troops overseas during the war.

Brenda, bored with country life, takes up with a social climbing cad named John Beaver and enjoys the vapid life of London society, while John's mother, an interior designer, manipulates her wealthy clients for her own financial gain. It's a bitter and pessimistic view of civilized society, and when Tony ends up in the jungles of South America it's hard to determine which of these societies Waugh thinks is the more barbarous.

Waugh is such a pleasure to read. In the early part of the book there was scarcely a page that didn't have me smiling over his scathingly funny descriptions. Even towards the end, when the story becomes darker and bleaker, Waugh's satire us still laced with humor. This book appears on Modern Library's list of 100 best novels of the twentieth century, and I certainly think it's a classic.

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