Recent Reads – Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may know that I’ve been getting through a lot of books lately, more than I’ve had time to write about in detail. So, here are a few thoughts about some of them – a sparkling Evelyn Waugh, and books 2-4 of Anthony Powell’s marvellous series, A Dance to the Music of Time.

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh (1934)

I thoroughly enjoyed this sharply executed satire on the debauched society set of the early 1930s, complete with its blend of acerbic humour, unexpected tragedy and undercurrent of savagery. As a novel, it seems to perfectly capture that ‘live for the moment, hang tomorrow’ attitude that existed during the interwar years.

In essence, A Handful of Dust charts the falling apart of a marriage – that between the bored socialite, Brenda Last, and her somewhat less gregarious husband, Tony. The Lasts live at Hetton Abbey, a faded Gothic mansion in need of refurbishment and repair. Unfortunately, the Lasts are rather short of money, and what little they do appear to have goes on various servants, consumables and Brenda’s regular trips to London to see friends.

The rot sets in when Brenda slips into an affair with John Beaver, a somewhat depthless chap who proves an appealing distraction, at least for a time. While Brenda’s sister and friends know of the situation with Beaver, Tony remains ignorant of the relationship, naively believing Brenda’s ridiculous cover story of her enrolment in a London-based economics course – hence the need for a little flat in the city where Brenda can stay during the week. However, things come to a head in the form of an unexpected tragedy, a terrible accident which cleaves the Last family apart.

Waugh uses dialogue to great effect in this novel, frequently moving the narrative along through a series of conversations – sometimes face-face, other times on the phone. The style is pin-sharp and pithy, qualities illustrated by the passage below. In this scene from an early stage in the novel, Tony has just learned that Beaver is coming to Hetton, a discovery that annoys him greatly.

[Tony] ‘What’s he coming here for? Did you ask him to stay?’

[Brenda] ‘I suppose I did in a vague kind of way. I went to Brat’s one evening and he was the only chap there so we had some drinks and he said something about wanting to see the house…’

‘I suppose you were tight.’

‘Not really, but I never thought he’d hold it against me.’

‘Well, it jolly well serves you right. That’s what comes of going up to London on business and leaving me alone here…Who is he anyway?’

‘Just a young man. His mother keeps that shop.’

‘I used to know her. She’s hell. Come to think of it we owe her some money.’

‘Look here, we must put a call through and say we’re ill.’

‘Too late, he’s in the train now, recklessly mixing starch and protein in the Great Western three and sixpenny lunch…Anyway he can go into Galahad. No one who sleeps there ever comes again – the bed’s agony I believe.’ (pp. 27-28)

Basically, if you like that passage, you’ll almost certainly enjoy this book; if you don’t, then it’s probably not for you!

A Handful of Dust is an entertaining yet bittersweet romp, a story shot through with Waugh’s characteristically caustic wit. And yet there is an undercurrent of despair here too, a sense of hopelessness that becomes apparent, particularly towards the end as Tony ventures off into the Amazonian jungle in search of a secluded city. His adventures with a maverick explorer are artfully portrayed.

Reputedly inspired by the disintegration of Waugh’s own marriage coupled with his experiences in South America, this is a tonally sophisticated novel with more to say than might appear at first sight.

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell, books 2-4

I’ve been making good progress with this series, working my way through the books in between other reads. Rather than commenting on the plot, which would be virtually impossible to do without revealing spoilers, I’m going to highlight a few aspects that have struck me so far.

Firstly, Powell’s undoubted ability to convey a clear picture of a character – their appearance, disposition, even their way of moving around a room – in just a few carefully judged sentences. He does this time and time again, enabling the reader to anchor each character firmly in their mind.

There are numerous passages I could have chosen to illustrate this, but here’s one from the third book in the series, The Acceptance World. The individual in question is Mrs Myra Erdleigh, an acquaintance of Uncle Giles’ whom Jenkins meets during a trip to the Ufford, Giles’ favoured haunt for discussions on his money troubles.

He [Giles] had blown his nose once or twice as a preliminary to financial discussion, when the door of the lounge quietly opened and a lady wearing a large hat and purple dress came silently into the room.

She was between forty and fifty, perhaps nearer fifty, though possibly her full bosom and style of dress, at a period when it was fashionable to be thin, made her seem a year or two older than her age. Dark red hair piled on her head in what seemed to me an outmoded style, and good, curiously blurred features from which looked out immense, misty, hazel eyes, made her appearance striking. Her movements, too, where unusual. She seemed to glide rather than walk across the carpet, giving the impression almost of a phantom, a being from another world; this illusion no doubt heightened by the mysterious, sombre ambience of the Ufford, and the fact that I had scarcely ever before seen anybody but Uncle Giles himself, or an occasional member of the hotel’s staff, inhabit its rooms. (pp. 5-6, book 3)

It is Mrs Erdleigh’s movements that make all the difference here, her way of gliding across the carpet like a ghostly apparition or a creature from another world.

Powell’s attention to detail is pretty impressive too, often revealing little insights into an individual’s persona. At an earlier moment in the same scene, Nick offers the following reflection on Uncle Giles, an observation which discloses something of the latter’s fastidious manner in spite of his lack of funds.

On that particular occasion, the three fish-paste sandwiches and slice of seed cake finished, talk about money was about to begin. Uncle Giles himself never ate tea, though he would usually remove the lid of the teapot on arrival and comment: ‘A good sergeant-major’s brew you’ve got there,’ sometimes sending the tea back to the kitchen if something about the surface of the liquid specially displeased him. (p. 5, book 3)

Finally (for now), I’m also enjoying Powell’s meditations on life itself, his somewhat wistful observations on the nature of the game. Here’s how book two, A Buyer’s Market, draws to a close.

Certain stages of experience might be compared with the game of Russian billiards, played (as I used to play with Jean, when the time came) on those small green tables, within the secret recesses of which, at the termination of a given passage of time–a quarter of an hour, I think–the hidden gate goes down; after the descent of which, the white balls and the red return no longer to the slot to be replayed; and all scoring is doubled. This is perhaps an image of how we live. For reasons not always at the time explicable, there are specific occasions when events begin suddenly to take on a significance previously unsuspected, so that, before we really know where we are, life seems to have begun in earnest at last, and we ourselves, scarcely aware that any change has taken place, are careering uncontrollably down the slippery avenues of eternity. (p. 274, book 2)

How very apt…

You can read my piece on the first book in the series here: A Question of Upbringing.

A Handful of Dust is published by Penguin Books, A Dance to the Music of Time by Arrow Books; personal copies. (For more info on Stu’s Penguin Classics event, click here.)

36 thoughts on “Recent Reads – Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell

  1. Marina Sofia

    I love your use of the epithet ‘depthless’ to describe a character! So accurate, and so much better than just shallow!
    I was slightly obsessed with Waugh in my teens (when I was having my Downton Abbey kind of Britophile moment). He seemed to epitomise everything I loved about England, there is a lot more depth and self-awareness beneath that brittle wit. Somehow, I never got stuck into Powell and I really feel I should read the whole series.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! It seemed like the right description at the time as the society Waugh depicts is so full of these individuals – all bright and shiny on the surface, but lacking in any sense of depth or moral integrity underneath. It’s been interesting returning to him as a writer after all these years. (Like you, I went through a phase of reading him in my youth, but then moved on to other, more contemporary writers.) I agree, there’s something more interesting going on beneath the surface satire and brittle wit (great description). I found this novel particularly poignant towards the end – the air of despondency is quite apparent.

      Reply
  2. gertloveday

    Mrs Erdleigh…wonderful. I have just read Hilary Spurling’s biography of Anthony Powell. he comes across as rather a bland and self focused character. He must have saved his humour and perceptive observations of the human condition for his writing.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The books are full of wonderful character descriptions like that, little gems in miniature. I could just picture her in my mind’s eye, gliding across the room like that.

      Interesting to hear of your experience with the Spurling biography. I’d been toying with the idea of picking that up at some point, but maybe it’s best I give it a miss. It might destroy my image of Powell as a comic genius!

      Reply
  3. Radz Pandit

    The Waugh sounds enticing. I liked the passage you quoted, so I will definitely get to this at some point. I have only read two of his novels, Brideshead Revisited and Vile Bodies, and enjoyed both. But from what I understand A Handful of Dust is probably his best. The good thing is that I have it so I don’t have another book to buy!

    Anthony Powell will have to wait though :) I only read the first book in the series and am not sure if can commit to the whole series yet!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      What really struck me about Waugh this time is now good he is with dialogue. The conversations are so tight and quick-witted, it almost reads like a play. (I could definitely see something like this working on the stage, particularly given the nature of the phone calls and interactions.) It’s in a similar vein to Vile Bodies – very sharp and satirical with touches of poignancy too.

      I can understand that about the Powell as it’s a big commitment. Definitely worth it though, if you can carve out the time!

      Reply
  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I think you’ve nailed in there with Powell, Jacqui – he writes so well, and his characterisations are excellent. You reall live the book alongside the narrator. As for the Waugh, this is one of his I’m really keen to read – trying to resist the temptation to clickety click!!! :D

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the characterisation is particularly impressive. There are oodles of theses individuals across the series, and yet Powell manages to create these very distinctive pen-portraits (complete with distinguishing features and memorable backstories) for the reader to hold in their mind. It’s really quite astounding.

      I think you’d like the Waugh. It’s a lot of fun when read at a safe distance!

      Reply
  5. heavenali

    I found A Handful of Dust devastating (the ending – no spoilers, haunted me!) but it is also quite brilliant in a horrifying way. So lovely to be reminded of Anthony Powell’s brilliance too. You’re right about his way of conveying characters – it’s probably why I loved A Dance to the music of time so much.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s a great way of describing the ending of Handful of Dust – devastating but also quite brilliant in a horrifying way. I like that. There’s something very fitting about the denouement, alarming as it is. These early satires of Waugh’s are actually a lot darker than they might seem at first sight. I felt the same about Vile Bodies, especially given the fate of one of the journalists caught up in the search for titbits about the society set.

      Reply
  6. Brian Joseph

    I have had A Handful of Dust on my radar for a long time. The plot and characters sound so interesting. The story sounds sad. I think that I would like it.

    A Dance to the Music of Time sounds like such an ambitious series. I would like to give it a try some day.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      They’re both worth reading, Brian. Very much the kind of character-driven classics you seem to enjoy. Plus, I think they paint a picture of the upper echelons of British society during the early-mid 20th century, so they’re interesting from that broader perspective too.

      Reply
  7. realthog

    The Waugh sounds very tempting indeed. Hmmm . . . *looks at bulging cases full of unread books*

    I dipped my toes briefly into the waters of Powell’s series back in the day and wasn’t tempted to wade in farther. I suppose I should try him again but, as others have said, it’s a big commitment.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! I can understand that. The Powell is a major commitment, but seeing as I’ve got all this time on my hands at the moment while my fracture is healing, the timing couldn’t be better. It’s proving to be a very welcome distraction – most enjoyable indeed!

      Reply
      1. realthog

        Ha! I know the feeling. When I’m bedridden I want to read ALL THE UNREAD BOOKS AT ONCE, RIGHT NOW! :)

        I hope the pelvis is repairing itself speedily and well. Thinking of you.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Absolutely! I think I could pretty much anything right now! My recovery is going relatively well, thanks – it’s very kind of you to ask. Still a way to go before I’m back to full fitness, but it’s definitely getting easier to move around now.

          Reply
  8. Tredynas Days

    H of Dust has some chills and shocks that are accentuated by the frothy social satire- that turns ever darker. Rather a sour taste by the end. I’ve had a few of the Powell series on the shelves for a while and never summoned up the energy or interest to start

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That contrast works very well here. Waugh’s good at that, the chilling touches of darkness amidst the gaiety of the social whirl. It’s one of his trademarks, I think – certainly as far as the early satires are concerned.

      Shame I can’t persuade you to dust off your copies of the initial instalments of the Dance. As a series, it’s very good indeed. Definitely one of the most impressive things I’ve read in recent years.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I wonder if he’s one of those authors that lots of us read in our youth but then move away from as we grow a little older? It’s only in the last two or three years that I’ve gone back to him again after quite a long gap…

      Reply
  9. Bob Pyper

    Enjoying your reflections on Powell. Having read through the entire ‘Dance’ sequence a few times over the years, I find that each re-reading reveals new facets, previously missed, and passages of text I didn’t quite appreciate on earlier readings. Your commentary is shedding new light on aspects of the work too. Makes me want to start reading it all again (but I only finished the most recent reding a few months ago, so I need to give it more time …).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! That’s very kind of you to say. I’m glad to hear that you’ve discovered new aspects in the text on each re-read. That’s very gratifying indeed. I’m just at the midpoint of the full sequence right now, and it definitely feels like the kind of work that would yield more on an second or third reading. One of the things I’m enjoying is the way that even relatively minor characters, such as Eleanor Walpole-Wilson, Mark Members and Quiggin, resurface every now and again with just enough of a recap from Powell on how they fit into the bigger picture. It’s very skilfully done.

      Reply
      1. Bob Pyper

        Absolutely! The recurring characters, appropriately evolved by Powell, are a gift to the reader. Some of them don’t change much, such as the admirably entertaining Uncle Giles, but many are moulded by their experiences. A tribute to the books, for me, is that I continually view the characters of people I encounter periodically in the course of my own life, through a type of ‘Powell prism’. Social events seem to be populated by people who would merit the analytical gaze of AP …
        I feel sure that you will want to return to the books at some future point, once you have completed this reading. Meanwhile, I envy you the pleasure ahead as you read the rest of the series for the first time – some real delights lie before you!

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          That’s such a good point about some characters being shaped by their experiences while others remain fairly constant. You’re right, Uncle Giles (a perennial delight!) will never change, while Stringham and Peter Templer are constantly evolving, revealing new facets to their characters with virtually every appearance. My perceptions of Jean Templer are changing quite radically too – she’s not quite the shy innocent I took her for at first sight!

          I like your idea of viewing the world through the Powell prism, too. We can only wonder what he would have made of life in the 21st century with its obsessions for celebrity culture and social media!

          Reply
          1. Bob Pyper

            Jean Templer is certainly one of those characters who acquire layers of detail and complexity as the years pass! Powell’s female characters are a major strength of the novels. I saw your comment about the Spurling biography. It’s certainly worth reading. Although she was a friend of AP, the book is fair and reasonably objective. The mix of social classes, genders and bohemian versus orthodox lifestyles in the novels clearly draws upon Powell’s own life experience. Like Jenkins, AP straddled and observed different worlds and, even in the literary environment, managed to be a close friend of both Orwell and Waugh! I would recommend the biography to anyone who enjoys the novels.

            Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              She certainly is! It’s getting to the stage where I’m wondering if there are any more Jean Templer revelations to come…

              Many thanks for taking the time to give me your perspective on the Spurling biography – that’s very helpful indeed. I think I will pick it up once I’ve finished the novels, just to get a better feel for Powell as a person. It’s interesting to hear how he straddled those different worlds, a little like Jenkins in the books. He must have been a great observer of people, storing up all those habits and idiosyncrasies as material for his work. I’m looking forward to the appearance of X Trapnel in the series, especially as the inspiration for his character stemmed from Julian Maclaren-Ross. His novel, Of Love and Hunger, is very much a favourite of mine!

              Reply
              1. Bob Pyper

                You are in for a treat with X Trapnel, but Pamela Flitton also awaits you! I doubt that there is a female character in modern literature to match her …

                Reply
  10. Izzy

    Reading your review of AHOD I could hear David Morrissey’s deep voice…it’s the book he talked about when he was invited on A Good Read a few years back. His favourite Waugh, he was passionate about it.

    I completed the fifth volume of the Dance (Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant) last week . It’s a bit different in tone from the others (I won’t say why, but it’s a bit more melancholy, and even pretty dark at times). I’m thoroughly enjoying this series and am even telling myself that at least one second reading will be required. I think my favourite so far was At Lady Molly’s. I’ve chosen the same edition as you. The covers are wonderful, and it feels less of a heavy commitment than if you read one big volume, the end of which might seem inaccessible :-)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s very interesting about David Morrissey’s passion for Dust. I like his work very much, so I’ll have to see if that episode of A Good Read is available online somewhere. Many thanks for mentioning it!

      As for the Dance, I’m actually pretty much at the midpoint of the series in terms of my reading, but much further behind when it comes to write-ups. (I have such a backlog of half-written pieces, you wouldn’t believe!) So, I know what you mean about the tone of Casanova’s – it’s definitely getting darker as the series progresses, a trend that can only continue with the ‘war’ volumes that follow. It does feel very manageable with these slim single volumes. You know, it’s funny – I have a lovely NYRB collected edition of Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy, which sounds right up my street, but the fact that it’s such a doorstopper is proving to be a real barrier. If only it were available in bite-size chunks like the Powell, then I’d be much more motivated to read it!

      Reply
  11. Lisa Hill

    I found it hard to review A Dance to the Music of Time; I’ve really only done the First Movement. I read them as a quartet comprising three volumes in each, and as you say, it’s impossible to do without spoilers, and because I read these four with gaps in between, I just made notes at Goodreads so that I could keep track of the cast of characters and the plot.
    And yes, it does get darker…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s always tricky to write about any series like this, hence my decision to steer clear of plot and focus on some of Powell’s strengths instead. Funnily enough, I’m not finding it too difficult to keep track of the characters as they feel so ‘real’ and distinctive – relatively easy to visualise in the mind, if that makes sense!

      Reply
  12. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  13. Caroline

    I’ve stayed away from Waugh mostly because Brideshead Revisited is one of my all time favourite novels. It’s been so long since I’ve read it, It might be safe to try another one without spoiling the memory. I know many people like this one very much and it sounds really good.
    As fir Powell, I said it before, it’s just too long.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      His early satires feel very different in tone to Brideshead, so much so that they almost seem like the work of another writer. (At least, that’s how I’ve come to think of them in my mind!) Either this or Vile Bodies would be a good one to try should the mood take you. :)

      Reply

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